Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Madwomen:The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral

translated by Randall Couch

University of Chicago Press, 160 pages, $25

We all know the risks involved in returning to old loves: the places, books, films, and music we knew when we where young, anything remembered with affection. Altered by time, they remind us of our aging”either diminishing the past or diminishing the present, by pointing out either what bad taste we once had or how sadly our taste has declined.

Having first encountered the work of Gabriela Mistral in books given to me by my parents”and read, therefore, under their guidance and with enduring reverence”I approached with trepidation this new bilingual edition of Locas Mujeres , the poems Mistral wrote late in life. Would that early reverence turn out to have been misplaced? Would the earnest, noble, and courageous woman behind the poems speak to me with the same voice that exhorted my generation to remember the poor, to defend children with maternal zeal, and to respect the “womanly virtues” of self-sacrifice and unassuming service to a greater good?

Mistral was, after all, a gifted but obscure young woman who rose from the ranks of the poor in a Chilean village to become a poet and a dedicated teacher whose innovations influenced poetry worldwide. She became her country’s cultural ambassador to the world, the first Latin American winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and she earned the highest praise from such figures as Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz.

But would that be enough to defend her poems from an old, guilty suspicion of sentimentality that haunted them, even in my fondest memory? There was in her work, I remembered, a lack of humor”a didactic quality”that set them apart from work I later read with less reverence but more delight.

And then there was that other suspicion, created by the fact that the poet changed her name from the unspectacular “Lucila Godoy” to “Gabriela Mistral,” a name rich in associations not wholly in keeping with those “womanly virtues” and the modest young woman who professed them. That her new name was chosen deliberately, with full consciousness of its implications, is clear in the references to it in the poems themselves. In “La Granjera” (“The Farm Woman”), for instance, she writes,

Wind and Archangel, her namesakes,
delivered to her door
the death of all her loved ones
without delivering hers.

What does it mean when a woman born in 1889 in rural Chile, and brought up in poverty by an abandoned mother, renames herself after the Archangel Gabriel, messenger of God, and heavenly trumpeter appointed to perform on the Judgment Day? And then adds, for good measure, “Mistral,” the dry, cold wind that blows through the central valley of France from north to south? Is that meant to invoke the force of nature or the power of dispassionate truth? How does a person who chooses such names see herself, her destiny, and her life’s work?

Mistral’s literary career better matches the resonant name she chose rather than the name to which she was born. Rereading her work, I was struck most by the tension”there from the beginning and never resolved”between the woman and the writer, the individual life and the public mission, the vulnerable self and the strong official figure, the private literary ambition and the duty to bear witness to the lives of others.

The poet addresses that ambiguity in “La Otra” (“The Other”), which begins, I killed a woman in me: / one I did not love , and ends when the poet is challenged by her “other selves” to return that lost sister to life, complete with her own passions and ambitions. This is the poet’s reply:

Search in the ravines
and fashion from the clay
another burning eagle.
If you can’t do it, then,
too bad! Forget her.
I killed her. You women
must kill her too!

That sounds like a harsh appraisal of what it costs to become the woman Gabriela Mistral became, and maybe a sentence of death pronounced on the Lucila Godoys of the world, who presumably “can’t have it all” and had better prepare to be sacrificed without a backward glance.

How odd that the woman whose heart had room for all the dispossessed of the earth should be so pitiless with her core self. I wonder if her insistence on the need for that painful choice did not cost the tenor of her work something that would have been worth preserving. But then, it is also possible that in this poem Mistral’s speaker is not just the poet but every woman divided by the male-dominated, traditional society that forced on her, and women in general, the choices she describes.

Among the mild flowers of her earlier poems are the seeds that came to full fruition in Locas Mujeres : the powerful dramatic urge, the tendency to mask the self and speak through that mask for something larger than the self, the contained passion for justice and generosity, the freewheeling religious impulse that adopts Christian terms without quite sacrificing the flavor of pre-Columbian ritual.

This handsome edition contains a fine introduction and informative notes by Randall Couch. The translations show a concern for both meaning and connotation, and, to the extent that his translations make the poems available to English-speaking audiences, we should be grateful.

There are instances, however, in which Couch should have translated more simply, without deliberate strangeness. In “The Other,” for example, it would have made for clarity to render ojos de agua as “springs” rather than the flashy but obscure “water’s eye.” In “The Happy Woman,” the phrase hogar menesteroso is not so much “a hungry fireplace” as “a needy home.” In “The Ballerina,” the word canturía means “chant,” and rendering it as “chalice-song” adds a reference to the Eucharist not present in the Spanish original, while Couch translates sumió as “she received,” in a phrase that means “she buried.”

Another such slip occurs in “The Humbled Woman,” where the phrase La pobre llama demente has been translated as “The poor thing calls out madly,” when the poem’s persistent fire imagery demands “The poor demented flame.” In “Cassandra,” the phrase me desposa means, in this context, “binds me in manacles,” not “betroths me,” and the vivid word coral in stanza 7 is not “red chorus” but “red coral,” because in the preceding line Agamemnon’s blood is referred to as su hilo de coral , its “coral thread,” which, Cassandra says, “binds me.” The use of the musical “chorus” does nothing good for the passage.

Still other passages have been translated in ways that seem colloquial and even slangy. In “The Fugitive Woman,” for example, no pueden tus pies nuevos has been rendered as “your new feet can’t take it.” I understand that these are, in some cases, deliberate choices made by the translator to convey somehow the poet’s use of ambiguous words with multiple associations. The introduction says as much, and the effort is a reasonable one. But I’m not sure that suggesting all those alternate and often extraneous meanings of individual words succeeds, and I wish Couch had opted more often for the simplicity of one choice.

A more serious criticism”especially in a book of poems”is the loss of the verbal music without which poems are not poems. Many of Couch’s translations, for all their careful pursuit of Mistral’s ideas and imagery, have given up too easily on the music of her work. It is possible, if admittedly difficult, to do assonantal rhyming in English, and the effort would have been worth it, even for partial results. It certainly should have been possible to adhere to the poet’s loose but almost always audible meter. Couch has, too often, settled for something that sounds like free verse, rather than adhering to the flowing syllabics of the original.

Nevertheless, this translation of Gabriela Mistral’s Locas Mujeres poems will perform a valuable service if it draws attention to a poet of such merit and depth that she surprises even readers who think they know her. I experienced such surprises repeatedly in these pages, especially in the wrenching images of displaced people in “A Woman” and the harrowing view of life in prison in “Prisoner’s Woman.” “The Storyteller” begs poets to be historians who can never stop hearing and recording the voices of the dead, which the future must reawaken forever.

Other powerful poems in this collection include “She Who Waits” (which feels like a companion piece to “The Storyteller”) and “Two Forgotten Ones” (in which ordinary lovers are caught in historical events as uncaring as the natural world). The magnificent “Clytemnestra” and “Cassandra” are first-person accounts of familiar Greek legends, told with persuasive passion by two women who are both larger than life and credibly vulnerable. The first is drenched in maternal love, bitterness, unquenchable anguish, and a yearning for revenge. The second is an exile’s tale, in which Cassandra, the captive princess in love with her captor, yearns only for the death that will reunite her with Agamemnon. Both are profound meditations on the fate of a woman and the difficult options available to her: endless and finally unsatisfying hatred in the case of Clytemnestra”and willing acceptance of fate in the case of Cassandra, who foresees the future but can do nothing to alter it.

In her late poems, Gabriela Mistral proves more complex, dramatic, and engrossing than I once found her. Still, there is much here reminiscent of her early poems: dark, seldom celebratory, and lifted from gloom only by their devotion to humanity and the suggestion that the human spirit is capable of coping even with unrelieved loss and is, in that sense, noble and deserving of a better fate. That may be small comfort to those of us who prefer finding cause for celebration in the mere fact of existence, but what else can one expect from a woman who chose such a name?

Rhina P. Espaillat is a poet and translator in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift