Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Gabriela Mistral's Ternura

My father, while serving as a missionary in Argentina during the 1960s, bought a book entitled Ternura by Gabriela Mistral, a pseudonym for Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga. (Gabriela Mistral won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945.) Father picked up the sixth edition of the book, published on February 20, 1959, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Espasa-Calpe Argentina, S.A., of the same city, put this work in its Colección Austral as volume number 503. According to the copyright page, the first edition came out on May 24, 1945. Interestingly, the second edition came out on April 29, 1945. (I do not know how a second edition can come out before a first edition, but there you have it.) Father brought it home from his mission and it wound up in my hands about fifty years later.

Ternura, meaning Tenderness or Gentleness, contains a collection of poems with themes that range from nature to children. There are seven sections, not including the poet’s colophon entitled “Colofón con cara de excusa” (“Colophon with a Face of Apology”). They include “Canciones de cuna,” (“Children’s Lullabies,”) “Rondas,” (“Serenades,”) “La desvariadora,” (“The Frenzied Lady,”) “Jugarretas,” (“Tricks,”) “Cuenta-Mundo,” (“Account-World,”) “Casi escolares,” (“Almost Scholastic,”) and “Cuentos” (“Fairy Tales”). I especially like the section containing children’s lullabies and is most likely the best section in the collection.

Mistral explains that many women have composed songs and poems of great merit, but their work commonly does not see the light of day. “La mujer es quien más canta en este mundo, pero ella aparece tan poco creadora en la Historia de la Música que casi la recorre de labios sellados” (“The woman is she who most sings in this world, but she appears as a creator so infrequently in the History of Music that she almost travels through it with sealed lips”) (156). In her own way, she gives a voice to the many women who have been silenced over the years through the poems she gives to the world. While reading these poems, many addressed to children and babies, I imagine a type of Hélène Cixous’s “white ink” that conveys the feminist’s ideal dialogue in literary creation. The kind of feminism I see in Mistral’s work entails the motherly protection of raising a child and the difficulty of staying up at night to lull a baby to sleep. She inhabits a sphere that men generally cannot or do not penetrate. These sweet poems are childlike, taking advantage of the whimsical imagination to enrich the world of the mother and child. Some poems are especially fit for Christmas, seasons, education, and storytelling.

As a feminist, Mistral even confronts critics and skeptics that think her work as a dilettante attempt to produce fine poetry. Like many feminists, she admits to having weaknesses of various kinds, but in that self-abasement she condemns her accusers. She writes, “Que los maestros perdonen la barbaridad de mi hacer y rehacer. Al cabo soy dueña de mis culpas más que de mis buenas acciones: éstas son discutibles y aquéllas indudables. El habla es la segunda posesión nuestra, después del alma, y tal vez no tengamos ninguna otra posesión en este mundo. Rehaga, pues, a su antojo, el que ensaya y sabe que ensaya” (“May the teachers pardon the barbarity of my writing and rewriting. In the end I am the owner of my faults more than of my good deeds: the latter are debatable and the former undoubtedly. The power of speech is our second possession, after that of the soul, and perhaps we do not have any other possession in this world. Rewrite, then, arbitrarily, he that rehearses and knows how to practice”) (164). This call for equality and impartiality I have seen in authors like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Charlotte Brontë.

Several poems delighted me as I read along. The first one that pops out at me comes from the “Children’s Lullabies” entitled “La tierra y la mujer” (“The Earth and the Woman”). Here the mother confronts Mother Nature as she rules the sounds of the night in the last two stanzas. Her child, yet awake, tries to fall asleep amid the natural ruckus.

     Yo le digo a la otra Madre,

a la llena de caminos:
—“¡Haz que duerma tu pequeño

para que se duerma el mío!”

     Y la muy consentidora,

la rayada de caminos,
me contesta: —“Duerme al tuyo

para que se duerma el mío”.

     I say to the other Mother,

at the flooding of the ways,
—“Make your little one go to bed
so that my little one falls asleep!”

     And that awful spoiling woman,

the crazy lady of the ways,
answers me: —“Put yours to bed
so that mine can go to sleep!”

Mistral also incorporates the spiritual presence of God to comfort the baby and the mother. The lullabies act as a conviction of faith and as a source of supernatural consolation. In “Me tuviste” (“You Received Me”) the mother hums these words:

     Duérmete, mi niño,

duérmete sonriendo,
que es Dios en la sombra

el que va meciendo.

     Go to sleep, my child,

go to sleep smiling,
for God is in the shadow
rocking as He goes.

The next poem that impresses me is “Canción de la sangre” (“Song of the Blood”) (45-46). In this poem, the poetic self juxtaposes blood and milk as the essences of both the mother and the child. I do not see this as a morbid fixation. Both blood and milk give life to the fledgling child. The poem also coincides with the same theme from the movie Juana la Loca. In one scene, Juana suckles her child despite wet nurses being available. She takes it upon herself to feed the baby and even says that she would even feed it her blood if necessary. The sentiment reveals a strong commitment to the nourishment of her baby, even at all costs.

Later, “Miedo” (“Fear”) expounds the disadvantage of that commitment. As her child grows, the power to protect it weakens as well as the wish to keep it young. In a fit of uncontrollable worry, she pleads saying:

     ¡Dios mío, páralo!

¡Que ya no crezca!
Páralo y sálvalo:

¡mi hijo no se me muera!

     My God, stop him!

That he grows up no more!
Stop him and save him:
my son must not die on me!

In other poems, the tone becomes absurd and silly, perfect for the enjoyment of children. The imagination flies with fascinating agility, especially with characteristic distaff in “La rata” (“The Rat”).

     Miren que la rata de la delantera

se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido

y con el vestido me voy a casar.

     Look at how the rat at the front

carries embroidery wool in its paws
and with the wool I embroider my dress
and in the dress I’ll go get married.

Surprisingly, the rat’s occupation in this poem suspiciously corresponds to a mouse in a popular French nursery rhyme called «Quelle heure est-il ?» (“What Time Is It?”). You can hear a recording of the nursery rhyme and read the English translation by clicking here.

Quelle heure est-il ?

Il est midi.
Qui vous l’a dit ?
La petite souris.
Où donc est-elle ?
Dans la chapelle.
Et que fait-elle ?
De la dentelle.
Et pour qui ?
Pour les dames de Paris.

My favorite poem in this collection has to be “La piña” (“The Pineapple”). I consider this poem as a nursery rhyme of the same caliber as Mother Goose. I include the whole poem here for your enjoyment.

     Allega y no tengas miedo

de la piña con espadas…
Por vivir en el plantío

su madre la crió armada…

     Suena el cuchillo cortando

la amazona degollada
que pierde todo el poder

en el manojo de dagas.

     En el plato va cayendo

todo el ruedo de su falda,
falda de tafeta de oro,

cola de reina de Saba.

     Cruje en tus dientes molida

la pobre reina mascada
y el jugo corre mis brazos

y la cuchilla de plata…

     Gather round and don’t be afraid

of the pineapple with swords…
Her mother raised her armed
to live in the field…

     The knife rings as it cuts

the beheaded Amazon
who loses all her power
in the bundle of daggers.

     The complete hem of her skirt

on the plate it goes falling,
skirt of golden taffeta,
train of the Queen of Sheba.

     Grind it into pulp with your teeth

the poor chewed-up queen
and the juice runs down my arms
and down the silver blade…

In the section “Casi escolares” (“Almost Scholastic”), a good portion of the poems uses the informal second-person plural conjugations of verbs, related to the vosotros form (125-45). I mention this because there is an ongoing apathy about whether to teach secondary education students this form or not. Many teachers have the mistaken idea that the vosotros form is never used, so they omit it from conjugation diagrams and lessons. Clearly, this is a mistake. Although not used in conversation in many countries, students will come upon it. Spain uses it constantly in conversation. The Bible in Spanish is replete with this form. Latin-American countries use it in ceremonies, literature, and poetry. Even Argentina has a version of the form. We seriously cheat our students if we do not fix this error. (Okay, I am stepping off my soapbox now.)

The last poem I want to mention is “Himno de las Escuelas ‘Gabriela Mistral’” (“Hymn of the ‘Gabriela Mistral’ Schools”). One stanza seems to echo the work ethic and iconography of early Utah settlers, although this connection to the Chilean poet is just a coincidence. I see the hands of prayer, the light of God, the value of work, and the industrious beehives as relevant LDS symbols.

     Se alcen las manos, las que Tú tejiste,

frescas y vivas sobre las faenas.
Se alcen los brazos que con luz heriste

en un temblor dorado de colmenas.

     The hands are lifting up, those that Thou didst weave,

fresh and lively over the tasks.
The arms are lifting up with which Thou didst dazzle with light
in a golden shudder of beehives.

Gabriela Mistral certainly writes beautiful poetry. I recommend Ternura to Spanish-reading students, consumers, and aficionados. I am glad my father did not misplace this treasure.


1 comment:

  1. I love Mistral, but she mythifies the woman a little too much to compete with Rosario Castellanos, my favorite latina author.

    Anyway, I'm quoting you in my Latin American Literature final term paper. “The kind of feminism I see in Mistral’s work entails the motherly protection of raising a child and the difficulty of staying up at night to lull a baby to sleep. She inhabits a sphere that men generally cannot or do not penetrate.” You said you're looking for your niche in the academic community, if you'd like me to cite you including your last name (not just Andy), please email me tomorrow by 5pm Mountain Time. Thanks! -Michelle


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