The Children’s Poems of Gabriela Mistral

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Gabriela Mistral 1889-1957

The other day I started going through my poetry books looking for The Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by Mistral’s longtime friend, Doris Dana.  I couldn’t find it – not unusual in my house, where my organizational skills often fail me. I’m like Sisyphus rolling that rock up the mountain-side. Neither he nor I ever make it to the top.

I needed that book for an essay I’m writing for Numero Cinq magazine, so I ran over to the University of Washington graduate library to see if they had it. Luckily, I found an even better translation of Mistral’s work by the wonderful writer Ursula LeGuin, whose book about writing (Steering the Craft) I’ve recommended to so many of my students. LeGuin, of course is the author of the wonderful Earthsea books for children – I had no idea she also translated work.  As it turns out, she translates beautifully, capturing all the rhythms and music of the original Spanish. The combination of Mistral’s work and LeGuin’s translations gives me everything I look for in poetry – beautiful sound, a certain strangeness to the images, an obvious passion and quiet intelligence.

Mistral_s

Definitely check out Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated by LeGuin – it contains many of the children’s poems I mentioned (called lullabies, Tell-a-World poems, “Trickeries,” and “round dances”) as well as a good selection of Mistral’s most famous poems for adults, and an introduction that explains LeGuin’s approach to translating from the Spanish.

LA RATA

Una rata corrió a un venado
y los venados al jaguar,
y los jaguares a los búfalos,
y los búfalos a la mar…

Pillen, pillen a los que se van!
Pillen a la rata, pillen al venado,
pillen a los búfalos y a la mar!

 Miren que la rata de la delantera

se lleva en las patas lana de bordar,
y con la lana bordo mi vestido
y con el vestido me voy a casar.

Suban y pasen la llanada,
corran sin aliento, sigan sin parar,
vuelan por la novia, y por el cortejo,
y por la carroza y el velo nupcial.

THE RAT

A rat ran after a deer,
deer ran after a jaguar,
jaguars chased buffalo,
and the buffalo chased the sea…

Catch the ones who chase and flee!
Catch the rat, catch the deer,
catch the buffalo and the sea!

Look, look at the rat in front,
in its paws is a woolen thread,
with that thread I sew my gown,
in that gown I will be wed.

Climb up and run, breathless run,
ceaseless chase across the plain
after the carriage, the flying veil,
after the bride and the bridal train!

Mistral 11

Gabriela Mistral – First Communion

***

DAME LA MANO

                          A Tasso de Silveira

Dame la mano y danzaremos;
dame la mano y me amarás.
Como una sola flor seremos,
como una flor, y nada más.

El mismo verso cantaremos,
al mismo paso bailarás.
Como una espiga ondularemos,
como una espiga, y nada mas.

Te llamas Rosa y yo Esperanza;
pero tu nombre olvidarás,
porque seremos una danza
en la colina, y nada mas.

 

GIVE ME YOUR HAND

For Tasso de Silveira

Give me your hand and give me your love,
give me your hand and dance with me.
A single flower, and nothing more,
a single flower is all we’ll be.

Keeping time in the dance together,
singing the tune together with me,
grass in the wind, and nothing more,
grass in the wind is all we’ll be.

I’m called Hope and you’re called Rose;
but losing our names we’ll both go free,
a dance on the hills, and nothing more,
a dance on the hills is all we’ll be.

If you don’t know anything about Gabriela Mistral, here are the basics: She was born in a small farming village in Chile in 1889, and she won the Chilean National Poetry Prize with her first book when she was just 25. Her second book – Ternura [Tenderness]  – contains the wonderful poems for children. Mistral left Chile after the publication of Ternura and never returned to live there, though she represented Chile as a consul in many countries of the world. She was the first South American to win the Nobel Prize (in 1945), and she remains the only South American woman to have done so. She was an educator, a social activist, a diplomat and a poet. She died in New York in 1957.  Hundred s of thousands of people turned out for her funeral in Chile, and the Chilean government declared three days of mourning in her honor. You can read a wonderful essay about her at The Poetry Foundation website.

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11 responses to “The Children’s Poems of Gabriela Mistral

  1. Wonderful, wonderful poems and translations. Thank you. She was also a teacher of Pablo Neruda.

    • You’re right, Julie P., that Neruda studied under Mistral for awhile. I’m going to research that a bit more…the connection/influence should be interesting. Both of them, too, were exiles – though Neruda’s exile was forced, and Mistrals’s was self-styled.

  2. Thank-you for your essay on GM! I am so fond of her. I have been trying to locate a poem by her that was domething about “the gestures of infants being like offering the gift of water.” (Very rough paraphrase) maybe Ursula LG’s book will have it. Thanks, again.

  3. That communion photo! She looks like a pistol there. Here’s a Mistral poem that is probably not the one Nancy wanted, but echoes her description a bit:
    “Everything is Round”

    Stars are circles of children
    Looking at the earth as they play…
    Wheat stalks are bodies of children
    swaying and swaying as they play…

    Rivers are circles of children
    running of to the sea as they play
    Waves are circlets of little girls
    embracing this world…as they play…

    (Translated by D.M. Pettinella)

  4. I’ve been trying to read more and more diverse kinds of poems for students, and for me. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve never heard of Gabriel Mistral & like that you included the small bio of her, too. I did find the book at my library, but translated by someone else, and there is also a picture book bio of her. Thanks, Julie.

  5. Sadly, Mistral is just not very well known in the United States, Linda. It just occurs to me that maybe I should look into writing a new biography of her for intermediate elementary kids, to stimulate some interest…?

  6. Oh, Julie, yes – we’ll cheer you on! (Don’t you love it when other folks tell you what books to write? But you brought it up….)
    I was not familiar with Mistral either, and I so appreciate this introduction and these magical poems. Also, I didn’t know Ursula Le Guin has translated works – but I probably shouldn’t be surprised! Thanks for sharing all.

    • Robyn, LeGuin has also done some wonderful translations of Lao Tzu and the Tao Te Ching. She is a woman of many talents, that’s for sure!

  7. I’ve read the picturebook biography of Gabriela Mistral – but this is the first time I’m reading of her poetry, thank you so much Julie for sharing it.

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