October 19, 2021
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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 33
Author: Elizabeth Horan
Title: Gabriela Mistral: An Artist and Her People





I. In Search of the Whole Picture

From approximately 1941 until her death in 1957, Gabriela Mistral worked simultaneously on two separate collections of poems, Lagar and Poema de Chile. These two collections complement one another, forming a single whole, just as the “maestra” and the “artista” modes do, just as the school-oriented work in Desolación complements the love poetry, and just as the lullabies complement the “tono mayor” of  “Dos himnos.” Given their complementary status, and the fact that Mistral worked on them simultaneously, one would expect that these two collections would be studied in conjunction with one another, but no one has done so yet. This omission has several causes: one is a general lack of interest in Mistral’s later work; another is that critics have regarded the tragic, somber Lagar as being more important than Poema de Chile, just as the love poems and Americanist hymns have been regarded as more important than the lullabies. Still another factor is that Poema de Chile only appeared in 1967, edited and published by Doris Dana, and no body of criticism dealing with it exists yet: some critics may hesitate to stake their reputations on an “unfinished work”; others may prefer to deal with the known quantities of the poet’s earlier volumes. Ultimately, the decisive factor inhibiting comprehension of Mistral’s last volumes, of the poet’s response to international renown, personal sorrow, and a world so different from what she knew as a child, may be that Lagar has yet to appear in its entirety. Lagar consists of two volumes: the first was published in 1954; several poems from the second have appeared independently, but Lagar II has yet to appear in print.

Commentary on this last period of Mistral’s life extols the poet as a central figure in dignified public ceremonies, e.g., the receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1945, the triumphal return visit to Chile in 1954, the funerary and burial rites in Chile after her death in New York. Writers have preferred to describe the poet in the frieze of these public events rather than to analyze the poetry she was writing during these years: it is as if Poema de Chile did not exist and only a few poems from Lagar could be deciphered from out of a scathed and stubborn vocabulary of pain.1 Thus, the standard construction of Mistral’s corpus is that Desolación was the poet’s first major work and Lagar, the last: thus twenty years have passed since the publication of Poema de Chile but only a handful of articles and one book-length study have discussed this collection of poems.2

Like the prose-poems, rounds, children’s poetry, lullabies, and verse “Recados,” Poema de Chile has been tacitly relegated to the category of “minor work.” To see her work as concluding with the return in Lagar to the earlier theme of loss, mourning and renunciation neatly closes the circle where it opened, with Desolación and its seemingly timeless “canción que se ensangrentó para aliviarme.” To regard Poema de Chile and not Lagar as the poet’s last work disrupts this apparent neatness, for Poema de Chile repudiates the image of the poet as perpetual mourner. As ever, critics are drawn to the poet’s pose as a tragic, isolated figure rather than toward the community-centered attitudes of the rounds and the writings for women.

To push Poema de Chile aside in favor of the more conspicuously dramatic lyrics of Lagar is to ignore a fundamental aspect of Mistral’s practice of composition, of putting into one text what she withheld from the other.3 The “Poemas de las madres” (published first in Buenos Aires, then in Costa Rica, then in New York) focus on what was withheld from the “poesías infantiles,” published in Chile. Poema de Chile—unpublished until after the poet’s death—focuses on what is withheld from Lagar. Without implying that Lagar is inferior to Poema de Chile, or vice versa, it is clear that the two texts need to be studied in relation to one another.4

An emphasis on Poema de Chile is necessary to correcting the limiting, crippling fiction whereby Mistral is regarded as an angel of death, on one side, and as the patron saint of schoolchildren on the other. Poema de Chile is central to Mistral’s community-mindedness and to her lifelong awareness of her specifically Latin American constituency. Looking beyond the standard single-minded insistence on Desolación, the widely published Libros de lectura and Lecturas para mujeres were vital to establishing Mistral’s reputation as a poet writing to a particular audience. Crucial to her message to that audience, and to her patrons, and to her opponents was her cultivation of the concept of “women’s place.” This topos became a safe haven for her, as a woman writer. She returns to it, subtly, in Poema de Chile, a volume once again addressed to a particular, national audience whose interests the poet was trying to represent, as she understood them. The themes of conserving the land and the safety of those who live close to the land are paramount in this volume: these are areas that, in the past, she had signalled as concerns specific to women.

This theme of territory and refuge, of personal integrity and the conservation of memory, brings out the complementary relation of Poema de Chile and Lagar. In Poema de Chile the poet works from an essentially pedagogical impulse, motivated by the desire to be connected to the surrounding world—a world often specifically defined as feminine. In Lagar, on the other hand, the poet adopts the persona of a woman who lacks a secure refuge and is bereaved of human companionship and community. Distanced from a personal past she takes on the aloof, impersonal authority of the artist, the empty, ravaged vessel. Rather than the classic lyric situation of the poet talking to herself while we eavesdrop on her speech, the poet presents herself in a Cassandra-like persona, or in the sacred voice that speaks through the Sibyl. The stress is on the speaker as the primary recipient of the message, rather than on an audience per se. It is her fate and destiny, her place in history to speak; at worst, we ignore her; more frequently, we misunderstand or refuse to believe her message; at best, we haphazardly try to puzzle out her meaning.

Critical Identification in “The Fatal Knot of Love and Death”

The most fervently studied work of Mistral is that which most readily admits male critical subjectivity.5 Lecturas para mujeres and Poema de Chile rarely appear in critical inventories because these texts restrict masculine critical subjectivity far more than Desolación does. In Poema de Chile the space allotted to specifically male concerns is minute. This helps account for both the continuing fascination with Desolación and for the desire to link the poetic voice that dominates in Lagar with that of earlier work. Palma Guillén has pointed out how Desolación has been readily converted into a short story or “historieta” that flattered male vanity:

Nos imponen la silueta simplificada de una mujer haciéndose pedazos al borde de un sepulcro en un amor único y terrible. Seguramente esos comentadores han soñado con un amor así para ellos mismos y han querido una mujer así —parecida a una fuerza de la Naturaleza— que se destroza en un nudo fatal de amor y muerte del que ellos mismos son motivo y objeto.

[They impose on us the simplified silhouette of a woman pulling herself apart at the edge of a tomb in a single and terrible love. Surely those commentators have dreamed of such a love for themselves and have wanted a woman like that—resembling a force of Nature—who destroys herself in a fatal knot of love and death of which they themselves are motive and object.]6

This Medea-like self-presentation, based in the section of Desolación entitled “Dolor” (dedicated “a su sombra”) is also evident in Lagar (most notably in the fifteen poems of the series “Locas mujeres”). If critics have been more receptive to the “Locas mujeres” self-portraits than to any other part of that text, it is because the poetic persona in this book fits comfortably with their emphasis on Desolación. Insofar as men are more interested in projecting themselves into the “fatal knot of love and death” when the poet being studied is a woman in her twenties, Desolación will be a preferred text.

With regard to Lagar, a number of critics have regarded that same “fatal knot” as unnecessarily difficult and overly self-involved. Could it be that in her later years, after producing Tala and receiving the Nobel Prize in 1945, Mistral’s most significant achievement was to die? Typical of preferences for her earlier work is the complaint that Lagar is deliberately lacking in clarity. One critic faults the poet with “martyrizing” her poetry, shoving it, with a shoe horn, “en un zapato cada vez más estrecho” [in an increasingly tight shoe.]7 Most of “Gabriela Mistral: La última vuelta” is dedicated to a description of the huge public wake over the poet’s body, when, in the hot sun of Santiago, in January, more than 250,000 people stood in line, filing into the “Sala de Honor” [Hall of Honor] where Gabriela Mistral’s corpse lay in an open coffin. In an unintended irony, the author imagines how he (in the editorial “we”), as a reader of Lagar, is in the place of the would-be suitor circling and recircling the house of his beloved—just as the mourners waited outside the “Sala de Honor.” The “national poet” is available for scrutiny, but the poet of Lagar is not:

A veces pasando y repasando sobre los poemas de este libro, como quien ronda a la novia hasta que asoma, creemos que hizo mal el camino y se entabacó en su propia manera, concebida para el retiro y el enceldamiento, cansada de tanta nupcia ardiente. Pensada y proyectada no con un fin de claridad, sino de castigo y de incomunicación, va como a gustarse a sí misma, forzando el límite de lo posible y de lo probablemente comunicante...

[At times looking and relooking through the poems of this book, as someone who circles his sweetheart until she appears, we believe that she took the wrong road and got stuck in her own ways, a woman conceived for privacy and cloistering, tired with so many ardent nuptials. Conceived and projected not with a goal of clarity but of punishment and incommunication, it’s almost a form of self-enjoyment, forcing the limits of the possible and of the probably communicant...]8

Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s reclusive but devoted sweetheart, isn’t at home. She isn’t talking. Or rather, she is talking, but what she says makes no sense because the message is an unexpected, stubborn one:

...ya no parece ser la Gabriela de los cantos eternos que niños y grandes en Chile, y en todas partes, le remozaron el destino y dieron eco a su verdadero y plausible dolor. Esta otra es la poesía de la ‘desasida’ ... llena de tercas negaciones.

[...she no longer seems to be the Gabriela of the eternal songs whom young and old in Chile and everywhere rejuvenated her destiny and gave echo to her true and plausible pain. This other is the poetry of the ‘unleashed woman’...full of stubborn negations.]9

The refusal to cater to the stereotypical ideas of men about women is the real negation that bothers this author. He accounts for the poet’s refusal to appear, her refusal to be the “Gabriela de los cantos eternos” [Gabriela of the eternal songs], by imagining her as having retreated, as a nun to her cell, to devote herself to silent communion. If Fuenzalida and others believe that Mistral “took the wrong road,” then his complaint may be that Lagar, with its “tercas negaciones” [stubborn negations], is so very different from Desolación. The earlier volume is almost baroque in its almost archaic vocabulary, its tremendous variety of forms and styles, its anguished introspection, cryptic narratives, and heroic idealism. Lagar is restrained and economical in comparison to Desolación. For those who regard Desolación as universal and Lagar as hermetic, what is really at issue is that the former is wide open to male expectations and the latter is relatively closed to them.

Personal Holocaust

A recent study by Luis Vargas Saavedra, El otro suicidio de Gabriela Mistral, could do much to change the notion of Lagar as a deliberately inaccessible work, as it includes much previously unpublished and important information relating to the death of Mistral’s nephew and adopted son, Juan Miguel Godoy.10 Still, unlocking with these keys the code of the poet’s sorrow must be secondary to altering the critical consensus that Mistral’s complaint is a personal one (of “losing” first the lover, then the child) rather than a social one (about injustice). To take the anecdotal stance is often to restrict her to the world of those who remember her and to divorce her from the larger world in which she lived. Impressionistic criticism overlooks the poet’s growing preoccupation with world events. This preoccupation was evident when Mistral wrote “nacimos monstruosamente” in 1945; it was evident throughout the poet’s journalistic prose during these last years: her final signed article was a piece protesting the invasion of Hungary in 1956.11

It is true that in Lagar the painful renunciation of the immediate past, the sense of human community lost, of waiting in passive isolation for death, can be traced to Mistral’s personal sorrow. But the single death of Juan Miguel is not the only referent for the pain articulated in the condensed and elliptical language of Lagar. That death was one more link in a chain of events whose public significance is noted in Lagar. The Spanish Civil War, the Second World War (in “Guerra” [War]), the Holocaust (in “La emigrada judía” [The Jewish Woman Emigrant]), the fall of Europe (named as “La vieja madre” [The Old Mother]), the Finnish Resistance (“Campeón Finlandés” [Finnish Champion]) were events that Mistral took personally. Whether Juan Miguel’s death was a suicide or whether he was, as Mistral herself suggested, murdered in a xenophobic conspiracy, by fascists or by communists, by whites or by blacks, the point is that she continued to see any personal experience of oppression as springing from a larger drama of opposing forces. For Mistral, as for most women, the primary role available in a war-torn world is that of the mourner. This was a role she knew like no other: in this regard, Lagar is a work of genius.

Written in the aftermath of destruction and havoc and in the wake of the Second World War, the poet of Lagar adopts a Job-like persona even more austere than her earlier ones.12 She is a woman at once crazy with loss and totally sane because she has been released from all encumbrances: “con la voz llena de polvo” [with a voice full of dust.]13 If critics have not accepted the full significance of this stance, it is because they want Mistral to remain personal, as in Desolación, colloquial and homey, as in the prose “Recados,” to be anchored in a mystical immediacy, as in Tala, or to be at least superficially predictable, as in so many of the writings directed toward women. In contrast there is almost nothing soft or tender about the poetry in Lagar, which offers very little children’s poetry and no cradle songs.

“Locas mujeres” [Crazy Women]

The writer’s choice of persona indicates the readership she imagines for her work. In Lagar, the “Locas mujeres” are tragic figures reduced to a position of humility, who have lost all. They are possessed by a will to burn away all mementos of the past:

Estoy quemando lo que tuvimos:
los anchos muros, las altas vigas,
descuajando una por una
las doce puertas que abrías
y cegando a golpes de hacha
el aljibe de la alegría.

[I am burning what we had:
the wide walls, the high cross-beams,
tearing up one by one
the twelve doors that you would open
and destroying with hatchet blows
the well of joy.]14

The role of the female artist that Mistral steered away from in Desolación finally emerges in “Locas mujeres,” with which Lagar opens. In this series, the capacity to assume other identities is premised on the ability to discard one’s own individuality. The artist’s gift is this act of submission (“entrega”), a Buddha-like surrender to circumstance.

Sin nombre, raza ni credo, desnuda
de todo y de sí misma, da su entrega,
hermosa y pura, de pies voladores.
Sacudida como árbol y en el centro
de la tornada, vuelta testimonio.

[Without name, race or creed, naked
of everything and of herself, she gives her offering,
beautiful and pure, of flying feet.
Shaken like a tree and in the center
of the whirlwind become, testimony.]15

The titles of the individual poems in the “Locas mujeres” series all indicate that the characters portrayed therein are feminine; many of them indicate a history of loss that forms their very identity, e.g., “La ansiosa” [The Anxious Woman], “Mujer de prisionero” [Prisoner’s Woman.] Where the theme of personal suffering remains a constant in Mistral’s earlier work, the anonymity of these figures contrasts strongly with those earlier poems in which the poet’s every trial echoed the crucifixion.

The persona of these later poems differs from the earlier ones in that: the sense of anonymity is greater and that individual identity is suppressed in favor of the portrait of the “representative woman.” The framing of the speech situations also changes: the earlier plegarias and love poems were premised on a fiction of direct, personal address which the “Locas mujeres” poems reject.16 Yet the poem “La otra” uses direct but impersonal address, indicating a plural, feminine audience with the term “vosotras” [feminine, plural you.] The primacy of this poem is indicated by Mistral’s decision to place it as the preface to Lagar. In the Poesías completas she places it first in the series “Locas mujeres.” “La otra” is a dramatically revised self-portrait in which the poet continues her commentary on her relationship to her audience.

“La otra” [The Other]

The opening lines of “La otra” seem a simple monologue directed at no particular audience. As in earlier prefaces the poet depicts herself as pitted in struggle against those who oppose and seek to undermine her efforts. Here, however, that “enemy” is initially internal rather than external. Because the opponent is the poet’s “other self,” the struggle is an act both of self-destruction and of self-purification. This paradox, carried throughout the other “Locas mujeres” poems, is foregrounded in “La otra”:

Una en mí maté:
yo no la amaba.

Era la flor llameando
del cactus de montaña;
era aridez y fuego:
nunca se refrescaba.

Piedra y cielo tenía
a pies y a espaldas
y no bajaba nunca
a buscar ‘ojos de agua’.

[One in myself I killed:
I did not love her.]

[She was the flaming flower
of the mountain cactus;
she was drought and fire:
she never refreshed herself.]

[Stone and sky she had
at her feet and at her back
and she would never come down
to look for hidden springs.]17

Here is the poet at her most contradictory and hyperbolic, simultaneously praising and condemning the qualities of stubborn self-sufficiency, arrogance and pride—qualities which she and the “otra” shared. The “otra” is characterized as rigid in speech and attitude, but distant and noble as well. Because this “otra” is a part of the poet, killing her is in part a self-destructive, rather than self-affirming act, as evident in the harm done to the “mi” [me] when she lets “la otra” starve: “La dejé que muriese / robándole mi entraña” [I let her die / stealing from her my insides.] As an outcome, the poet could claim that this fiery “other” has been finished off (“su pavesa acabada” [her wick burned out]), and that she / the poet has been humbled. In fact the opposite occurs when a “new” element is introduced: the sisters of the “otra.” These sisters closely resemble the hostile audience that Mistral had so often referred to in the past: they are angry, they complain and they attack the speaker for her actions. As ever, the poet’s shift into open self-justification is preceded by a description of herself as being under attack:

Por ella todavía
me gimen sus hermanas,
y las gredas de fuego
al pasar me desgarran.

Cruzando yo les digo:
—Buscad por las quebradas
y haced con las arcillas
otra águila abrasada.

Si no podéis, entonces,
¡ay!, olvidadla.
Yo la maté. ¡Vosotras
también matadla!

[For her still
her sisters wail at me,
and the clay of fire
claws at me when I go by]

[Crossing I tell them:
—Look in the gorges
and make from the clay
another eagle on fire.]

[If you cannot, then,
alas!, forget her.
I killed her. You women
kill her too!]18

The only clues to the identities of her fictive addressees, the mysterious “sisters,” are that they are female (as emphasized with “vosotras”) and, like the “otra,” they are associated with fire. The exact nature of these adversaries matters little. What is important is the speaker’s challenge to them, encapsulated in the cryptic “advice” with which the poem ends. Presenting herself as an example of a woman who has survived an ordeal by fire, the speaker has wilfully starved what she had created and what had sustained her. For all the dramatic beauty of her former self, summarized in “la flor llameando del cactus de montaña” [the flaming flower of the mountain cactus], that stance and identity were too rigid and unbending. As a preface this poem argues that the destruction of identity is but half the battle: the poet has also to face others, “sus hermanas” [her sisters], who prefer the old self and bewail its destruction. The poet’s triumph is an affirmation of the destructive act as necessary to creation. As in “La Flor del Aire” [Flower of the Air], a poem that Mistral wrote a decade or so previously  (adding the note “ ‘La aventura’ quise llamarla; mi aventura con la Poesía” [“ ‘The Adventure’ I wanted to call it; my adventure with poetry”]), the self-abdication inherent in her seemingly blind and purposeless flight into the unknown is the very point of poetry. This principle further extends Mistral’s interest in the feminine as involving susceptibility to others and to the surrounding environment.

In Lagar, and most specifically in “Locas mujeres,” the poet repudiates the illusion of protection, of permanency, of human fidelity in this world. Mistral well knew that this was an illusion to which women are particularly prone. The distillation of stifled bitterness in Lagar does not prevent her, however, from the nostalgic reconstruction of a safe and feminine world in Poema de Chile, to which we now turn.

II. Poema de Chile [Poem of Chile]

Narrative Qualities

As a lengthy work written in a single meter on one theme, and as a narrative-descriptive poem with dialogue, Poema de Chile presents a radical departure from Mistral’s previous volumes, even though she had been working with narrative forms from the onset of her career, in her stories and narrative poems for children, for instance. The dramatic situation of Poema de Chile involves the return of a character named “Gabriela,” after death, to travel the length of Chile. She travels in the company of an Atacamanian Indian boy and a huemul (a small Andean deer native to Chile, once abundant but now nearly extinct).19 Because the manifest purpose of this return journey is to instruct the boy about the geography and natural history of the land of Chile, much of the narrative centers on the interaction of the phantom “Gabriela” and the small boy.

The “story-telling” or “showing the world” mode that is so prominent in Poema de Chile recalls the relationship between mother and daughter in “Recuerdo de la madre ausente” as well as the “Cuenta-Mundo” [World-Story] series in Tala. Yet neither of these shorter works hints of the extended narrative continuity of Poema de Chile. Still, Mistral’s selection and groupings of poems in the earlier volumes show a consistent attention to narrative effects. Individual poems written at different times are grouped together, in Desolación, for example. The suggestion of a narrative configuration in Desolación encouraged ingenuous biographical readings, as pointed out in Chapter Two of this manuscript.

In the volumes prior to Poema de Chile, the thematic narratives suggested by poem groupings would break down when the individual sections came together within the covers of a book. This effect may have been deliberate. Perhaps hoping to avoid monotony, perhaps trying to create an overall balance, the poet alternates sections so that no single mood, genre, or theme prevails. In Lagar, for example, the sections entitled “Locas mujeres” and “Luto” [Mourning] (which tell a drama of individual isolation) alternate with the “Rondas” and “Jugarretas” [Playful Tricks] (which emphasize community). Poema de Chile is unusual in uniting these opposing sides. In the variety of the elements brought together, and in the close, sustained attention to a dramatic situation, Poema de Chile resembles the later lullabies. As in the lullabies, the poet undertakes an imaginary, undercover journey through a fantasy world, accompanied by a small child. Her poem, ostensibly addressed to him, is presented to a wider public.

An important distinction between Lagar and Poema de Chile is that the poet of Lagar mourns the tragic loss of human connections, whereas in Poema de Chile the poet is a ghost, a haunt. In representing herself as having died, it is as if she anticipated the critics who found her useful primarily as a public figure rather than as an unpredictable, living, working poet. In an exceptionally perceptive analysis of the poet’s last years, Luis Vargas Saavedra writes:

Gabriela ya se había muerto en vida y hacía varios años: al golpe de suicidio de Yin Yin. Desde ese 14 de agosto de 1943, a ese 10 de enero 1957, le hacía antesala a la muerte. De vez en cuando, asaetada por lo circundante, respondía.

[Gabriela had already died in life, quite some years ago: at the blow of Yin Yin’s suicide. From that August 14, 1943, to that January 10 of 1957, she was in Death’s waiting room. From time to time, tormented by what surrounded her, she would respond.]20

Analysis of the poet’s self-presentation in Poema de Chile simultaneously affirms and contradicts Vargas’s suggestion that in the last thirteen years of her life Gabriela Mistral was simply waiting to die. She tenaciously hung on to life, to memory, to what she had most loved in the world.

What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?21

Mistral’s equally proud and tenacious contemporary Ezra Pound likewise faces death by rejecting the man-made world. In the Pisan cantos the poet recognizes that in the scale of invention, the “green world” has outdone him, and that all “pose” is vanity:

The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone your elegance.22

Pound, coming to the end of his life, feels remorse. The gravest error is to fail to live fully what we most love: “Here error is all in the not done, / all in the diffidence that faltered.” Similarly, Poema de Chile is Mistral’s expression of regret, her record of what she would have done, had she her life to live over: “No sembramos los fantasmas ... quise la Tierra y no sembré” [We ghosts don’t seed... I loved the Earth and I did not seed.]23

The Vital Past

Betrayed by the present, the poet takes refuge in the past. To reconstruct life as it could have been, for Mistral, to endeavor what had been left undone became a justification for remaining alive in the present: thus, her single-minded search for details to go into this long poem became central in her reading, her day-to-day life, and dominated much of her correspondence. Poema de Chile quite literally kept her alive, as Doris Dana has pointed out: “escribir para ella estos poemas no fue un afán literario sino una necesidad vital” [writing these poems was for her not a literary endeavor, but a vital necessity.]24

In meeting the primarily personal need to conclude her days with a return to what might have been, she betrays no interest in returning to the persona of the humble unknown, the suffering nobody. The poet is once again remaking the past to the demands of the present. She is “Gabriela,” an assumed identity that she has made hers. As a strange girl who has become a woman whom others call crazy, a ghost-presence who is ignored, she is a larger-than-life figure about whom people speak as if she were not present. As a living phantom, she is a woman who, for all her knowledge of the land, is powerless over the physical world. Like the poet-guide Virgil in the Divina comedia, she can but observe and counsel; she cannot act. Her only influence is over the little boy, and even he is free to disobey.

In the dialogues between the phantom Gabriela and the little Indian boy who accompanies her, Poema de Chile represents an attempt to vindicate herself, to acquit herself of the charge that she is descastada: ungrateful. Poema de Chile is a gift, a thank-you note-memento of what she loved well: not the people of the cities and towns, but the land, and her people, “ ‘mis’ indios,” “ ‘mis’ campesinos,” as she called them. The ghost returns to the land she knew best even though most of her people have long since died or disappeared; while she rejects the present occupants, who are suspicious, skeptical, she cannot leave or rest until she is finally called back to where she belongs: “Montegrande, mi dueño” [Montegrande, my master.]25

Poema de Chile [Poem of Chile] and Dante’s Divina comedia

In diction and tone, Poema de Chile and Lagar are antithetical texts. The lyrics of Lagar are serious and somber descriptions of a range of specific public and private events, represented as “real,” taking place in an indifferent and purposeless universe. Where Lagar is tragic, Poema de Chile is a national poem, a genre cultivated mostly by men, exemplified in Mistral’s day by the heroic patriotism of Neruda’s Canto general de Chile [General Song of Chile.] If heroic patriotism is what defines a national poem, then Poema de Chile does not belong to this genre. It is instead a comedy in the sense of the word originally applied to Dante’s Comedia: a narrative poem with an agreeable ending. When Dante described his work as a comedy he referred to its conclusion (“it is prosperous, pleasant and desirable”) and its style (“lax and unpretending,” “written in the vulgar tongue, in which women and children speak”). The same could be said of Poema de Chile, written in the romance of traditional and popular poetry, as consummately Spanish as the narrative epic, Poema de mío Cid. As a comedy, Poema de Chile ends on the pleasant and desirable note of returning to the land of the dead with the poet’s having accomplished her mission on behalf of the living.

Yo bajé para salvar
a mi indio atacameño
y andarme la Gea
que me crió contra el pecho
y acordarme, volteándola
trinidad de elementos.

[I went down to rescue
my Atacamanian Indian
and to roam over Gaea
who raised me at her breast
and to remember, turning her over
trinity of elements.]26

In the sense of saving the living, the role of the phantom “Gabriela” in Poema de Chile corresponds to that of the ghostly Virgil in Dante’s narrative. But in the sense of recovering what has been lost by returning to the land which she knew as a child, the poet’s efforts are comparable to Neruda’s, in Canto general de Chile. Comparing the two poems is worthwhile: for one, Mistral was in all likelihood aware that Neruda was writing Canto general at the same time as she was writing Poema de Chile. The two poets were friends and Mistral deeply admired Neruda’s work.27 There is an autographed copy of Canto general de Chile dedicated to Mistral in the poet’s library.28 Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Neruda’s Canto general de Chile (which is broadly accepted as a national poem) with Mistral’s Poema de Chile (which is not) highlights the originality of Mistral’s project. Contrasting the two speaks to a great difference in values, not just between the two poets, but about the degree to which readers of Latin American poetry have regarded the canto nacional [national song] as a genre in which men are preeminent, for all the efforts of poets such as Mistral or Agustini.

“Lengua conversacional”  [Conversational Language]

A poet’s choice of language and of genre is a social contract that indicates the audience imagined for the text. Dante’s decision to write first his love lyrics and then the Comedy in Italian (as opposed to Latin) so that women might read these works reflects this. Likewise, Petrarch’s Canzoniere was written in Italian for women to read; ironically, because of the language in which it was written or because he didn’t over-value that audience of women, Petrarch regarded his love lyrics as the most ephemeral of his writings.29 Similarly, though less dramatically, Mistral decided, in Tala and in Poema de Chile, to reproduce and vindicate a particularly Latin American Spanish, as an indication of the audience she sought. In “Como escribo” she announced that her previous postmodernist hyperbole stood corrected by a tone much more her own, although equally difficult:

Ahora ya no me peleo con palabras sino con otra cosa...

He cobrado el disgusto y el desapego de mis poesías cuyo tono no es el mío por ser demasiado enfático. No me excuso, sino aquellos poemas donde reconozco mi lengua hablada, eso que llamaba Don Miguel el vasco, ‘lengua conversacional’. Corrijo bastante más de lo que la gente puede creer, leyendo unos versos que aún así se me quedan bárbaros. Salí de un laberinto de cerros y algo de ese nudo sin desatadura posible queda en lo que hago, sea verso o sea prosa.

[Now I no longer fight with words but with something else...]

[I’ve become disgusted and unattached to my poems whose tone isn’t mine because it’s too emphatic. I don’t excuse myself except in those poems where I recognize my spoken language, what Don Miguel the Basque called ‘conversational language.’ I correct much more than people can believe, reading verses that even so remain barbarian. I came out of a labyrinth of hills and something of this knot that is impossible to untie remains in what I do, be it verse or prose.]30

Mistral’s choice to embrace “barbarismos” [barbarisms]—a word that the Real Academia Española used, until recently, to indicate Americanisms—is especially radical in Poema de Chile. Page after page, poem after poem, Mistral cultivates Poema de Chile from the fertile ground of Chilean speech. The desire to preserve and reproduce that speech—by extension, Chilean landscape—was her underlying principle of composition. The poet’s manuscripts are a collection of bound, ruled notebooks; on one side, the text of the poem; on the facing page, long lists of words culled from a variety of sources: answers to queries that she put to friends and visitors, words and descriptions taken from texts dealing with botany, geography, zoology. In quite a few cases there are only the lists of words—the corresponding verses had not yet been written when the poet died. Complementing the descriptive impulse is the “lengua conversacional” of the dialogues between the poet-phantom and the little Indian boy, and the poet’s interior monologues, full of typically Chilean turns of speech.

The various titles which the poet used to refer to this text—“Romance criollo de Chile” [Native Romance of Chile],31 “Recado sobre Chile” [Message about Chile]32—further attest to the importance of popular, informal, spoken language in Mistral’s conception of Poema de Chile. Neither a recado nor a romance presumes an erudite readership. On the contrary, the author assumes merely that her readers have a basic education and a desire to know more about what is native to Chile. While the vocabulary in this last book is more extensive than in any of the previous ones, it is also more specialized in its reference. As a compendium of natural history for one of the world’s most geographically diverse nations, it proposes to teach the interested public about this land, and subtly to politicize their attitudes towards those who exploit it. If Poema de Chile has yet to attract a wide audience, that at least is partially due to a public that has yet to regard Mistral as a writer with a serious social message.

Further Comparisons with the Divine Comedy: The Poet as Narrator

Another common element in both Poema de Chile and Dante’s Comedia is that the poets, as poets, under their own names, are the principal characters represented in the narrative. All action is told, all dialogue is described from that single perspective. While the presence of the huemul is an unusual element in Mistral’s poem, the consciousness of “Gabriela” is the predominant one.33 An important difference between the character/narrator in the two poems is that “Gabriela” is far less self-conscious and introspective. By contrast, Dante, poet and traveller, necessarily puts himself at center stage. The environment—his surroundings and the people he meets—matters insofar as the poet and his readers are prompted to look inward, to examine their consciences. With that accomplished, the poet crosses the two rivers, and enters alone into Paradise, leaving his spirit-guides behind. In Mistral’s text, however, the poet’s consciousness is from the very start directed outward toward the land and those who live close to it. Given that her aim is to make that land imaginatively present (first to herself, then, by extension, to her public), there is no need for interiorization or self-scrutiny. The relationship of the characters (as revealed in their dialogue) is essentially static. Like a travel scene in which stationary actors are filmed sitting in a car or on horseback with a variety of settings behind them, it is the changes in the backdrop that give the impression of movement. The point of this technique is to draw attention away from individual, human, temporal concerns, to lead into deeper, more permanent ones, suggested by the dynamic forces of earth, water, sky.

Gabriela, Virgil and the Meaning of Salvation

While Poema de Chile resembles the Divine Comedy in that the poet makes herself a central figure in the narrative, the role of “Gabriela” (as teacher and ghostly guide) corresponds to Virgil’s role, and the little boy, as the “student,” parallels Dante’s role. Each character’s salvation depends on his or her ability to assimilate what the other teaches. As with Virgil and Dante’s journey, the two travel downwards; like the earlier pair, these two are vagabonds who observe the citizenry at a safe distance whenever feasible. Yet in her desire to avoid humans, “Gabriela” is more extreme, and more cunning than the wise mentor in the Divine Comedy. She instructs the boy to obtain food by stealth, to sleep in the open, to avoid houses, to remain in the natural realm. This preference for contact with an essentially benevolent and purifying nature—a common theme among the poet’s contemporaries such as Alfonsina Storni and Magallanes Moure as well as in the educational philosophers after Rousseau—rather than with human society reinforces the extent to which the protagonists are outsiders. Finally, the phantom “Gabriela” dwells as an outsider in the world of the living, just as the living Dante is an outsider in Hell.

Despite these close correspondences between the two texts, opportunities for readers to engage themselves psychologically are more frequent in Dante’s Comedia than in Poema de Chile (as it is presently available).34 The ordeal of salvation is anthropocentric, for Dante, and indeed for most versions of Christianity. Thus, some of the more poignant moments in the Inferno deal with the difficult question of whether or not the phantom Virgil, who lived and died before the Christian era, can be “saved.” These scenes are moving because the readers have become as dependent on Virgil as Dante has. Poema de Chile, by contrast, for all its reliance on popular Christianity, does not presume that being “saved” is a quality that only humans can enjoy. Quite the contrary: Poema de Chile is centered on the non-human world. All emotion, be it of remorse or of happiness, is channelled toward the countryside, for it is a poem or collection of poems about the land—wild and worked—not about salvation.

Poema de Chile [Poem of Chile] and Neruda’s
Canto general de Chile  [General Song of Chile]

The concentration on the homeland is a quality that Poema de Chile shares with Neruda’s Canto general de Chile, although the aspects of the land that each poet chooses to emphasize differ: Poema de Chile avoids most human beings, houses and gardens; it concentrates on naming and describing the specific places and fictional events that occur to the characters in the narrative. Canto general de Chile, on the other hand, emphasizes the general, rather than particular features of the land. Furthermore, the poet of Canto general becomes most intimate, most familiar, when describing people, as when he recalls journeys made with old friends, or when describing the heroic struggle of his anonymous, fellow Chileans, who are addressed as a unit:

Pueblo mío, qué dices? Marinero,
peón, alcalde, obrero del salitre, me escuchas?
Yo te oigo, hermano muerto, hermano vivo, te oigo,
lo que tú deseabas, lo que enterraste, todo,
la sangre que en la arena y en el mar derramabas,
el corazón golpeado que resiste y asusta.

[My people, what do you say? Sailor,
laborer, mayor, saltpeter miner, do you hear me?
I hear you, dead brother, living brother, I hear you,
what you desired, what you buried, everything,
the blood that on the sand and in the sea you would spill,
the stricken heart that resists and frightens.]35

Although Mistral’s Poema de Chile is a national poem, it shies from generalized patriotism; it makes no such general addresses to the Chilean people. As the critic “Alone” dryly observed, “Gabriela Mistral didn’t love Chile.” He goes on:

Amaba su Monte Grande natal y, por extensión, el valle de Elqui, el campo y la montaña, la gente montañesa y campesina, sus días infantiles. Más allá divisaba un pueblo extraño, hostil, bastante sospechoso, que no le inspiraba afecto y con el cual sentíase en oposición.

[She loved her natal Monte Grande and, by extension, the Valley of Elqui, the countryside and the mountain, the mountain and country people, her days of early childhood. Beyond she saw a strange town, hostile, quite suspicious, that did not inspire affection in her and with which she felt in opposition.]36

As a national poem that rejects social history and people in order to concentrate on natural history, Mistral’s work is of a very different order than either Dante’s or Neruda’s overtly political poems.37 While Neruda is profoundly concerned with describing the land of Chile, his motivation for doing so grows from of a concern for social history. When Neruda names specific odors, plants, towns, and historical figures, they are all part of a grand sweep of symbolic details that are, in sum, an intensely human-centered patriotic vision. Mistral, by contrast, emphasizes natural history, and consciously avoids “la trompa épica” [the epic trumpeting] even though she showed herself fully capable of writing patriotic hymns in Tala, and she includes a few poems in this vein in Poema de Chile.38 Her choice to write in the eight-syllable, assonantly rhymed “romance,” the meter of traditional and popular poetry, contrasts with Neruda’s less restrained, momentum-building, dramatic free verse.

The gender of the poet is crucial in determining the poet’s attitude toward the homeland.39 Canto general de Chile opens with the poem “Himno y regreso” [Hymn and Return] in which the poet writes as a son returning home after battle, seeking rest; for him, “Patria” and “Madre” are one and the same:

Patria, mi patria, vuelve hacia ti la sangre.
Pero te pido, como a la madre el niño
lleno de llanto.
esta guitarra ciega
y esta frente perdida.
Salí a encontrarte hijos por la tierra,
salí a cuidar caídos con tu nombre de nieve,
salí a hacer una casa con tu madera pura,
salí a llevar tu estrella a los héroes heridos.

Ahora quiero dormir en tu substancia.

[Homeland, my homeland, the blood returns to you.
But I ask you, as a child to its mother
full of sobbing.
this blind guitar
and this lost forehead.
I went out to find children for you across the earth,
I went out to care for the fallen with your name of snow,
I went out to make a house with your pure wood,
I went out to take your star to the wounded heroes.]

[Now I want to sleep in your substance.]40

Neruda returns to his “madre-patria” as a son who has tried to make his mother proud. “Ahora quiero dormir en tu substancia” carries the promise that he will stay close by from now on; he will never leave again. Mistral, by contrast, makes no such promise, for Poema de Chile reiterates and expands on the poet’s earlier affirmation that as a woman she carries within her flesh and memory both the mother and the homeland. (“I came out from a labyrinth of hills and something of this insoluble knot remains in whatever I do.”) Mistral carries her household with her.

The Poet’s Motherland

The “madre-patria,” for Neruda, is a metaphor which allows the poet to define himself as a “son.” For Mistral, however, the mother is concrete, palpable. As an exile, absence continues as the referent for “la patria,” as was true of “País de la ausencia” [Country of Absence] (from Tala) and later, in Lagar. Mistral’s “patria” is a concept denoting physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from the land of the poet’s childhood.

Y yo decía como ebria
‘¡Patria mía, Patria, la Patria!’

[And I was saying like a drunken woman
‘Homeland of mine, Homeland, the Homeland’!]41

Once the land is depicted as present to her, “la patria” is extraneous. The word rarely appears in Poema de Chile.42 In the opening poem, “Hallazgo,” “Patria” and mother join to produce the poet’s second body and thus make possible the fiction of the poet’s temporary resurrection.

...este mi segundo cuerpo
en el punto en que comienzan
Patria y Madre que me dieron.

[...this my second body
at the point where begin
the fatherland and mother they gave me.]43

In “Hallazgo,” as in the lullaby of the same title, the child appears out of nowhere. In the absence of a father, the poet’s authority as a substitute mother for the child is unrivalled. Her relationship to the boy is analogous to that of a mother to a son; as a ghost, however, she transcends the physical dimension that so constrained Mistral’s use of the mother role in earlier volumes. That physical dimension is transferred, instead, to the land, personified as “la Madre Selva” [the Mother Forest], “la Madre y Señora Ruta” [the Route, Mother and Lady], “Mama Tierra” [Mother Earth], “la Madre-Noche estrellada” [the starry Mother-Night], “Madre Araucaria” [Araucaria Mother], “Patagonia, la Madre Blanca” [Patagonia, the White Mother.] These omnipresent “comadres” are visible manifestations of a specifically feminine authority that far outweighs the nebulous “patria.”

Further Contrasts with Neruda

The Chile that is both immediate and permanent, for Mistral, is a “matria” [motherland], symbolized by “Gea.” Neruda’s Chile, however, is a Sleeping Beauty, “en la inmensidad de la América dormida” [in the immensity of the sleeping America.]44 Neruda begins his poem claiming to write and speak for the mute, raw, undomesticated and unclaimed land: “Escribo para una tierra recién sacada ... hablo para las praderas que no conocen apellido” [I write for a land newly drawn out...I speak for the meadows that don’t know surnames.]45 Mistral’s Gea, by contrast, is an ancient mother, one of many goddesses in an apparently infinite pantheon. For Neruda, writing and speaking the history of the mother-land is a way of possessing it. This attitude toward the land as a passive woman awaiting and mutely submitting to the poet’s creative activity is especially evident in Neruda’s erotic poetry, as in the opening verses of Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada [Twenty Love Poems and One Desperate Song]:

Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega.
Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava
y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra.

[Body of woman, white hills, white thighs
you resemble the world in your attitude of surrender.
My wild peasant’s body excavates you
and makes the child jump from the depths of the earth.]46

For Mistral, by contrast, the land speaks to and through the poet; writing is not an excavation, but a meditation on the land and a journey across it.

Final Observations: “Poema de Chile” [Poem of Chile],
Completeness and the Reader’s Role

Although Poema de Chile possesses the narrative continuity of a story told from within the perspective of the poet’s representative, “Gabriela,” it is also as discontinuous, fragmentary, and episodic as travelogues usually are. The structure of the text as we have it was not created by the poet, but by Doris Dana, facing a loose mass of handwritten notebooks filled with poems in various stages of completion. The poet indicated which poems were to begin and to end the volume; all other choices about the order of poems, what poems to include, and even what variants or drafts to use, were made by the editor, who states that “Gabriela Mistral ... al morir, dejó inconclusa la obra” [Gabriela Mistral...when she died, left the work unfinished.]47

Despite the editor’s description of her extensive labor in preparing an unfinished volume for publication, critics generally avoid the question of completeness or unity, in Poema de Chile. By analyzing single poems from the text rather than the text as a whole, one begs the questions of the poet’s intentions and her attitude toward the public. To describe Mistral primarily as a lyricist is to deny her the recognition she deserves as a national poet who decried bellicose patriotism, addressing all of Chile, calling for “menos cóndor y más huemul” [less condor and more huemul.] She sought to represent not merely her own interests, but the interests of her people—“la gente montañesa y campesina” [the mountain and country people.] Her poetry—unlike Neruda’s—does not single out sons when addressing Chile’s children. Where Neruda fondly remembers a variety of travel-escapades with male companions with whom he shared fights with strangers, the love of women, and “una fraternidad más ancha que la tierra” [a brotherhood wider than the earth],48 “Gabriela” travels in a much less grandiose fashion, accompanied by a child, whom she treats as an equal, and by a deer.

It could be that critics avoid Poema de Chile not just because it emphasizes natural over social history, country over city, but also because it is hard to create forceful and definitive arguments when dealing with a work that the author did not prepare for print. Yet Palma Guillén attacks the suggestion that the “Poema” or “Recado de Chile” is incomplete. Instead, she argues that Mistral created an “open” text:

puede ser cortado en cualquier punto y que, aun dado por terminado y completo, puede o podía, en todo momento, alegarse con otros poemas.

[it can be cut at whatever point and, even if taken as finished and complete, it can be or could have been at any point joined with other poems.]49

This deliberate openness—for the readers—is a direct consequence of the text’s theme. More precisely, the openness of the text corresponds to the poet’s attitude toward her material:

Este libro, que es un viaje imaginario por toda la tierra chilena, Gabriela Mistral nunca lo consideró terminado porque siempre tenía algo que añadirle y por esta razón lo dejo inédito.

[This book, which is an imaginary journey along all the land of Chile, Gabriela Mistral never considered it finished because she always had something to add to it and for this reason she left it unpublished.]50

It is because of the nature of the text as “an imaginary journey through the entire territory of Chile” that the poet “always had something to add to it,” that she could not bring it to a close. Doris Dana has suggested that Poema de Chile be regarded as a “memory-book.”51 A memory-book will have no closure for the reader, save that when the compiler dies or loses interest, new items cease being added. It can be glanced at, skimmed, read in pieces or in sequence: memory is collage. As the writer cuts and pastes, transitions are less important than the underlying principle of preservation, of putting in a blank book what would otherwise be lost. Death transforms the body, but keeps it whole, bringing a wholeness and completeness that life can never know. Even before the poet’s death, Poema de Chile preserved accents and details from a world that had all but vanished: Gabriela Mistral’s last poem is a partial index to that world.

Perhaps most of all, the relaxed, conversational, intimate tone of much of Poema de Chile brings it closer to Dante’s text and further separates it from Neruda’s Canto general and other national poems. Colloquial intimacy links Mistral’s last work with the semi-pedagogical “Motivos de San Francisco,” the “Cuenta-Mundo” of Tala, and the later “poesías infantiles” in general. Yet in another respect the poet’s last work marks a dramatic change in her attitude towards death, for her use of a colloquial tone in dealing with death is, to say the least, a reversal of the poet’s earlier practice. As a young woman, death inspired a combative attitude in the poet’s “Sonetos de la muerte,” written in 1909.

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas,
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!

[I will go away singing my beautiful vengeances,
because to that hidden depth no one else’s hand
will descend to dispute me your fistful of bones!]52

Death, in Desolación, allows the poet to distance herself, and to go down into the underworld to claim her own. Likewise, in the section of Tala entitled “Muerte de mi madre” [Death of my Mother], the poet descended like Orpheus, retrieving the mother, like Euridyce, from the world of the dead. In Lagar, the poet is a near-zombie (“mi carne marchando sin su alma” [my flesh marching without its soul]) who can barely restrain herself from cursing life itself. She is fierce, antagonistic: as in Desolación, the poet’s proximity to the dead is linked with the power to threaten, to curse the land, cattle, wildlife; ultimately to curse God himself:

Yo tengo una palabra en la garganta
y no la suelto, y no me libro de ella...
Si la soltase, quema el pasto vivo,
sangra al cordero, hace caer al pájaro...
Aunque mi padre Job la dijo, ardiendo
no quiero darla, no...

[I have a word in my throat
and I don’t let it go, and I don’t free myself from it...
If I were to let it loose, it would burn the living fields,
bleed the lamb, make the bird fall...
Although my father Job said it, burning
I don’t want to give it, no...]53

In Poema de Chile, on the other hand, the dead poet is like the character Virgil, guiding and instructing the living over a terrain which she knew and recreates through her verse. Unlike Dante’s Virgil—the Virgil of the Aeneid and not of the Eclogues—she lives in, and understands grace as universally, eternally available: “todo lo llamaba gracia” [everything I called grace.]54

Few commentators have gone further than to sketch out the dramatic situation underlying Poema de Chile as an imaginary journey through Chile. There is no critical consensus on what kind of text Poema de Chile is, or on its place within Mistral’s work. Ivan Carrasco has done a useful study in which he suggests that it is “de forma romanesca ... una estructura narrativa-descriptiva de carácter dialógico” [in the novelesque form... a narrative-descriptive structure with a dialogic character.]55 Still, this statement avoids addressing Mistral’s intentions with regard to her audience in this unusual text.

Any understanding of Poema de Chile must be prefaced by a description of the relationship between Gabriela Mistral and the culture from which she emerged, the people whom she claimed, time and again, to represent, the principles she advocated.56 Poema de Chile is an extension of Mistral’s so-called poetry for children in that it is oriented toward a community, in this case a community of readers who share an interest in a particular geographical entity called “Chile.” The topos of the poem is comparable to Neruda’s Canto general de Chile and the situation of the characters is comparable to Dante’s Divine Comedy. If these comparisons have not been made before, and if Poema de Chile receives so little attention, it is because there has been room enough for only one kind of patriotism, the political, male-oriented patriotism of Canto general. As a moral poet, Mistral has been needlessly simplified, and few have bothered to look beyond the “Piececitos.” Yet there is great cause for optimism, with regard to studying Mistral’s relationship with her times and with her readers: every year, more and more of her remarkable correspondence appears in print so that readers all over the Spanish-speaking world are coming to regard Gabriela Mistral as a complex and often contradictory thinker.

Anecdotal and impressionistic reminiscences offer important insights, showing Mistral as a representative of her culture. Their drawback is that what they represent as “fact” is often grossly unreliable. To analyze the poet’s own statements of intention and justifications of her work and to look at the forms of self-presentation that she developed is to begin accounting for the phenomenonal success of this great poet, teacher, essayist, journalist, diplomat, public woman. It is time to begin an effort to know Gabriela Mistral on her own terms.



1. A case in point is the Anales de la Universidad de Chile: Homenaje a Gabriela Mistral, a three-hundred page collection of essays issued in the year of Mistral’s death. No single article focuses specifically on Lagar; few even mention this text, even though it had been published three years previously. The production of Homenaje (lavishly furnished with photos and specially commissioned personal memoirs) stands in contrast to Poema de Chile: studies of Mistral’s work inexplicably fail to include the latter, even as a bibliographical annotation. This fascination with paying homage to her person rather than to her ideas tells of the extent to which Gabriela Mistral, the writer and thinker, has been replaced by Gabriela, the saint.

2. Some might argue that Mistral reached her prime with Tala and declined thereafter. The claim that Tala is accessible, written in a universal language, where Lagar is hermetic and closed, recalls the comparisons between Desolación and Tala when Tala first appeared: in each case the public takes its time adjusting to the new reading contracts that a new text entails. While Tala, with its air of nostalgia, may be more appealing in contrast to the bitterness of Lagar, unfortunately the appetite for nostalgia in Mistral criticism leads writers to disregard and dismiss virtually everything Mistral wrote after 1945.

3. A significant exception among an older generation of critics who ignored Poema de Chile is Gastón Von dem Busche, in “Visión de una poesía”, Homenaje a Gabriela Mistral (Santiago: Anales de la Universidad de Chile, 1958). When Von dem Busche published his article, Poema de Chile had only appeared in a few scattered excerpts; his picture of Mistral’s later work nonetheless surpasses the usual formula that Lagar was Mistral’s final poetic achievement.

4. Comparing, these two texts, side by side, is a project that would require some months’ residence studying the microfilms in Washington, D.C.

5. The paucity of comprehensive criticism on Lagar and Poema de Chile can also be traced to the political climate in Chile. Because only banal, reductive readings of approved texts are printed in the major media, the smaller and more sophisticated magazines rightly concentrate on political analyses of contemporary culture. For an excellent analysis of the generation of authoritarian criticism in Chile since 1973, see Bernardo Subercaseaux, Notas sobre autoritarismo y lectura (Santiago: Ceneca, 1984).

Mistral’s elevation as an “official poet” may dissuade younger readers and writers from investigating her lesser-known work. The undue emphasis accorded to Desolación, Mistral’s least “political,” most “dated” work, leads the younger generation to regard her language and concerns as essentially irrelevant to their own. In the case of Hernán Díaz Arrieta (“Alone,” official critic of El Mercurio until his death in 1983), who knew Mistral personally, there is a tendency to avoid her importance as a Latin American writer writing in the wake of a World War. The weight of inertia in regard to which poems are taught in the schools complicates things, as does the official image of Mistral (see the cogent study by Federico Schopf, “Reconocimiento de Gabriela Mistral”, Eco, 248 [1982] [Bogotá, Colombia]). The “official image” focuses on selected early texts and dismisses Mistral’s increasingly outspoken attitude toward the government as evidence of senility. For a preliminary understanding of Mistral’s political views, her distrust and suspicion towards the military, her condemnation of red-baiting, her support for democracy and those attempting to establish democratic regimes in South America, see Fernando Alegría, “Aspectos ideológicos de los recados de Gabriela Mistral”, Gabriela Mistral, ed. Humberto Díaz-Casanueva et al. (Jalapa, México: Universidad Veracruzana, 1980) 70-79.

6. Palma Guillén de Nicolau, Introducción, Desolación-Ternura-Tala-Lagar, by Gabriela Mistral, 4th ed. (México: Editorial Porrúa, 1981) x.

7. Héctor Fuenzalida, “Gabriela Mistral: La última vuelta”, Homenaje 84-90.

8. Fuenzalida 89.

9. Fuenzalida 89.

10. Luis Vargas Saavedra, El otro suicidio de Gabriela Mistral (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 1985).

11. Vargas Saavedra, “Gabriela Mistral: ¿Aniversario de vida o de muerte?” El Mercurio (Santiago, 11 January 1987).

12. Protected as she was by her diplomatic passport, Mistral nonetheless was close to the lands and peoples who were affected by WWII. She had lived in Spain, France, and Italy; she liked to think of herself as having Jewish blood; one of the actions of the Chilean government that most angered her was its unsympathetic attitude toward accepting as immigrants Basque and Italian refugees.

13. Mistral, “El reparto” [Distribution of Lands], Lagar, Poesías completas (1958; Madrid: Aguilar, 1976) 669.

14. Mistral, “La abandonada”, Poesías completas 596-598.

15. Mistral, “La bailarina” [The Woman Dancer], Poesías completas 601-603.

16. Out of the fifteen poems, only two are phrased, at any point, as addressed to “tú” [you.] “La abandonada” does so only briefly, twice in the first two stanzas, looking back at the past, questioning rhetorically “¿Por que trajiste tesoros / si el olvido no acarrearías?” [Why did you bring treasures / if you would not bring oblivion?] Again, in “La fugitiva,” the poet uses “tú” in posing a rhetorical question, although the “tú” is identified here as a tree. Poesías completas 596; 616-617.

17. Mistral, “La otra”, Poesías completas 593-595.

18. Mistral, “La otra”, Poesías completas.

19. Like the huemul, the boy belongs to a vanishing group—the Indians of the Atacama desert in the North of Chile, one of the driest regions of the world, and the farthest southerly extension of the Inca Empire.

20. Vargas Saavedra, “Gabriela Mistral: ¿Aniversario de vida o muerte?”

21. Ezra Pound, The Cantos: LXXXI, A New Directions Book (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1950).

22. Pound, The Cantos: LXXXI.

23. Mistral, “Manzanillas” [Camomiles], Poema de Chile, ed. Doris Dana (Santiago de Chile: Editorial Pomaire, 1967) 115.

24. Dana, “Al lector”, Poema de Chile 1.

25. Mistral, “Hallazgo”, Poema de Chile 9, see also “Despedida” [Farewell], 244.

26. Mistral, “Despedida”, Poema de Chile 243.

27. When Neruda was deprived of his seat in the Senate and forced to flee Chile, an order was sent out to the Chilean Foreign Service that the poet should not be received. Mistral commented on this: “Me prohibieron desde allá recibir en el consulado a Neruda. ¡Que poco me conocen! Me hubiera muerto cerrándole la puerta de mi casa al amigo, al más grande poeta del habla hispana y, por último, a un chileno perseguido. Yo fui perseguida. ¡Y como!” [From there they forbade me to receive Neruda in the consulate. How little they know me! I would have died closing the door of my house to a friend, to the greatest poet of the Spanish language and, finally, to a persecuted Chilean. I was persecuted. And how!] See Matilde Ladrón de Guevara, La rebelde Gabriela, 3 vols. (Santiago: Empresa Editorial Araucaria, 1984).

28. See Catalog of the Gabriela Mistral Collection, Barnard College Library. The entry in the catalog lists Canto general de Chile: Fragmentos; Printed in Mexico, no date or publisher given. In the final version (published as part of Canto general, 1950) Neruda’s Canto general de Chile contains poems dated between 1939 and 1942: the same years when Mistral had begun Poema de Chile.

While both poets were prolific, Neruda was considerably more confident about publishing poems in broadsides and chapbooks before revising and collecting them in a longer work. Mistral, on the other hand, published poems in newspapers and magazines, but she infrequently collected and published her work in individual volumes, primarily in response to pressure from others or external events.

29. See María Rosa Moncal, “We Can’t Dance Together,” Profession 88, Dec. 1988: 53.

30. Mistral, “Como escribo,” reprinted as a prologue to Gabriela Mistral, Todas ibamos a ser reinas, “Colección Quimantú para todos” (1938; Santiago: Editorial Quimantú, 1971).

31. See Ladrón de Guevara, Gabriela Mistral: Rebelde magnífica vol. III, 90.

32. See Guillén de Nicolau, prologue to Desolación-Ternura-Tala-Lagar XIV, XXV, XXXII-XXXIII.

33. Both Gastón Von dem Busche and Fernando Alegría single out the presence of the deer as a character in the poem, subsequently leading them in different directions, with regard to the problem of genre and of intended audience. Von dem Busche points out similarities between the huemul and the character, Martín Fierro, in Hernández’s poem—which Mistral, by her own admission, knew quite well. Like the gaucho Martín Fierro, the huemul in Poema de Chile symbolizes a vanishing Latin American identity. Both poems, by virtue of the attempt to preserve regional language, are implicitly addressed to an audience interested in national identity. Von dem Busche argues that both Mistral and Hernández are working, “en visión y dicción ... en la zona del alma de lo criollo y no de su pura estampa sensual o colorida” [in vision and in diction...in the zone of the native soul and not in its pure sensual or colored representation.] The comparison between the two poems works best on the level of “dicción”; it fares less well in the anthropomorphic view of the huemul, which is not, in Poema de Chile or in life, a speaking subject: the huemul is only spoken to or about. See Gastón Von dem Busche in “Prólogo: Gabriela Mistral en su poesía dispersa”, Reino: Poesía dispersa e inédita, by Mistral, en verso y prosa, recopilación de Gastón Von dem Busche, Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso, 1983) 26.

Alegría likewise singles out the huemul: in an interview (Stanford, California: February, 1987) he suggested that the presence of this figure links Poema de Chile with the Franciscan spirit of Tala. This claim deserves further investigation; I have relied on it implicitly in describing Mistral’s concept of the universal availability of grace. The two major studies dealing with Mistral’s Franciscanism (Mistral joined the Tertiary Order of Saint Francis of Asisi, a lay order with vows of poverty, in Italy in 1924) were both published before the appearance of Poema de Chile. (See Marie-Lise Gazarian Gautier, Gabriela Mistral and the Franciscan Spirit of Life (New York: World Herald Press, 1975), and Martin C. Taylor, Sensibilidad religiosa de Gabriela Mistral (Madrid: Gredos, 1975). Alegría furthermore finds a similarity of purpose between Mistral’s poem and Platero y yo, by Juan Ramón Jiménez, in which the narrator reminisces about his boyhood in a small Andalusian town, accompanied by the donkey, “Platero,” to whom the title refers. Jiménez was writing for both children and adults—this would certainly interest the Chilean poet. While Mistral knew and admired Jiménez, Platero y yo is not in the poet’s personal library, which she used while writing Poema de Chile. It seems probable that she knew it, given its popularity in the school curricula.

34. This condition would change if a larger, more “complete” edition of Poema de Chile were published, indicating variants, furnished with a glossary, perhaps, including selections from the poet’s letters and some facsimile plates of the manuscript. Such an edition need not be so scholarly as to intimidate the general reader; rather, in the course of understanding better the poet’s process of composition, the poem would be fleshed out and the poet would seem more human, less remote.

35. Pablo Neruda, Canto general de Chile part III, Canto general (Barcelona: Ediciones Orbis, 1950).

36. “Alone” (pseud. of Hernán Díaz Arrieta), “Interpretación de Gabriela Mistral”, Homenaje 15.

37. Mistral’s concentration on redemption as occurring within the span of natural, as opposed to social history, foreshadows “poesía de conciencia social.” See Ernesto Cardenal, Salmos and Homenaje a los indios americanos. The best discussion of Mistral as a forerunner of “poesía de conciencia social” is Eliana Rivero, “Para una actualización de Gabriela Mistral: Conciencia y poesía” in Humberto Díaz-Casanueva et al., Gabriela Mistral, 20-35. Because Rivero’s study focuses on Mistral’s influence on women poets (e.g., Julia de Burgos, Rosario Castellanos) within this group, she does not note the connection with Cardenal.

38. See, for example, the elegiac “Monte Aconcagua” [Mount Aconcagua] and “La cordillera” [The Mountain Range.]

39. And vice-versa: gender also plays an important role in shaping how the public of that homeland regards its poets.

40. Neruda, Canto general de Chile.

41. Mistral, “La desasida” [The Unleashed Woman], Lagar, Poesías completas 604-606.

42. After “Hallazgo” the specific points when “patria” is mentioned in Poema de Chile all concentrate on the poet’s remembering and longing for the distant past, as opposed to the poet’s engagement and dialogue with the little boy. Examples of this are the ending verses to “La hierba” [The Green Grass]: “Patagonia verde o blanca / con un viento de blasfemia / y compunción cuando calla, / patria que alabo con llanto. / Verde patria que me llama / con largo silencio de ángel / y una infinita plegaria / y un grito que todavía / escuchan mi cuerpo y mi alma” [Patagonia, green or white / with a blasphemous wind / and compunction when it grows silent, / homeland that I praise with crying. / Green homeland that calls me / with an angel’s long silence / and an infinite prayer / and a yell that even yet / my body and my soul listen to.] “La hierba”, Poema de Chile 239-240.

43. Mistral, “Hallazgo”, Poema de Chile 7.

44. Neruda, “Eternidad”, Canto general de Chile, Canto general.

45. Neruda, “Eternidad”.

46. Neruda, “Uno”, Veinte poemas de amor y una canción desesperada (Santiago: Editorial Bruguera, 1986). Original date of publication: 1923.

47. Dana, “Al lector”, Poema de Chile, Mistral 1.

48. See section XIV of Neruda, Canto general de Chile.

49. Guillén de Nicolau, Introduction, Desolación-Ternura-Tala-Lagar, by Mistral xiii.

50. Guillén de Nicolau, Introducción, Desolación-Ternura-Tala-Lagar, by Mistral xiii.

51. Interview with Doris Dana, New York City, June 1985. The term “memory-book” is a rich and fascinating way of describing this last volume. The OED supplement offers the following definition: “US: A blank book in which cuttings from newspapers and the like are pasted for preservation.” The usage given is from Publisher’s Weekly in 1931: “Another demand is for ... inexpensive memory books used by grammar schoolchildren.”

52. Mistral, “Los sonetos de la muerte”, Poesías completas 81-83.

53. Mistral, “Una palabra”, Poesías completas 721.

54. Mistral, “Huerta”, Poema de Chile 63.

55. Iván Carrasco Muñoz, “El mito de Orfeo y el ‘Poema de Chile’ de Gabriela Mistral”, Revista chilena de literatura 9-10, Aug.-Dec. 1977: 21-40.

56. Some structuralist studies being done in Chile have shown a willingness to encompass this goal. In addition to Carrasco’s structuralist study, see Ana María Cuneo, “La Sobredeterminación semántica en el poema ‘La huella’ de Gabriela Mistral”, Revista chilena de literatura 18, Nov. 1981: 47-72.