Selected Prose and
Prose-Poems of
Gabriela Mistral

Stephen Tapscott,
Editor and Translator

(University of Texas)
She was born in Chile in 1889 as Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. She published her first poems, "Sonnets of Death," when she was twenty-two years old. Shortly after she met the young Pablo Neruda.

She was invited by the revolutionaries of Mexico to serve as consultant for their program of educational reform, 1922 - 1925 --- and became a delegate to the League of Nations. In 1945, she won the Nobel Prize in literature. Meanwhile, she had been named consul to France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Guatemala.

See --- in truly advanced countries they keep their politicians safely at home where they won't gum up delicate international negotiations, and send their poets abroad to be liaisons with the international community. There are some countries as I speak to you at this very moment, run by hard-ass bimbos devoid of the niceties of international coõperation who might take a clue from this, might recall some their more militant sabre-rattlers, appoint the likes of Lawrence Ferlinghetti to be Ambassador to Russia, Philip Levine to China, LeRoi Jones --- hell, let's send Jones to Israel just to yank their chains --- and his own --- a bit.

Excuse me: back to the works of Gabriela Mistral. This volume includes fables, elegies, biographies, and essays. Her prose-poems are something else again, reminding one at times of "The Song of Songs," and at others, sounding like a mix of Platero y Yo and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is "A Los Niños" --- "To The Children:"

    After many years, when I am a little mound of silent dust, play with me, with the clay of my heart and of my bones. If a bricklayer picks me up, he will put me in a brick; I'd stay forever fixed in a wall, and I despise quiet corners. If they make me a brick in a prison, I will blush with shame to hear a man sobbing. If I am a brick in a school, I will suffer too, because I won't be able to sing with you in the dawns.

    I would rather be the dust you play with in the paths of the countryside. Walk on me: I have been yours. Destroy me, for I made you. Step on me, because I did not give you all truth and all beauty. Or, simply, sing and run above me, and I'll kiss the souls of your beloved feet...

    When you hold me in you hands, recite a beautiful verse, and I'll tingle with pleasure in your fingers. I'll raise myself up to watch you, seeking among you the eyes, the hair, of those I taught.

    When you make any image with me, shatter it instantly: at every instant the children made me shatter with tenderness and sorrow!***

This is typical of the thirty or so "Fables" and "Prose-Poems." It is high romanticism mixed with Ovid --- for objects are always being metamorphosed into bricks or pots or flowers or bread or salt.

There is shame ("I did not give you all truth and all beauty") and sacrifice ("Destroy me") and mother love divinity ("For I made you.") And always there is a gentle compassion ("I will blush with shame to hear a man sobbing") along with regret ("I won't be able to sing with you in the dawns") and most of all, sensuality ("I'll tingle with pleasure in your fingers.")

Passion is a key element in her verses, but it is passion in disguise. Underneath the tears and dew and illusions and shadows and footprints grows a rich sensuality, mixed with a child's magic of change and color and touch. For example, the fig,

    Touch me: it's the softness of fine satin, and when you open me, what an unexpected rose! Doesn't it remind you of a king's dark cloak that blazed fiery red underneath?

The sensuality is mixed --- as all sensuality must be mixed --- with the touch of Narcissus, marking a very specific moment:

    I bloom within myself, inwardly, enjoying a look at myself at least once a week.

§     §     §

When I first picked this one up, I was a little alarmed at the romantic strangeness of it all. Figs as king's cloaks? But it grows on you like a sensual blooming plant. Part of the wonder of this rendering is the layout of the book --- each short passage is translated immediately below. The translations by Stephen Tapscott --- who also edited this volume --- are artful, finely tuned, and, in themselves, worthy poetry. Mistral has faded from view since her death in 1957. She much deserves this excellent revival.

§     §     §

    ***The original Spanish:
              Después de muchos años, cuando yo sea un montoncito de polvo callado, jugad conmigo, con la tierra de mi corazón y de mis huesos. Si me recoge un albañil, me pondrá en un ladrillo, y quedaré clavada para siempre en un muro, y yo odio los nichos quietos. Si me hacen ladrillo de cárcel, enrojeceré de vergüenza oyendo sollozar a un hombre; y si soy ladrillo de una escuela, padederé también, de no poder cantar con vosotros, en los amaneceres.
              Mejor quiero ser el polvo con que jugáis en los caminos del campo. Oprimidme: he sido vuestra; deshacedme, porque os hice; pisadme, porque no os di toda la verdad y toda la belleza. O, simplemente, cantad y corred sobre mí, para besaros las plantas amadas...

--- Carlos Amantea


He was a musician, a pianist, so good that at age seventeen he was to have his own solo performance in a Moscow theatre. But it is Stalin's Russia, 1939, and people are disappearing for their crimes against the state. Two days before the concert, he passes a neighbor, who whispers "Don't go home." He runs away to the Ukraine, where relatives --- scarred by the pogroms from the 20s --- hide him in a barn.

The Germans invade; there is a massacre of Russian soldiers. He creates another identity by stealing documents from the body of one who looks much like him. He is thus transformed into a soldier, one who serves nobly to the end of the war. He saves the life of General Garilov, becomes his personal assistant to the point of being invited into his home where Garilov's daughter Stella falls in love with him. She decides to teach him to play the piano.

But he cannot acknowledge his art --- so he only pretends to learn (the song she teaches him is "The Little Tin Soldier.") There is a party, he is to perform and, woe, he suddenly opens up, plays brilliantly, is discovered.

So there's the bare-bones story, but there are twists and turns which I have left out so as not to rob you of the pleasure of it. For it is a pleasure, this one. The story flows with perfect rhythm, an impressionist tale which includes love and the ghastliness of war and a man's need to hide himself and, in the process, become a Little Tin Soldier.

In impressionism, the key is as much with what is left out as what is included. The brevity (this one only goes a hundred or so pages) helps to make for high art. That which is repeated --- so bare, fragile --- becomes theme and counterpoint; in this case, the counterpoint of music and the making of it.

For example, Alexeï's family's trouble begins with a violin that belonged to Marshal Tukhachevsky, one of those who disappeared in the purge of 1937:

    That night they burn it, fearing arrest and interrogation. In his panic his father forgets to loosen the strings, and lurking behind the half-open door of his bedroom, Alexeï hears the swift arpeggio of the strings snapping in the fire...

Music is the glue in both the title and the theme of Music of a Life: music both seen and heard, and the love that sings along with it. He has seen too many soldiers die in the trenches but the General's daughter, the seventeen-year-old Stella, is young, just beginning to discover the powers of love and music:

    Thanks to "The Little Tin Soldier" she was able to elaborate her scenarios. The man she had at her beck and call could be scolded, flattered, sweetly tormented, complimented on an arpeggio well played, comforted after a mistake. She was discovering one of the most intensely appealing aspects of love, that of making oneself obeyed, manipulating the other person and depriving him of his liberty with his own fervent consent.

Makine's hand is so sure that the reader easily falls under his spell. There is, as there always should be, a rhythm to his scenes, juxtapositions that ring true --- like the theme of man without a past, without a name, without a country. After almost dying at the front, Alexeï returns to find a mix of death and light, for he is a now a man

    lying beside a window in an unknown house, in a village he could never find again on a map, a man who has seen so many people die, who has killed many, who almost died himself and now observes this slender crescent moon in a milder sky.

--- Ignacio Schwartz


The Holy
Longing

The Hidden Power
Of Spiritual Yearning

Connie Zweig
(Tarcher/Putnam)
When she was nineteen, Connie Zweig took up with a spiritual community. She tells us that she was "increasingly drawn to the meditative state...that pulled me away from complicated relationships and toward the simple goal of making that silence permanent --- enlightenment..."

Her guru was "an image of serenity, depth, and self-sufficiency." But after twelve years, she saw "spiritual hubris, an insidious competition, secrecy and hypocrisy in the name of god."

She dropped out and her former friends saw her as an apostate. She came to Los Angeles "without a friend, without a job, without faith." She was, fortunately, taken in hand by a Jungian analyst, who "helped me to pierce the innocence that held me in thrall to my teacher ... She introduced me to the many gods living in my own soul."

This book is thus an account of her own journey, the discovery of her own "desire for union with the divine." Too, it is an exegesis on the similar yearning that she claims exists within all of us: "I suggest that there ... lies within us a will to transcend, a longing for the eternal."

She divides the book into four parts: The Holy Longing, the Longing for God, the Longing for the Beloved, and Longing for the Divine Human. These longings, she believes, can lead to ecstatic experiences; or they can lead to "dark possession, emotional despair, even death." Thus the holy longing is a Janus, with a light side and a dark side.

§     §     §

The Holy Longing is a funny mix of religious history and religious biography, along with theories about the psychological component of spiritual longings, and a recitation of religious experiences --- including those of Zweig and her clients (she is a counselor in Los Angeles).

I imagine that readers may become somewhat confused by the mix of the religious and the psychological:

    Like the Self in relation to the ego (Arjuna), Krishna stands behind the warrior as a hidden transpersonal center. He does not tell him what to do or how to do it; he simply articulates one teaching: how the divine in Arjuna can live in direct relation to the divine Krishna.... Like Arjuna acting in the service to Krishna, the ego can be relativized [sic] and act in service to the Self

In fact, the more I plowed though this one, the more I got the feeling that the author has taken two simple concepts of religion and psychology --- we all have a yearning for the divine; sometimes we can get tripped up on those spiritual journeys --- to endless speculation and examination. Thus, a couple of fairly simple, tautological ideas become inflated into a 230 page book, jampacked with quotes and examples, examples and quotes.

For every idea, there is a reference, writings by The Experts that give support --- Ken Wilbur, William James, Freud, Jung, Sufi teaching, Ramakrishna, Prophet Mohammed, Christ, Buddha. It reminds us, unfortunately, of the mid-term papers we were required to do in our Religion 101 course: every statement, every opinion had to be footnoted. But here, worse, it becomes a form of intellectual name-dropping with the clear message: I want you to know that I have done my homework, how many authorities I have consulted.

Then there are the quotes. Every Chapter gets a full panoply of them. Chapter One begins with Psalm 27, the Koran, a Hindu Sacred Hymn, and ends with a Hasidic tale. Chapter Four brings us Nietzsche, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Butterfield, and Rumi ("Whoever travels without a guide needs two-hundred years for a two-day journey.") Four quotes each chapter --- not two, not nine, but four. Chapter Six offers Basho, a Hasidic Tale, Thomas Merton ("What we have to be is what we are?") and the ultimate name-drop, Mechtilde of Magdeburg. Mechtilde!

Some of my friends and I once came up with the Restaurant Pepper Grind Theory. It works like this: the restaurants with the biggest pepper grinders had the worst food. When that waiter sidles up to pepper your salad, and if the grinder extends half-way over the table, you are going to get a crappy meal. Might we not use a similar guide to books? The more quotes, the less they will have to do with the text and, verily, might even be confused with pure filler.

This is not to deny that there are some powerful stories here. The case histories of clients and Zweig herself enmeshed with the various gurus can be touching and not a little scary. But, in her effort to shore up her case, the case may well disappear completely in a morass of quotes and proofs.

--- Deb Das


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