Author: Elizabeth Horan
Title: Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People
PAÍS DE LA AUSENCIA
[COUNTRY OF ABSENCE]
[Messages] and the Recuerdo de la madre ausente [Remembrance of
the Absent Mother]Open Letters
in the World of Women1
Letter-Writing, Mixed Genres, Open-Ended Messages
Gabriela Mistrals devotion to letter writing developed from necessity: as she moved from school to school in the provinces of Chile, correspondence was her means of maintaining ties with family, friends, and the literary world. In her residence outside Chile, she became a confirmed traveller; letter writing accordingly became a primary means of communication with the people and places that she most cherished. Her work as a consul and as a journalist also required a great deal of attention to correspondence. These factors help explain the sheer volume of her letters, which take up twenty of the forty reels of microfilm in the poets archives in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Santiago, Chile.
Given that letter writing was so important in the poets daily attentions to personal and professional ties, it is not surprising that the conventions of the personal letter would extend into her published work. This influence is manifest in the writers efforts to express herself in a tone that would be particularly her own: el tono más mío, el más frecuente, mi dejo rural en el que he vivido y en el que me voy a morir [the tone most my own, most recurrent, my country speech in which I have lived and in which Ill die],2 and in the poets creation of Recados, as a subgenre within her poetry.3 According to the poet, the Recados are letters which hover between verse and prose; each is for and about the person and place addressed, but when Mistral publishes them, she leaves their destination open to chance:
Yo las dejo en los suburbios del libro, fuora dei muri, como corresponde a su clase un poco plebeya o tercerona. Las incorporo por una razón atrabiliaria, es decir, por una loca razón, como son las razones de las mujeres.
[I leave them in the suburbs of the book, beyond the walls, in keeping with their somewhat plebeian or third-class status. I include them for an ill-tempered reason, that is, for a crazy reason, as womens reasons are.]4
The poets self-mockery is a means of creating intimacy: not only does it disarm opponents, anticipating and vocalizing their critical reactions, but it also engages the compassion of the indifferent. Representing herself as a bad-tempered, irrational woman gives her latitude to include work that other writers (con más pudor que yo [with more shame than I]) would leave out as belonging to a minor genre. As in the Poema de la madre más triste, the poems others might reject receive her special attention and are where she suggests that she feels at greatest liberty. Moreover, insinuating the possibility of the rejection or marginalization of this mixed genre work (that might not meet the highest artistic standards) enables her to question those standards and to posit an alternative, sympathetic response. From within the safety of the dejo rural [country speech] and feminine whim (razón atrabiliaria ... loca razón, como son las razones de las mujeres [an ill-tempered reason... a crazy reason, as womens reasons are]) that no one can deny her, she challenges the aesthetic categories of high and low art. The poet similarly enjoys maintaining an apparently deliberate ambiguity about the destination of the letters: just as the Recados began as letters and concluded as verse, they begin with individual addressees and conclude with representative ones. As she declares in the Nota to Tala, la persona nacional con quien se vivió (personas son siempre para mí los países) [the national person, with whom one lived (persons are for me always countries)], specific and general addressees co-exist as in a palimpsest. As in the rondas, the later poems of Desolación, and throughout much of Poema de Chile, this theme of nationalism and internationalism provides access to a widening community of readers.
Mistral used fictional sympathetic listeners, or addressees to win over readers from the earliest days of her career. Developing and maintaining this fiction allowed her to assume an attitude of confident intimacy that extended outward. Many of the literary forms at which she excelled rely on this fiction of intimacy between author and readers: in the plegaría, for example, the listener offers a refuge, a safe haven; in the successful plegaría the readers sympathy will tend toward the speaker. Writing introductions, apologies, excuses and notes are additional means of creating sympathy for her work: readers are flattered, told how powerful they are in contrast to the author, who seeks, and indeed needs their protection and collusion. Both the Recados and the Recuerdo de la madre ausente adapt to a public forum the conventions of private letters in which women are central figures: the sender, the subject of the message, and the ostensible addressees are all identified as women in these pieces.5 While the nature of the open letter may preclude specific audience-building (since the public forum is by definition open to all), the open letter will be especially open to sympathizers, such as Mistrals implied audience of women and workers on behalf of Latin American culture.
The speaker in the plegaría asks recognition and favors from the fictive addressee, talking up or beseeching. In the Recados and the Recuerdo the speaker is in the position of giving thanks and the relationship with the addressee is a collegial one. The letter functions as a token, a recuerdo that speaks of the poets gratitude, making it public so that others may share it. By evoking the particulars of friendship and of hospitality the poet enjoins her readers to share in respecting what is being described. The attitude of respect makes the Recados and the Recuerdo resemble elegies in that they reconstruct what is absent or distant.
Recados [Messages]: Womens Daily Heroism
It is significant that the addressees named in the verse Recados and in the Recuerdo are women, and that the places named therein all belong to the Spanish-speaking world. These indications of where her primary commitments lie continue Mistrals self-presentation as a representative of Latin American women. Three of the six Recados published in Tala name specific, historical individuals, women of character whom the poet identifies as actors in history and as consummately skilled workers whose labor is invaluable to their immediate communities. Just as in Lecturas para mujeres some sixteen years earlier, exemplary feminine identity evolves in response to what the native landthe surrounding homehas to offer. An equivalence between native terrain and character is similarly evident in the Recados: Mistral personifies the island as una niña [a girl] in the Recado a las Antillas [Message to the Antilles], in Recado de nacimiento para Chile [Message of Birth for Chile], the birth of a girl is the occasion for reaffirming the specific identity of Elqui. The Recado para la Residencia de Pedralbes en Cataluña [Message for the Pedralbes Residence in Catalonia] likewise reiterates the theme of how regional and national identity emerge from the daily lives of individual women whose historical consciousness is expressed as dedication to land and community. Throughout these Recados the apparently neutral, uncontroversial topic of the land around the home as constituting womens realm can draw in readers with a variety of interests, from the armchair traveller who wishes to learn of foreign places, to the panamericanist who proclaims the solidarity of the Spanish-speaking world. The poets evocation of the land leads into the more controversial realm of womens participation in the lives of their communities and within history.
While the female figures of the Recados are depicted as having been molded by their environment, they are courageous non-conformists who possess a passionate clarity, commitment, and sanity. The world around them disintegrates in haste, petty squabbles, and greed. To describe the effect of these heroines on their surroundings is to recreate the world as it would be, were it made to womens measure; such a world is utopian only insofar as history disregards these figures whom Mistral praises: they understood too well what was happening around them. Recado a Rafaela Ortega, en Castilla [Message to Rafaela Ortega, in Castile] (written and published in the first year of the Spanish Civil War) reveals the poets opinion of the tragedy of the War:
Rojez de prisa, no se la miraron;
carrera loca, no le conocieron;
Una reina perdió su reino,
por no galopar rompiendo los céspedes
y llegar a día y hora de repartos.
Su único pecado y se lo conozco:
se quedó sola; reza y borda sola,
sin nube de amor sobre su cabeza
y sin arrayán de amor a su espalda,
pecado en tremenda tierra de Castilla,
donde las aldeas de soledad gritan
a cielo absoluto y tierra absoluta...
[Redness of haste, they didnt look at it;
mad race, they didnt known it;
A queen lost her realm,
for not galloping, tearing up the grasslands
and arriving at the day and hour of distributions.]
[Her only sin and I know it:
she stayed alone; she prays and stitches alone,
without a cloud of love over her head
and without loves myrtle at her back,
sin in the tremendous land of Castile,
where the villages of solitude shout
to the absolute sky and absolute earth...]6
In this poem, the identity of Rafaela Ortega merges with that of Castile; she becomes the reina [queen] who is morally superior to her nation, and whose solitude, deliberation and faithfulness are a living reproach to the deluded and divided nation in which she lives. She enacts the sin of solitude as the disgrace of a nation which has abandoned her to her prayers and embroidery while the horsemen in their reckless haste engage in profit-taking and destruction. The single, undeluded inhabitant of this war-torn land, she alone has not whored after strange gods.
Private Letters and Publication
Mistral knew full well that her personal letters could become public even when this was contrary to her intentions. The publication by a third party of a private letter she had written from Madrid, criticizing the racist attitudes she encountered in the Spanish Falange, caused such controversy that it threatened her newly begun consular career.7 In a different category is Mistrals Carta en cuadrilátero [Quadrilateral Letter.] This letter, sent out in four copies to a range of addressees, gives Mistrals personal version of the circumstances that led to the death of her eighteen-year-old adopted son, Juan Miguel.8 Although a personal letter, it was not a private message to a particular acquaintance, nor was it written for publication (as a message sent out to readers whom the writer does not know). The community of readers whom Mistral addressed, in the carta en cuadrilátero was created by the nature of the message itself. The writer selected the recipients based on what they had in common: a close, sympathetic relationship with the writer and a willingness to speak up for her version of the events narrated once the details of Juan Miguels death had become public knowledge. A similar move occurs in the Recados and the Recuerdo. The assertion of an alternative perspective on the common knowledge of history means that these works select their own readership.
Because of the tendency in Mistral criticism to prefer work that can be identified as governed by the tono mayor, the verse Recados are passed over in silence. One way to incorporate the Recados more fully into the mainstream approach to her work would be to study the common ground between Mistrals often-mentioned, rarely studied public letters, and her better-known work in elegiac forms, such as Dos himnos. The Recados and the Himnos both express gratitude and praise in summary form. The Himnos use the language of the formal ode, assuming and encouraging an attitude of sacred awe toward the subject, venerating it, enumerating its sacred names and supernatural powers, its powerful intervention in history and in the speakers own life. The attitude of the poet is similar, in the verse Recados, but the orientation towards the readers is different. This difference is manifest through the naming, in the title, of a specific addressee. The Recados also use a deliberately colloquial language, preferring to narrate specific anecdotes rather than to engage a Neruda-style panoramic sweep across history. Where the Himnos could be described as macrocosmic views of history, centered around a symbol, the Recados are microcosmic presentations of a single event or of the effect of a single exemplary life on the immediate community. They draw from the popular, devotional lives of the saints. For Mistral, unlike Neruda, a life of contemplation was more indicative of what she would call grace, than the life of the soldier, worker, priest, or governor. Her prose Motivos de San Francisco [Motifs of Saint Francis] (which she worked on for a number of years, from 1925 until about 1950, when these pieces were finally published) offer an excellent example of Mistrals efforts in this genre. Like the verse Recados, they are elegies in the sense of offering praise. The poet uses this very word, Elogio as heading for her Recuerdo de la madre ausente, which is a letter of praise.9
de la madre ausente
[Remembrance of the Absent Mother]
Colloquial Intimacy and the Never-Absent Mother
Written in 1923 and included in Lecturas para mujeres, Mistrals prose piece, Recuerdo de la madre ausente, is not merely a private letter even though its form and its language are entirely consistent with a personal communication from the writer to her mother. It opens with the name of the addressee: Madre: en el fondo de tu vientre se hicieron en silencio mis ojos, mi boca, mis manos [Mother: in the depth of your womb my eyes, my mouth, my hands were made in silence.]10 The archaic speech and convoluted syntax sometimes found in Desolación are avoided; the sentences and subordinate clauses are kept to minimal lengths. In all, the tone of intimacy, respect, gratitude, together with the colloquial vocabulary and expressions of endearment, conform to the convention that this is a personal letter which the poet wrote to her mother. The title indicates something a little different, however: as a message, the letter is a remembrancenot of the named addresseebut of the writer herself.
It is plausible to read the Recuerdo as a simple letter of remembrance that the writer sent to her mother, but there is another level of intention which the title somewhat obscures: the Recuerdo is both a portrayal of the mother as well as the daughters portrayal of herself as part of the mother. Still, if mothers want to believe that their daughters remember and constantly miss them, then the title has some logic to it, as My remembrance of my absent mother. The convention of the personal letter encourages readers to supply the personal pronouns where the title omits them in order to encourage readers to take the Recuerdo as exemplary: it is a remembrance of the mother. The question of who is supposed to imitate this examplewhat readership she intends to reachis patent in her decision to publish it in a textbook for womenin Lecturas para mujeres. Even more to point, the situation depicted in the Recuerdo is one to which women would be susceptible for its message that the mother is never absent, but eternally, physically present within the writer.
Given the physical congruence between mother and daughter, the mother of the title is not so much a person as a means of relating, in the present, to the world. The first and last paragraphs emphasize this intention:
Mis sentidos son tuyos, y con éste como préstamo de tu carne ando por el mundo. Alabada seas por todo el esplendor de la tierra que entra en mí y se enreda en mi corazón.
[My senses are yours, and with this as a loan of your flesh I roam across the world. May you be praised for all the splendor of the earth that enters into me and is wound up in my heart.]11
The blessing offered implies that the mother is the supreme creator; as the one who molded the poets five senses she is effectively responsible for all the splendor of the earth.
The poet associates the mothers rhythm with the original music of the spheres. By virtue of her association with the Creation, the mother is represented as the prototypical poet:
No hay ritmo más suave, entre los cien ritmos derramados por el primer músico, que de tu mecedora, madre... y a la par que mecías me ibas cantando, y los versos no eran sino palabras juguetonas, pretextos para tus mimos. En esas canciones tú me nombrabas las cosas de la tierra: los cerros, los frutos, los pueblos, las bestiecitas del campo, como para domiciliar a tu hija en el mundo, como para enumerarle los seres de la familia, ¡tan extraña!, en que la habían puesto a existir ... no hay palabrita nombradora de las criaturas que no aprendiera de ti.
[There is no rhythm more tender, among the hundred rhythms spilled out by the first musician, than that of your rocker, mother...and while you were rocking me you were singing to me, and the verses were nothing but playful words, pretexts for your caresses. In those songs you would name for me the things of the earth: the hills, the fruits, the towns, the little creatures of the field, as if to make a home for your daughter in the world, as if to enumerate for her the beings of the family, so odd!, in which they had put her to exist...there is no little word for naming creatures that I didnt learn from you.]12
This portrait of Mother as Namer emphasizes the mothers omniscience; the identification of the world by signs is a gift from mother to daughtera gift which the latter will return as she wanders in the world. This account is an alternative to the account in Genesis. Naming is involved in both, but the rigorous hierarchy of the relationship of God to Adam, and of Adam to the creatures substantially differs from the reciprocity of the relation between mother and daughter:
Then the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him. So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him.13
The act of bringing the animals to man, for him to name them, is a parenthesis within the larger story of looking for a helper. Naming the animals signifies mans divinely appointed dominion over them; just as man names the animals, so will he also name woman, describing her in relation to himself.14 Because woman is taken out of man, she is a helper fit for him, unlike the animals. But because man names her, just as he names the animals, his dominion extends over heras is later made explicit in Gods judgment on the woman: your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.
The language of the Recuerdo echoes the language of Genesis while avoiding any suggestion of hierarchy and subordination. The daughter comes from the mother, as is evident in préstamo de tu carne [loan of your flesh] which recalls the mans declaration, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.15 The mother, however, does not name the daughter as Adam does Eve, to express her identity in relation to himself. Rather, the mothers words are secondary expressions of their mutual play: palabras juguetonas, pretextos para tus mimos [playful words, pretexts for your caresses.] When the mother names the surrounding world to the daughter, she does so prior to bringing her out into the world, in order to make the daughter at home (domiciliar) in a pre-existing family-household. Where the mans relationship to other creatures involves naming as domination, the daughter learns names as part of learning her own identity within the surrounding family of creation, animate and inanimate.
In the two accounts from Genesis, the narrative never focuses on more than one actor at a time, be it God making the world or making Adam, bringing creatures to Adam, or Adam naming the creatures. Mistrals version, by contrast, never focuses on fewer than two actors: the Recuerdo is a character sketch, not of the mother, or of the child, but of the two figures as a unit, a single identity. Adam acts as Gods agent, but the poet daughter is a physical extension of the mother. This is manifest when the pair first ventures beyond the immediate territory of the home: Y cuando ya supe caminar de la mano tuya, apegadita cual un pliegue vivo de tu falda, salí a conocer nuestro valle [And by the time that I had learned to walk holding your hand, as close to you as a living pleat of your skirt, I went out to become familiar with our valley.]16 Even as the child becomes independent, she is, like the skirt to which she clings, an outward and visible sign of the mothers femininity.
Finally, the creation story in Genesis ends with the Fall and with humanitys irreparable spiritual separation from God. In Mistrals creation story, however, even the absence named in Mistrals title is merely a physical separation. The Recuerdo depicts the mother-daughter relationship as a continuing communion. From beginning to end, they are one flesh. Once the daughter has learned from the mother how to live in the world, she reciprocates by providing for the mother, who stays at home, a vicarious experience in the world-at-large. This day-to-day experience incidentally provides the writer with a reason for writing the motherthe daughters physical separation from her mothers world is an underlying motive for the correspondence.
llevo el préstamo de tu carne, hablo con los labios que me hiciste y miro con tus ojos las tierras extrañas. Tú ves por ellos también las frutas del trópico tú gozas con mis pupilas el entorno de estas otras montañas tú escuchas por mis oídos el habla de estas gentes y las comprendes y las amas; y también te laceras en mí cuando la nostalgia en algún momento es como una quemadura.
[I bear the loan of your flesh, I speak with the lips that you made for me and I gaze with your eyes at foreign lands. You too see through them the fruits of the tropics, you delight with my pupils in the surroundings of these other mountains, you listen through my ears to the speech of these peoples and you understand them and you love them; and you are also torn in me when nostalgia is in some moment like a burn.]17
The Recuerdo concludes by focusing on how the writers capacity for mental perception is borrowed from the mother. The repetition of llevo el préstamo de tu carne [I bear the loan of your flesh] restates the original bond. Given that the daughter has learned all she knows from the mother, there is no separation between them. The language of the mother was premised on affection, playfulness, and a familial, non-hierarchical relationship with the surrounding world. The poets ability to mediate and interpret, through language, the world as received through the evidence of the senses, began with the example that the mother had set. The poets ability to relate on equal terms with a foreign territory and people is not a gift that she uses for her own advantage, but an affirmation that there is no separation between self and world, as is especially brought home in the poets painful nostalgia for unity. Even absence reiterates the physical presence of the mother within the daughter, for the quemadura [burn] is based in the poets certainty that she is feeling what the mother feels: te laceras en mí [you are torn in me.] There is yet another Biblical undercurrent in that the mothers pain recalls that of the Virgin for her son, with a new dimension made possible by the generic bond shared by mother and daughter.
In Your Image: A Gynocentric World
By concentrating on the mother-daughter unit, the poet creates a gynocentric world summed up in the statement todito mi mundo era tu semblante [all my world was your image.]18 This illustrates, from the infants point of view, what the Poemas de las madres expressed, from the perspective of a young adult woman, as Voy conociendo el sentido maternal de todo [I am becoming aware of the maternal sense of everything.]19 But where the speaker in Poemas was fearful, defensive and alone, with regard to males, in the Recuerdo the poet represents the father as the lonely and isolated one. She uses the first person plural to emphasize how distant the world of fathers or the father seems in comparison to the intimacy and immediacy of the world which children share with the mother: Somos más hijos tuyos: seguimos ceñidos, como la almendra está ceñida en su vaina cerrada [We are more your children: we continue wrapped up, as the almond is wrapped up in its closed husk.]20 The words hijossons and daughtersand seguimos [we continue] indicate the enduring closeness of children to the mother: being sons and daughters is a condition that none of us outgrow. The metaphor of the seed of a tree is a common way of referring to the generation of the new out of the old; the acorn is the classical example. Her description of the almond, independent of the tree, a self-contained unit of two, of seed and shell, affirms the essentially feminine and independent nature of the world that mother and children share.
The ideally gynocentric world longed for in the Poemas de las madres is portrayed as an actual presence in the Recuerdo. The gift of language, the mother-tongue, is a constant reminder of the presence of the mother within the daughter. Reciprocity is the underlying principle of the mother-daughter relationship: just as the mother carried her, so does she, the poet, carry the mother. When the poet describes herself as Orpheus and the mother as Eurydice, in La fuga, the relationship of mother to daughter is depicted as continuing after death. Words, no matter how unreliable and deceptive, like the galeoto [panderer], reify the physical bond between them: te llevo en mí, en un peso angustioso / y amoroso a la vez, como pobre hijo / galeoto a su padre galeoto [I carry you in me, in a burden both anguished / and loving, as the poor child / panderer carries the pandering father.]21 For the poet to praise the attitude of women to the world, be it in the language of collegial respectas in the Recadosor of sentimental intimacyas in the Recuerdois to meet her own responsibility, to continue with others the correspondence in which she was nurtured.
III. Canciones de Cuna [Cradle Songs]
Mistral and Contemporary Use of Cradle Songs: Storni, Guillén
Mistral was one of many poets working in Spanish who were interested in cradle songs or lullabies. She was aware of the cradle song both as a genre originating in folk tradition, and as one used by more recent poets, including her contemporaries. In Lecturas para mujeres she includes lullabies by Góngora, Zorrilla de San Martín, Tagore (in translation), herself, and one by anonymous.22 Due to the unusual circumstances in which it was published, Mistral probably knew of her friend Alfonsina Stornis cradle song, entitled Voy a dormir [I Am Going to Sleep.] She almost certainly knew that her contemporary, Federico García Lorca, was working with this genre.
In comparing the various dates of publication, it is evident that Gabriela Mistral began writing cradle songs earlier than her contemporaries, and that her work in this genre represents a lifelong interest. Her earliest cradle song dates from her residence in Punta Arenas, at the southernmost tip of Chile, in the year 1918; it predates Lorcas earliest published work in this genre by at least four years.23 Mistral continued writing cradle songs throughout her career, well past 1945. Over the course of three decades, she published thirty-four lullabies. Because of her commitment to the genre, these poems can serve as an index to her interests, development and poetic practices overall. Moreover, her interest was more intense, and longer lasting, than that of her contemporaries who had used this form.
It is no accident that writers as different as Mistral and Góngora, Nicolas Guillén and Alfonsina Storni, Zorrilla de San Martín and Lorca, coming from separate corners of the Spanish-speaking world, would have cradle songs in common. The readership for such work is potentially enormous. As a folk genre, cradle songs could appeal to a variety of interest groups, working from the common denominator of the women who sang them. Mistral recognized their folk appeal and importance to women; she also argued that folklore is ideally suited to children. She felt that the simplicity and sobriety of cradle songs combined the best elements of modern and of popular poetry:
...la canción de cuna es una esquela de la sobriedad y de la sencillez absolutas, tras de las cuales va toda la poesía moderna. En este género, como en todos los populares, la emoción no tolera la carga de muchas metáforas... Hagamos, pues, las canciones de todas las madres; hagámoslas vulgares, las que estribillo ingenuo hace prenderse fácilmente en el labio humilde, y hagamos también las otras, las sutiles, que poco a poco irán siendo comprendidas y amadas.
[...the cradle song is a short note of absolute sobriety and simplicity, behind which all modern poetry comes. In this genre, as in all popular ones, emotion does not tolerate the weight of many metaphors. Lets make, then, the songs of all mothers; lets make them plain, those whose ingenuous refrain stays easily on humble lips, and lets also make the other kind, the subtle ones, that bit by bit will be understood and loved.]24
Another factor in writing folklore in a modern context is that such literature can help establish or reinforce a sense of community. To use folk traditions is to appeal to a common background between the writer/compiler and the readers, between individuals of diverse interests who shared a common language.25 A modern writer who works with folk genres is consciously catering to a relatively wide readership, in ways that the writers of experimental novels, prose poetry, or sonnets may not. As folk literature is designed to be shared, folklore carries an underlying presumption of communicability and a rejection of complex literary language. In the cradle song the qualities of brevity, simplicity, and a degree of repetitiveness are designed to enhance the general availability of the poem. The folktale, and poetry that belong to the folk tradition, maintain, at least on the surface, the appearance of accessibility.
The writer who works closely with folk traditions may be vulnerable to the criticism of being unoriginal and uninspired. Folk tales are usually represented not as written, but collected. The inspiration is less the individual muse or psyche, than it is the folk of the past. The movement towards folk literature rejects poetic elitism and self-conscious avant-garde experimentation, art for arts sake.
On the other hand, self-conscious experimentation with folk forms can provide a vehicle for irony, social commentary, and political propaganda. Readers with even the most limited awareness of the cradle songs conventions would readily recognize that the poems that Mistrals contemporaries, Guillén and Storni, wrote in this genre were not folk poems. Both writers exploit the recognition value of the tradition, and both reverse a fundamental aspect of the convention. In place of trying to put a child to sleep, for example, Guilléns cradle song exhorts el negrito [the little black boy], who is sleeping, to wake up.26 The negrito represents the coming generation, in Cuba, whose deep sleep represents a lack of political consciousness, so that he does not see what is happening around him; to wake up is to become aware of the need to take action. To specify that the boy who is the subject and the addressee of the poem is black is to draw the readers attention toward the political and social situation facing the boy, as the poems subject. To be fast asleep is to be easily controlled. The advantage of the convention is that it enables the poet to frame a political message in such a way as to make it available to a wide audience.
In Guilléns poem, consciousness or unconsciousness signify degrees of political awareness; in Stornis, the referent for unconsciousness is death. The convention reversed in Stornis Voy a dormir27 is that the cradle song is sung by a womana motherto a child, to put it to sleep. In Voy a dormir the poet speaks as a child rather than as a mother, singing to herself, giving occasional directions to her nurse, putting herself to sleep, putting herself to death. From the opening word dientes [teeth], Storni taunts the readers that this is not going to be a normal cradle song, for dientes de flores [teeth of flowers] is not a comforting image (cradle songs frequently taunt and terrorize the child, but this teasing does not normally begin until at least midway through the song, when the child is represented as almost asleep). Opening with Dientes de flores violates the norm whereby the soft and pretty is presented first, and what is strange, threatening, unknown follows it, in the world of sleep.
Asking to be left alone, in Stornis poem, withdrawing into isolation, is the exact reverse of the normal situation, manifest in Mistrals earliest cradle songs, in which the speaker constantly insists and rejoices that she is not alone. When Stornis poem mentions items such as sheets, a bedlamp, and a telephone, along with the fiction of la nodriza [the wet-nurse], we learn that this is a modern and especially privileged child. This vocabulary, and la nodriza (the wet-nurse, who is an accomplice to death as the mother cannot be) contrasts strongly with the language which Mistral uses in her earlier cradle songs, which describe sleep as a condition that the mother creates out of the natural (as opposed to fabricated) world. Yet the language of the natural world that opens the poem has many elements in common with Mistrals cradle songs, such as flores, hierbas [grass], rocío [dew], and una constelación [a constellation.] Stornis violent set of metaphors rely on the awareness that the vocabulary of sleep and dreams overlaps with the vocabulary of death.
The circumstances in which Storni chose to publish Voy a dormir guaranteed this reading of sleep for death. Even readers who ordinarily ignored poetry, or who preferred taking note of the poets life to reading her work, would take a lurid interest in this poem because it served as her suicide note to her publicshe mailed it to La Nación a few hours before she took her life. The poet certainly anticipated that it would be widely read: her use of the short and simple cradle song, coupled with the circumstances in which she submitted it for publication, ensured its ready availability to the general public.
The cradle songs by Storni and Guillén, written in 1938 and 1958 respectively, strongly contrast with the more conventional ones by other authors that Mistral selected and published next to her own lullabies in Lecturas para mujeres.28 Aside from the ironic approach to the genre that Storni and Guillén take, their work further differs from other cradle songs by excluding the figure of the mother. In all seven of the cradle songs that Gabriela Mistral selected for Lecturas para mujeres, the mother is central and the child is secondary. The cradle songs by Góngora and Zorrilla de San Martín hold back from complete identification between mother and poet. Góngoras poem (Canción de cuna de la Virgen [The Virgins Cradle Song]) depicts, in the third person, the mother singing to the child. Zorrilla de San Martín (Canción de cuna de Tabare [Cradle Song of Tabare]) represents the mothers song, but he adds on four lines at the end which describe the mothers actions after the child is asleep. These lines enable Zorrilla de San Martín, like Góngora, to take on the role of the observer who describes from a distance the attitude of the mother singing to the child. All of these male poets deliberately avoid self-representation as someone who is putting a child to sleep. By contrast, the anonymous lullaby, the prose one by Tagore, entitled Mi canción [My Song], and all of Mistrals cradle songs, represent this same situation, but from within, entirely related from and never leaving the point of view of the woman singing the song. In all, what distinguishes Mistrals work from that of men who have written cradle songs in Spanish is that the poet adopts a feminine persona, and the song represents an adult womans feelings about herself.
Mistral and Lorca
Mistrals concentration on the female speaker is all the more striking in comparing her work to Lorcas. The mother-singer of the cradle song was an ideal channel for the emotions of a female poet. When Lorca, by contrast, writes in this form, he uses the persona of the child.29 On the level of theory, and when he analyzes individual cradle songs, he insists on the participation of the child, arguing that the child is the primary recipient of the song:
...la nana requiere un espectador que siga con inteligencia sus accidentes y se distraiga con la anécdota, tipo o evocación de paisaje que la canción expresa. El niño al que se canta ya habla, empieza a andar, conoce el significado de las palabras y muchas veces canta él también ... el niño esta obligado a ser un espectador y un creador al mismo tiempo.
[...the lullaby requires a spectator who intelligently follows its random events and is entertained by the anecdote, type, or evocation of landscape which the song expresses. The child to whom it is sung already speaks, begins to walk, knows the meaning of words and quite often he sings too... the child is obliged to be a spectator and a creator at the same time.]30
In essence, Lorca regards the child as the ideal audience for the cradle song, since the childs creative, intelligent and imaginative response is what endows the song with significance. In the long run, however, the intention of the song is not so much to entertain, as to distract the child:
No olvidemos que el objeto fundamental de la nana es dormir el niño que no tiene sueño.
[Lets not forget that the fundamental object of the lullaby is to make a child who isnt sleepy go to sleep.]31
Lorcas concentration on and identification with the child (rather than on the woman in the role of the mother) means that he is much more detached about the mother-figure and her possible motives than Mistral is. Thus, he observes that the Spanish nanas aim to wound, at the same time, the childs sensibility:
La canción de cuna va dirigida casi siempre (no hay regla sin excepción) contra el niño. El dolor de la madre al ver a su hijo, continuación suya, expuesto ya al río turbador y la pasión y al conflicto del mundo se traduce en el ambiente de la canción de cuna.
[The cradle song is almost always (theres no rule without an exception) directed against the child. The sorrow of the mother when she sees her child, an extension of herself, already exposed to the worlds disturbing current and to passion and to the worlds conflict, becomes the atmosphere of the cradle song.]32
Lorcas emphasis on the boy as the victim in the cradle song contrasts with Mistrals scarce references to the gender of the child; it also contradicts her insistence that all teasing is done in play. Time and again, however, Mistrals cradle songs link sleep and dream to death and the grave.33 Lorcas description of the mothers pain at seeing her child, continuación suya [an extension of herself] exposed to the world, is translated, in Mistrals early poems in particular, into the mothers and childs shared fear of being left alone. In Mistrals cradle songs this yo [I] is far more fearful and concerned with her own death, abandonment, or loss, than with the imaginary death of the child.
asombrada de vivir,
no te sueltes de mi pecho:
¡duérmete apegado a mí!
Yo que todo lo he perdido
ahora tiemblo de dormir.
No resbales de mi brazo:
¡duérmete apegado a mí!
[Shivering blade of grass
astonished at living,
dont let go of my bosom:
fall asleep close to me!]
[I who have lost all
now shiver at sleep.
Dont slip from my arm:
fall asleep close to me!]34
Mistrals child and mother pair protect one another, but only the mother is truly terrified of separation and loss. The child hierbecita is merely astonished or frightened at the life that lies ahead, and thus clings to the mothers breast; but the poet, who describes herself as having lost all, begs the child not to slip from her arm. Pecho [bosom] frequently recurs throughout the cradle songs, referring to the mother-child unit as a place of refuge like the cradle; it is literally where the child sleeps. Brazo [arm], on the other hand, is less common in the cradle songs. The arm represents the individuals power to act, to work. The mother offers herself, her breast, to the child as refuge and, in return, the child, an extension of her arm, permits her a degree of power she would otherwise lack. The message that this cradle song directs contra el niño [against the child] could be paraphrased as Dont you dare leave me! Youre all I have! Of course, the child will inevitably grow up and leave. The temporarily comforting presence of the child does not change the mothers fundamental identity as yo que he perdido todo [I who have lost all.] Women are asked to identify with the speakers apparently permanent sense of isolation and loss in which the child is her only significant consolation.
An area in which Lorcas and Mistrals theories are openly at odds is that Lorca credits the creative powers of la mujer pobre [the poor woman] with inventing the canción de cuna:
...no hay que olvidar que la canción de cuna esta inventada y creada por las mujeres pobres, para la (sic) que el niño es una carga, una cruz. El niño rico tiene la nana de la mujer pobre, que le da su pan de la melancolía áspera y su leche silvestre, médula del país.
[...one must not forget that the cradle song is invented and created by poor women, for the woman for whom the child is a burden, a cross. The rich child has the lullaby of the poor woman, who gives him his bread of harsh melancholy and wild milk, marrow of the country.]35
He then goes on to stress these women as playing an indispensable role, in Spain, in the preservation and transmission of folk literature, and particularly for bringing it to the privileged classes. Mistral, on the other hand, deprecates the creative activity of what she coldly refers to as la mujer de paga [the hired woman]. A hired woman, she writes, will only repeat the songs that she already knows, and the common repertoire of folksongs, in Latin America, is relatively small, especially in comparison to Spain. Mistrals image glorifying the cantadora mejor [the best singer] as la mujer que se deja beber casi dos años [the woman who lets herself be drunk from for almost two years]36 does not slight the poor mother per se. Rather, she is preying on the guilty consciences of women in las casas aristócratas y burguesas [the aristocratic and bourgeois houses]37 who can and do spend money so that others will watch their children. Furthermore, Mistrals emphasis on creative activity as arising out of the physically intimate, daily experience of la madre criadora [the nursing mother] allows her, in the Colofón, to engage in intimate discourse about the mothers bodya subject permitted to women and prohibited to men.
Finally, Mistral does not dispute that cradle songs have putting someone to sleep as a primary intention; unlike Lorca, however, she avoids specifying who is put to sleep. Mistrals distinction between the words as opposed to the music of cradle songs does not occur to Lorca, however, despite his musical training and talent. When she notes that children will be drawn to the songs for their music and rhythm, she insists that the words, la letra, are for the women who write, sing, read, and interpret them. Ultimately, the major difference between the two poets is that all of the qualities that Lorca, as a man, ascribes to the male childintelligence, creativity, interest in the surrounding worldare qualities that Mistral attributes to the poet in adopting the persona of a woman singing to a child.
Lost History of
the Canción de Cuna [Cradle Song]:
Mestizaje verbal, violencia racial [verbal miscegenation, racial violence]
Throughout the apology of the Colofón, Mistral repeatedly addresses the criticism that it is artificial to try to write popular poetry. The core of her answer is an apocryphal history of the cradle song that emphasizes gender and race. To argue that cradle songs are a genre in which women are inherently talented gives her the prerogative, as a woman poet, to work in that form. New folklore needs to be invented for Latin America, she asserts, because even artificially created songs can more precisely address Latin American reality than do any European songs. Extending the metaphor of birth into one of forced, aborted poetry, Mistral uses to her advantage the opposition of skeptics who regard as unnatural her intention of giving birth to folklore:
Una colega española se burlaba alguna vez del empeño criollo en forzar la poesía popular, provocando un nacimiento por voluntad, o sea un aborto.
[A Spanish colleague was joking once about the efforts of Latin Americans to force popular poetry, provoking an induced birth, that is, a miscarriage.]38
Initially, the cause of the aborto [miscarriage] is laid on both sides: preceding provocando [inducing, provoking] is both the sneering mirth of the Spanish colleague, and the over-anxious empeño criollo [criollo (Americans born of European parents) efforts.] Nonetheless, her skeptical opponent is a Spaniard, and, further on in her essay, Mistral distributes blame towards Spain. For the Latin American poet interested in folklore, the return to origins is a journey back to a child-like dependence and away from adult autonomy. Her rejoinder to the colega española [Spanish woman colleague] begins with sarcasm:
Un español tiene siempre derecho para hablar de los negocios del idioma que nos cedió y cuyo cabo sigue reteniendo en la mano derecha... Pero, ¿qué quieren ellos que hagamos? Mucho de lo español ya no sirve en este mundo de gentes, hábitos, pájaros y plantas contrastados con lo peninsular... Todavía somos su clientela en la lengua, pero ya muchos quieren tomar la posesión de la sobrehaz de la Tierra Nueva.
[A Spaniard always has the right to speak about the business of the language he ceded to us and whose end he continues to hold on to with his right hand... But, what do they want us to do? Much of what is Spanish is no longer useful in this world of people, habits, birds and plants so different from those of the peninsula... We are still their clients in the language, but now many want to take possession of the face of the New World.]39
This vague, fascinating suggestion of imminent invasion compresses history: one encounter, in the 1930s, between a Spanish woman and a Latin American one, stands for a continuing struggle between two irreconcilable forces, each located in a separate hemisphere. It corresponds to the encounter between the well-dressed, brutal man and the impoverished woman earlier described in the Nota to the Poema de la madre más triste. The two protagonists are representative, almost allegorical figures; the poet posits a battle between the brutal, uncomprehending, selfish oppressor, and the suffering, blameless victim.
A major difference between the earlier confrontation and the one in the quote above is that in retaining power (la mano derecha [the right hand]) the Spaniard withholds it from the us whose perspective the poet adopts. Mistrals argument is more complex than before, but the premises are the same: in the perspective of the colonized, the domineering attitude of the colonizer makes doubly necessary the development of an alternative language. Hostility and violence forge the very identity of those who, like herself, need and use this alternative language, which Mistral calls mestizaje verbal [verbal miscegenation]:
soy de los que llevan entrañas, rostro y expresión conturbados e irregulares, a causa del injerto, me cuento entre los hijos de esa cosa torcida que se llama una experiencia racial, mejor dicho, una violencia racial. (Emphasis in the original)
[I am one of those whose insides, face and expression, are perplexed and disorderly, because of the grafting, I count myself among the children of that twisted thing called a racial experience, or rather, a racial violence.]40
Conturbados e irregulares... los hijos de esa cosa torcida [perplexed and disorderly...the children of that twisted thing] simultaneously refers to the poet, her verses, and the generations of Latin Americans after the Conquest: Mistral puts herself in the position of their representative. She freely, almost proudly, admits to deformity insofar as a monstrous offspring is a judgment on its parents and on history:
nacimos monstruosamente, como no nacen las razas: sin infancia, en plena pubertad, y dando, desde el indio al europeo, el salto que descalabra y rompe los huesos.
[we were monstrously born, as races are not born: without a childhood, in the middle of puberty, and making, from the Indian to the European, the leap that tears up and breaks the bones.]41
The loss of historical consciousness, the rape of memory that Mistral faces is not a pure and simple battle with imperialist Spaniards. To reject the European heritage is clearly impossible, but in the leap from Indian to European it is the former whose integrity is jeopardized and whose perspective the poet adopts. The poets ambivalence toward her dual heritage is aggravated by the need to explain herself to her colega española:
La empresa de inventar será grotesca; la de repetir de pe a pa lo que vino en las carabelas lo es también. Algún día yo he de responder a mi colega sobre el conflicto tremendo entre el ser fiel y el ser infiel en el coloniaje verbal. (Emphasis in the original)
[The business of inventing will be grotesque; that of repeating from a to z what came over in the caravelles is grotesque as well. Some day I have to answer my colleague about the tremendous conflict between being faithful and being unfaithful in verbal colonialism.]42
There is an extraordinary poetic accuracy to Mistrals suggestion that in 1945 the Old World is lusting after (tomar posesión [to take possession]) the New. The Conquest is both a territorial and sexual metaphor: it is men who dominate the earth. To refer, repeatedly, to her origins, her peoples origins, her verses origins, as monstrous, aborted, forced, grotesque is to return to the violence and hostility of the primal encounter between male and female, Spaniard and Indian, soldier and peasant. Mistral is by no means alone in writing on this theme: colonial exploitation, racial violence, mixed identity, the history of the New World are the preeminent concerns of Latin American writers in the twentieth century. Mistral locates this battle, with all its historical, linguistic and familial overtones, on the grounds of cradle songs: like Lorca, she sees violence in the nana. In regarding these as poems directed by one woman to other women, Mistral is unique.
Lost History of
Canciones de Cuna:
Las primeras Evasel run-rún de los labios cerrados
[Cradle Songs: The first Evesthe humming of closed lips]
Mistral answers objections such as the forced folklore criticism of her cradle songs by arguing that it is better to invent grotesque songs than to force Latin American folklore into European measures. Statements such as nacimos monstruosamente [we were monstrously born] correspond to the sudden birth of her songs and to the precipitous entry into history of the Latin American people. Regarding as positive the pejorative labels assigned to her and to her work is a familiar tactic, as is her use of these labels in order to accuse the critics themselves. What is novel in the Colofón is Mistrals willingness to create an historical context for her work.
Within Mistrals commentary on the manifestly Latin American perspective of her poetry, there occurs an even more complex account of historical origins: she claims that cradle songs are an art form begun and developed by women. In the earliest stages the poet stresses the elements of deprivation and restraint, of art arising, almost unconsciously, out of womens bodies. In an intermediate stage, art, fixed in words, begins, surreptitiously, to have a transformative effect on the artist. In the ultimate stage (corresponding with Mistrals hopes for her own cradle songs), words enact womens engagement with the world; the art of the cradle song allows the creator/performer to ally herself with external sources of power. All three stages in this conjectural history of the cradle song are replicated in Mistrals poems in this genre. This correspondence of theory, form and content has been overlooked until now because Mistrals theoretical workher defenses and apologieshave yet to be studied seriously, and because of the attitude that the cradle songs are poems in a minor genre dedicated to children and maternity.
Mistrals anecdotal history of the cradle song opens with the premise that women are natural artists whose talents have been historically underestimated or ignored:
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 .... hurgando en esta aridez para la creación musical, caí sobre la isla de las Canciones de Cuna.
[Woman is the one who sings the most in this world, but she so rarely appear as a creative force within the History of Music that she runs almost its whole length with her lips sealed... delving about in this dryness of musical creation, I came across the island of cradle songs.]43
In creating a history of cradle songs congruent with her reality as a woman writing poetry for women in Latin America, Mistral argues that racial identity in Latin America emerges from what others have seen as gaps and deficiencies (described in nacimos monstruosamente ... sin edad patriarcal y sin Edad Media [we were monstrously born... without an Age of Patriarchs and without a Middle Ages]). These same omissions stand out when she rummages through the inventory of history, looking for records of womens contributions. Her search uncovers cradle songs as a convenient niche within folklore: here she may cultivate on an undisturbed island her interest in womens language and women as artists. The history she creates validates her work as a Latin American and as a woman working within an established tradition that she has conjectured from the silent places, gaps and deficiencies in recorded history. These omissions are Mistrals opportunities, her oases or islands in the desert.
Mistral suppresses references to outright violence in the lullabies; she concentrates instead on how womens creativity survives a normative context of deprivation and externally imposed limits. This supports her contention that women are natural artists.
Seguramente los arrullos primarios, los folclóricos, que son los únicos óptimos, salieron de pobrecitas mujeres ayunas de todo arte y ciencia melódicos.
[surely the first lullabies, the folkloric ones, which are the only best ones, came from unfortunate women lacking in all melodic art and science.]44
The first lullabies were not invented or composed: they salieron [came from] women almost involuntarily. The adjectives of lack used to describe the women (pobrecitas [unfortunate women], a term of sympathetic compassion; ayunas [lacking, hungering],) contrast strongly with the positive ones, primarios [first, primary] and únicos óptimos [only best ones] to describe their arrullos [lullabies.] The poets argument cuts two ways: on one hand, women would excel if they had access to musical training; on the other hand, training, for the natural artist, only polishes the far more important sensibility which the creator brings to her work. Mistral never stopped arguing for womens education, but she personally preferred the role of the natural or naive artist.
Lullabies without Music, Love without Words
For Mistral to describe these first lullabies as the only best ones is to be modest about her own work. She presents to a sophisticated and critical public a cara de excusa, an appearance of excuse, for attempting to write lullabies at all. At the same time as she apologizes for the inadequacy of her lullabies, she also classifies as second-rate all lullabies (and not just her own) subsequent to these first ones. Likewise, she points out the defects of her poems, such as their lack of music: admitting the flaws in her work leads into an ingenuous self-presentation as a natural artist who writes with modest, human, uncomplicated intentions:
Nacieron, las pobres, para convidar, mostrando sus pies inválidos a que algún músico las echase a andar, y las hice mitad por regusto de los arrullos de mi infancia y mitad por servir la emoción de otras mujeresel poeta es un desata-nudos y el amor sin palabras nudo es, y ahoga.
[They were born, poor things, to share, showing their invalid feet so that some musician would set them to walk, and I did that partly to savor the lullabies of my infancy and partly to attend to the emotion of other womenthe poet is an untier of knots, and love without words is a knot, and it suffocates.]45
The notion of el amor sin palabras [love without words] distinguishes the poet, who has words, from other women, who do not have them: the poet gives words so that these other women might untie the strangling knots of their love. Yet because her songs are defective, i.e., they lack music, she is not in the position of a superior giving the word to her subordinates. Rather, her verses (las pobres [the unfortunates]) show off their pies inválidos [invalid feet] in order to show that the author is not so proud as to consider her work perfect. Indeed, because the author did not compose music for her songs, they are located, with their defects, all the more in the feminine realm, given Mistrals opinion that the history of music has been, by and large, a male domain.
El amor sin palabras also characterizes the original lullabies, which Mistral implies were wordless. Their language derived not from words but from the rocking and swaying of womens bodies:
Las primeras Evas comenzaron por mecer a secas, con las rodillas a la cuna; luego se dieron cuenta de que el vaivén adormece más subrayado por el rumor: este rumor no iría más lejos que el run-rún de los labios cerrados.
[The first Eves began by just rocking, with their knees at the cradle; then they realized that swaying induces sleep more when it is underscored by a murmur: this sound would reach no further than the humming of closed lips.]46
To describe the women who originated the lullaby (she doesnt even call it a canción [song] yet) as las primeras Evas is to universalize them, to place them on the level of myth. The description evades defining either who these women were, or what their intentions might have been. Instead, the poet concentrates on the rocking movement, and the noise, which she characterizes as limited, restrained. Before words and before music came noise.47 These first arrullos [lullabies] are not música [music] but rumor [sound], classically feminine.48 Run-rún, rumor de voces [sound of voices] is noise restrained, humming through closed lips. Before this rumor came the movement of el vaivén [the swaying], of balancing, rocking, going out but always coming back. Unlike malicious rumor, this noise would not wander far away.
Exchange of Identity, Exchange of World
It seems strange that movement and noise would be associated with sleep, but the dream-narratives of the cradle songs are founded on paradoxes such as the fact that the poet, posing as a mother, identifies with the sleep of the child. Her identification is possible in that sleep is a shedding of individual identity and a transformation of landscape in which one world is exchanged for another. The poet-as-mother experiences this transformation vicariously, thus the questions of who is put to sleep and who the lullabies are intended for are relevant only in a general way. The dual identification of poet with mother and mother with uncomprehending child is at the heart of Mistrals cradle songs:
...cosa que la madre se regala a sí misma y no al niño que nada puede entender.
[...something the mother gives to herself and not to the child who cant understand anything.]49
Within Mistrals cradle songs, readers accept as a given the poets identification with the persona of a mother. This imaginative involvement in the childs dream world is what the mother gives to herself. In Mistrals cradle songs, the mother is primary: she is the only active, imaginative force; the child is passive and mute. The ability of readers to engage in this dream world depends on their willingness to accept and to work from within the mother persona that the poet adopts. As indicated earlier, male poets writing in Spanish categorically refuse to remain inside this persona: they inevitably draw back, to observe the mother-child pair. Lorcas case is a little different: rejecting the traditional male role of the dispassionate observer, he prefers cradle songs narrated from the childs perspective. The male poets hesitancy towards adopting the mother persona in cradle songs suggests a similar hesitancy in male readers. Women, far more than men, will grasp the multiple identification within the lullaby, and also see them as written for the community of women. Men, on the other hand, are liable to see them simply as songs written in the voice of the mother, addressed to the child.
To return to the original arrullos, when Mistral writes el amor sin palabras nudo es, y ahoga [love without words is a knot, and it suffocates], she is acknowledging, almost threatening, that wordlessness and womens power to destroy what is closest to them are closely linked. Once the poeta-desata-nudos [poet-untier-of-knots] provides women with words, the poem releases them from the constricting (ahogar [to suffocate, to drown]) knot that motherly love would otherwise become. Admitting the destructive potential of women who cannot express themselves in words is as close as the poet comes to specifying the nature of the emotions that she means to address.
Steps toward Release
The opening lines of Mistrals cradle songs recapitulate characteristics that she ascribes to the genres earliest stage of development: wordless communion, absolute self-absorption, and the restricted, rhythmic motions of the body are emphasized. The creatures of the world are mute; indeed, they are not even mentioned. All of these elements are manifest in the opening lines of Mistrals cradle songs: the mother is utterly absorbed in contemplation of her body and that of the child. She and her intimates use wordless signals (guiños [winks]), a special understanding, rather than speech, to communicate with the child:
Mientras tiene luz el mundo
y despierto está mi niño
por encima de su cara,
todo es un hacerse guiños.
[While there is light in the world
and my child is awake
above his face,
everything is winking.]50
Mentioning anything outside of the mother-child unit heightens the sense of intimacy between the pair. The poet will, for example, compare the child to the world she has forsaken, and prefer the child: es mejor el hijo mío / que el mundo al que se asoma [my child is better / than the world he looks upon.]51 She imagines that her body is the entirety of the childs world:
mi pecho es tu gruta
de musgo afelpada.
[My little lamb,
my breast is your cave
of velvety moss.]52
She transforms her body into a cradle:
lo he olvidado todo
por hacerme cuna
[I have forgotten everything
to become a cradle.]53
If the cradle and the mothers body (especially her breastsmi pecho) are synonymous, then the canción de cuna, the cradle song, is the song of the mothers body. All else is excluded. It is in the opening lines of Mistrals lullabies that the yo will assert, for instance, that she found the child (Hallazgo [Discovery])54 or that the child came to her as a gift from above (Rocío [Dew]).55 Fathers, even symbolic ones, are conspicuously absent from these poems.
In a few of Mistrals earlier cradle songs (such as Encantamiento [Enchantment]), this initial stage of sentimentalized intimacy extends to the very end of the poem, so that there is no transformation, no entry and journey through an alternative dream-world. In her later cradle songs, however, the poet minimizes this stage and eventually begins to omit it entirely, so that even the opening lines of the poem predict the transformation and opening up of the world that is about to take place:
La marea del sueño
comienza a llegar
desde el Santo Polo
y el último mar.
[The tide of sleep
begins to arrive
from the Holy Pole
and the last sea.]56
It is with good reason that Mistrals cradle songs are at their most narrowly conventional and sentimental in the opening lines. By beginning a poem with the appearance of keeping close to convention, she lures her readers in, accommodating their expectations exactly as the singing mother would calm the childs fears in preparation for sleep.
Movement, Language, Flight
In the second stage of Mistrals anecdotal history of cradle songs, the restrained vaivén, run-rún, and rumor suddenly become a whim for words. This stage differs from the earlier one in that the originators of this genre are now described generally as la madre rather than mythically, as las primeras Evas. The verb tense of Mistrals description also shifts from past to present, making explicit the authors thesis that cradle songs are crucial to women in the present time. These words, for la madre or for las mujeres, are a means of breaking out of enforced restriction, isolation and silence:
De pronto le vino a la madre un antojo de palabras enderezadas al niño y a sí misma. Porque las mujeres no podemos quedar mucho tiempo pasivas, aunque se habla de nuestro sedentarismo, y menos callarnos por años.
[Suddenly the mother felt a capricious desire for words directed to the child and to herself. Because we women cant stay passive for too long, though our sedentariness is talked about, and even less can we be silent for years.]57
Cradle songs are much, much more than nonsense songs sung to quiet a child, even though Mistral later confesses, between parentheses, that she prefers nonsensical ones:
...los arrullos que más me gustan son los disparatados, porque aquí, mejor que en parte alguna, la lógica ha de aventarse, y con cajas destempladas.
[...the lullabies I like best are the nonsensical ones, because here, more than elsewhere, logic must be thrown aside, and with dissonant language.]58
The inharmonious (destempladas [dissonant, strident, inharmonious, out of tune]) and crazy songs that Mistral prefers are those whose words offer a means of rebelling against enforced passivity, driving logic away, moving out to make contact with the rest of the world. Mistrals verb comadrear [to gossip, talk idly] indicates the intimate, exclusively female nature of this contact. To be comadres with someone is to be a woman in a position of intimacy and equality with another woman. Comadrear assumes the dialogue and movement of women gathering together or going from house to house talking, seeking out and exchanging gossip.59 The act of searching is emphasized in Mistrals description of how cradle songs came to have words:
La madre buscó y encontró, pues, una manera de hablar consigo misma, meciendo el hijo, y además comadreando con él, y por añadidura con la noche, que es cosa viva.
[The mother sought and found, well, a way of talking to herself, rocking the child, and also talking idly with him, and, moreover, with the night, which is a living thing.]60
To put the child to sleep provides a pretext for entry into the nights wider, wilder, potentially subversive reality. Citing the irreproachable authority of Gospel, Mistral deliberately evokes this quality of the night when she compares it to the devil: La noche es legión como dice del Demonio el Evangelio [ The night is legion as the Gospel says of the Devil.]61 The night, in Mistrals cradle songs, becomes a catalytic element for transporting the mother-poet-singer out of herself, heightening and transforming the consciousness of poet and listener:
La mujer no sólo oye respirar al chiquito, siente también a la tierra matriarca que hierve de prole.
[The woman not only hears the little one breathe, she also feels the matriarchal earth that boils with progeny.]62
Nights arrival signals the possibility of journeys and adventures, of vicarious travels in an alternative, magical world. Whether the transition be from wakefulness into imagined sleep or death, or whether it be a shedding of individual identity, in each and every instance the arrival of night triggers the childs transformation that brings with it the speakers imaginary flight:
A cada hora que duermes
ya apenas niño.
[At every hour that you sleep
now barely a child.]63
Under Cover of Night
This world of night (which Mistral terms subterranean64) represents a clear alternative to the world of refuge and symbiotic intimacy which the mother offers during the day. It is this counter-world that the cradle song strives to bring into being. When Lorca wrote that the fundamental object of the lullaby was to put a child to sleep, he wasnt so far from the truth as Mistral later stated it. She simply went further: she wanted cradle songs to appeal to womens imaginations, to expand their world. The poet refers obliquely to this expansion, hinting at its subversive potential when she writes La noche es legión.
Prior to this moment of transformation in her conjectural history and in her poems, the poet takes a number of steps to ensure that the women in her readership will interpret this message as intended specifically for them. In the first step, the poet took seriously the speech situation of a mother singing to a child, unhesitantly assuming the pose of the mother, rejecting the superior role of dispassionate observer in favor of seeing the child from the perspective of the adult woman. Second, the poet excludes the father from her discourse, so that the child may be entirely her own. Third, the poet uses phrases such as mi pecho es tu gruta [my breast is your cave] or mi leche [my milk]direct, first person references to the body of the mother, writing herself into the role of the mother, creating a persona which male poets writing in Spanish cannot credibly assume (and a persona which Alfonsina Storni and Lorca both avoided in choosing to write from the perspective of the child). Last but not least, Mistrals Colofón indicates that she wrote cradle songs as a service to those who might actually use them: por servir la emoción de otras mujeres [to attend to the emotions of other women.]
The calculated effect of the cradle songs is to reduce womens isolation. This is particularly apparent past the second, transformative stage. The poet moves into the conditional, indicating her hopes for her own poems:
La Canción de Cuna sería un coloquio diurno y nocturno, de la madre con su alma, con su hijo, y con la Gea visible de día y audible de noche.
[The Cradle Song would be a daily and nightly dialogue, of the mother with her soul, with her child, and with Gaea visible by day and audible by night.]65
The third and final stage of development, within the cradle songs, is that the world of night brings the woman-poet into dialogue with Gea [Gaea], whom Mistral identifies in a footnote as la Tierra [the Earth.] Association with the Titanic earth-goddess permits the singer to express a watchful omnipotence, often stated at the songs conclusion:
Yo no sólo fui meciendo
a mi niño en mi cantar:
a la Tierra iba durmiendo
al vaivén del acunar...
[I was not only rocking
my child in my song:
I was putting the Earth to sleep
with my swaying of the cradling...]66
Paradoxically, the speakers heightened awareness of la tierra matriarca [the matriarchal earth], and her control over the sleep of the child soon lead to the speakers own sleep as well.
... Entonces se pone a dormir a su niño de carne, a los de la matriarca y a sí misma, pues el arrorró tumba al fin a su propia cantadora.
[...Then she puts to sleep her flesh and blood child, those of the matriarch and herself, for the lullaby fells its own singer in the end.]67
The verb tumbar [to fell, bring down], tells of an alternative ending, of the speakers death.
The Poet as Contra-Madre [Counter-Mother]
Mistrals later cradle songs occasionally close with the speakers death. One such poem, Canción de la muerte [Song of Death], toys with a question that the Colofón, by necessity, evades because she cannot afford to have her readers doubt the sincerity of her pose as a mother. Yet in Canción de la muerte the fascinated attention paid to the title figure, La muerte [Death], makes the child the least significant figure in the song. The relationship between mother and child is utterly ignored in this very late poem. Rather than opening with a sentimental description of the wordless communion of mother and child, the poem immediately launches into the journey stage, focusing on Death, humorously and affectionately referred to as the old Census-Taker:
La vieja Empadronadora
la mañosa Muerte,
cuando vaya de camino,
mi niño no encuentre.
[The Old Census-taker
the cunning Lady Death,
when she takes to the road
may she not find my child.]68
The various titles assigned to La muerte as La contra-madre del mundo [the counter-mother of the world] and La convida-gentes [the gatherer of peoples] suggest that she and the poet are counterparts, for the poet follows Deaths journey and continually defines herself only in relation to her. The repeated use of negatives in mentioning the child, at the end of each stanza (mi niño no encuentre ... mi leche no encuentre ... no halle al inocente [may she not find my child...may she not find my milk...may she not find the innocent one]), increases suspense about the hidden identity and unrevealed location of the child and of the mother. This question of identity is further complicated when the poet draws a similarity between the child and herself as Gabriela Mistrala woman who has lost her baptismal name.69
El nombre de su bautismo
la flor con que crece,
lo olvide la memoriosa,
lo pierda la Muerte.
[The name of her baptism,
the flower with which one grows
may the mindful one forget it,
may Death lose it.]70
Immediately following, in Canción de la muerte, the lost or hidden identity (which normally signals the onset of the night and the mothers dream-journey) becomes a description of Death as a disoriented traveller:
De vientos, de sal y arenas
se vuelva demente,
y trueque, la desvariada,
el Oeste y el Este.
[From wind, from salt and sand
may she become demented,
may she reverse, the raving one,
the West and the East.]71
This description of death as la desvariada [the raving one] resonates with the poets own self-presentation, particularly strong in her later work, as a crazy old woman. Coupled with the poets refusal to describe the child or to present herself as the mother, this characterization of death in the place of the mother or child brings the poet and the Contra-Madre even closer together. The atmosphere of trickery and confusion is heightened, rather than resolved, by the closing stanza:
Niño y madre los confunda
lo mismo que peces,
y en el día y en la hora
a mí sola encuentre.
[Child and mother may she confuse
the same as fish,
and at the day and hour
may she find me alone.]72
On the one hand, it is commonplace for the mother to offer to die for the child. But on the other, the poet has been suggesting all along that she is not the mother, and her word choice here reinforces that suggestion. She writes, Niño y madre los confunda, not nos confunda, revealing that she is neither mother nor child.
The theme of the childs hidden identity or hidden nature would be appropriate to lullabies overall, following the standard notion that lullabies are written for children. In her emphasis on writing for women, Mistral enriches and complicates this theme by applying it to the mother, suggesting that the poet is merely posing as a mother and she is, like Death, a Contra-madre. Her mothers secret is that she is not a mother at all and wishes the child evil. Her singing, in Niño chiquito [Little Child] is a death-spell:
Espesa losa, vigas
áspero, canto duro
sobre mi hijo.
[Thick stone, heavy
cross beams, harsh
linen, stern song
over my child.]73
With the tombstone above, under the heavy wood of the coffin-lid, wound in a shroud, the poets chant fills this nether world with omens of death. The only way to exonerate herself from the guilty pleasure she takes in this dream is to suggest, openly, that she is not the childs mother. This too, would terrify the child:
Vergüenza tanta noche
y tanto río
y tanta madre tuya
[Shame on so much night
and so much river
and so much mother, yours
At the last moment, the poet changes places with the child, staying on in the dream urn while the child sleeps on, peacefully unaware of how close death has come. This substitution is the penalty the poet pays for having wished the child dead.
The poets choice of persona, in Niño chiquito, where she is witch-like, as in Canción de la muerte, where she identifies herself only in relation to la Muerte, reveals her increasing disaffection for the devoted mother pose. She chooses instead to emphasize the second stage of the cradle song: the dream-journey, and the descent into the other world. In the Colofón, facing the prospect of her own death, the poet proposes opening up new possibilities for poetic discourse:
Sigo escribiendo arrullos con largas pausas; tal vez me moriré haciéndome dormir, vuelta madre de mi misma, como las viejas que desvarían con los ojos fijos en sus rodillas vanas, o como el niño del poeta japonés que quería dormir su propia canción antes de dormirse él...
[I continue writing lullabies at long intervals; perhaps I will die putting myself to sleep, having become mother of myself, like old women who rant on, staring at their useless knees, or like the child of the Japanese poet who wanted to put his own song to sleep before he would fall asleep...]75
There is a solipsistic quality here: the mother-poet-child, the poet awake and the poet asleep are all mediated by the song, which closes the circle of the dream. The poets role as mother of myself has an independence tinged with melancholy in the simile that follows it, of the old women gazing distractedly at rodillas vanas [useless knees.] These two poses, of the slightly demented old woman, and of the credulous child who is utterly convinced that su propia canción [his own song] is alive, both enable her to explore liminal, borderline states of consciousness. These are precisely the poses that absorb Mistral in her last book of verse, Poema de Chile, to which we now turn.
1. In the Diccionario del uso del español, María Moliner defines the carta abierta or open letter: (I) La que, aun dirigida a una persona determinada, se destina a la publicidad. (II) Carta de crédito por cuantía ilimitada. (V. Negocio.) Despacho del rey dirigido en general a ciertas personas [(I)That which, even if directed to a specific person, is destined to be made public. (II) A letter of credit for an unrestricted amount. (V. Business.) A message from the king generally directed to certain persons.]
3. Mistral first used the term Recado to describe a series of bi-weekly and then bi-monthly and occasional columns that she wrote for El Mercurio newspaper of Santiago, entitled Recados quincenales [Semi-monthly Messages.] The earliest is dated 20 May 1934. Later, Mistral applied the word freely to her journalistic pieces on a variety of topics, most frequently when reviewing the work of other writers and artists. Recado has a very positive sense for the writer. These latter recados as reviews do not rely as heavily on the conventions of the intimate letter as the earlier verse Recados do.
5. Mistrals juvenalia includes a prose piece entitled Carta íntima [Intimate Letter] published in El Coquimbo in 1906, showing the early origins of the poets interest in and awareness of the personal letter as a vehicle for public expression.
7. A clear account of this somewhat confused but important episode can be read in José Enrique Délano, who served Mistral as a secretary at the time. See José Enrique Délano, Sobre todo Madrid, Ediciones Cormorán, Colección Testimonios (Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1970) 63-66.
10. All citations from the text of Recuerdo de la madre ausente derive from the version printed in Mistral, Lecturas para mujeres, 5th ed., Colección Sepan Cuántos, 68 (1967; México: Porrúa, 1976) 11-13.
13. Genesis 2:18-20. The New Oxford Annotated Bible Revised Standard Version Containing the Old and New Testaments, edited by Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
14. Compare this storyfrom the so-called J versionwith the P version in Genesis 1 where dominion is explicit: the word is repeated twice, first as a statement of Gods intentions, and then in blessing the first human couple, when they are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth and so forth. The P version is much more concerned with chronology and the creation of the universe; the J version, with hierarchy, and the relationship of God to Man, Man to Woman.
23. Laura Rodigs account of the composition of Mistrals first two cradle songs, Me tuviste [You had me] and Rocío along with some of the poets observations about writing in this genre, are included in Roque Esteban Scarpa, La desterrada en su patria, vol. 2 (Santiago: Nascimento, 1977) 40-49.
28. Mistral included four of her own cradle songs in Lecturas para mujeres: Meciendo, Apegado a mí, Canción amarga, and Miedo. In the second edition of Ternura and then in the Poesías completas, she reclassifies Miedo in the section entitled La desvariadora [The Ranting Woman.] These four poems are the only pieces that Mistral includes throughout all of the books that she published in the twenties (i.e., the first, second and third editions of Desolación, Lecturas para mujeres, the first edition of Ternura). Each of these volumes significantly redefines her audience, and each text is directed toward a different readership. The fact that she retained the cradle songs even in her revised edition of Desolación as well as in Ternura suggests that she considered them equally appropriate to a general audience and to a more specific readership of women and children. A tape recording of her poetry that she made for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., provides further evidence that she felt that the cradle songs served a wide range of interests: three of the thirteen poems that she chose to tape were cradle songs. In the unedited version of this tape, of the canción de cuna Meciendo, she comments that esta poesía le gustaba mucho a Valery [Valery liked this poem very much.]
29. For García Lorcas songs for children, see Canciones in García Lorca, Antología poética, eds. Guillermo de Torre and Rafael Alberti, Biblioteca clásica y contemporánea (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1957). The opening of Bodas de sangre (1933) has an extended nana sung between two characters, Suegra and Mujer. The speakers work with the theme of the caballo que se fue al agua pero no quiere beber [horse that went to the water but didnt want to drink] that Lorca discusses in his essay, as an example of how the mother-singer distracts the child by telling an adventure.
33. Fernando Alegría tells of how the poet addressed the youngest child of Juan Guzmán Cruchaga, to put him to sleep: Habís de saber pus niño que en la noche cuando estai dormío se te empiezan a soltar los miembros y, brazo por brazo, pierna por pierna, nariz por un lado, oreja por el otro, ojos, boca y cuanto hay salen volando a recorrer el mundo.... el niño la escuchaba en silencio, horrorizado o, de súbito, la interrumpía, desconcertándola [You should know little boy that at night when youre sleeping all your limbs begin loosening up and, arm by arm, leg by leg, nose to one side and ear to the other, eyes, mouth and what not off to roam the world. ... the boy would listen to her in silence, horrified, or would suddenly interrupt her, disconcerting her.] Fernando Alegría, Genio y figura de Gabriela Mistral (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria, 1966) 15.
37. The phrase is Lorcas, Añada, Conferencias 158. Because Lorca comes from a far more privileged background than does Mistral, he is free to romanticize the figure of the mujer pobre. As indicated in Chapter One, Mistrals scorn for women who hire others to watch their children was based in her own social position. It is not that the aya, mujer de paga is a bad mother, but that the woman who hires her is. Chapter One discussed how the charge of being a bad mother was most frequently levelled against women from the upper-middle and upper classes.
47. Mistral later uses in her favor the belief that music comes before words: she modestly claims that if her own canciones de cuna are successful, it is not for the letra [lyrics], which is secondary, but because musicians took pity on their deformity, characterized by sus pies inválidos ... las echase a andar [their invalid feet...set them to walk.] She thereby attributes their success not to her own efforts, but to the efforts of the musician-interpreters: Chileans, Argentines, Mexicans.
59. Moliner defines comadrear as follows: Chismorrear. Estar de conversación, murmurando o ocupándose de los asuntos de los demás o ir de casa en casa haciendo lo mismo [To gossip. To engage in conversation, murmuring or busying oneself with the business of others or going from house to house doing so.]
69. The theme of the poets lost nameLucilais one that occurs only in Mistrals later work. See poems such as Balada de mi nombre [Ballad of My Name], cited by Ester de Cáceres in the preface to Poesías completas.