Our Poor Eyes, Knowing Only

Death Sonnets I

by Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)

From the icy niche where men placed you
I lower your body to the sunny, poor earth.
They didn’t know I too must sleep in it
and dream on the same pillow.

I place you in the sunny ground, with a
mother’s sweet care for her napping child,
and the earth will be a soft cradle
when it receives your hurt childlike body.

I scatter bits of earth and rose dust,
and in the moon’s airy and blue powder
what is left of you is a prisoner.

I leave singing my lovely revenge.
No hand will reach into the obscure depth
to argue with me over your handful of bones.

Los Sonetos de la Muerte

by Gabriela Mistral

I

Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada, con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

Luego iré espolvoreando tierra y polvo de rosas,
y en la azulada y leve polvareda de luna,
los despojos livianos irán quedando presos.

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


Gabriel Mistral was the pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, Mistral began writing poetry in her early twenties following the tragic death of her lover. Mistral was an educator by profession, teaching elementary, secondary school until her poetry made her famous. Her status in Latin America literature afforded her the opportunity to become an advocate for education in both Mexico and Chile. Mistral was active on cultural committees of the League of Nations, becoming the Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid and Lisbon. Mistral later taught Spanish literature in the United States at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico.

Mistral’s Sonetos de la muerte (love poems in memory of the dead), made her known throughout Latin America, but her first heralded collection of poems, Desolación [Despair], was published in 1922. Mistral wrote poetry about many themes, but her volumes published in 1924 and 1938 dealt with childhood and maternity and tenderness. Mistral was recognized for her contributions to literature and won the Nobel Prize in 1948.

I share below two translations of her poem Alondras, one by Langston Hughes and one by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s interesting to see how each poet approached the poem and their different interpretations. I regret that my Spanish is not good enough to read it in the original and understand it more fully, but I am grateful that Mistral’s work inspired great minds to translate it into English.  Do you have a favorite Mistral poem?


Alondras

by Gabriela Mistral

Bajaron a mancha de trigo
y al acercarnos, voló la banda,
y la alamede sd quedó
del azoro como rasgada.

En matorrales parcecen fuego;
cuando suben, plata lanzada,
y passan antes de que passen,
y te rebanan la alabanza.

Saben no más los pobres ojos
que passó toda la bandada,
y gritando llaman “alondras!”
a lo que sube, se pierde y canta.

Y en este aire malherido
nos han dejado llenos de ansia,
con el asombro y el tremblor
a mitad del cuerpo y el alma….

Alondras, hijo, nos cruzamos
las alondras, por la llanda!

 

Larks

by Gabriela Mistral

translated by Langston Hughes

They came down in a patch of wheat,
and, as we drew near,
the flock flew away
and left the startled field quite empty.

In the thicket they look like fire;
when they rise, like silver darting.
And they go by even before they go,
cutting through your wonder.

Our poor eyes, knowing only
that the whole flock has gone,
cry “Larks!” to those who rise,
and are lost, and sing.

In the sorely wounded air
they leave us full of yearning,
with a wonder and a quiver
in body and in soul…

Larks, son! Above us sweep
the larks across the plain!

Larks

Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

They were in the scattered wheat.
As we came near, the whole flock
flew, and the poplars stood
as if struck by a hawk.

Sparks in stubble: when they rise,
silver thrown up in air.
They’re past before they pass,
too quick for praise.

Eyes are too slow to see
the whole flock’s taken wing,
and we shout, “Larks!”
at what’s up–lost–singing.

In the air they wounded
they’ve left us with a longing,
a tremor, a wonder
half of the body, half of the soul.

Larks, child–see,
larks rise from the wheat!

Do Not Remember Me With Pity

Le Guin

“I love translation because I translate for love. I’m an amateur. I translate a text because I love it, or think I do, and love craves close understanding. Translation, for me, is discovery.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

Looking Back

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Remember me before I was a heap of salt,
the laughing child who seldom did
as she was told or came when she was called,
the merry girl who became Lot’s bride,
the happy woman who loved her wicked city.
Do not remember me with pity.
I saw you plodding on ahead
into the desert of your pitiless faith.
Those springs are dry, that earth is dead.
I looked back, not forward, into death.
Forgiving rains dissolve me, and I come
still disobedient, still happy, home.


Anniversary

by Gabriela Mistral
Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

And we go on and on,
Neither sleeping nor awake,
Towards the meeting, unaware
That we are already there.
That the silence is perfect,
And the flesh is gone.
The call still is not heard
Nor does the Caller reveal his face.

But perhaps this might be
Oh, my love, the gift
Of the eternal Face without gestures
And of the kingdom without form!

The Dark Abounding

Ursula-le-gouin-by-rebecca-clarke
Ursula K. Le Guin (1929 – 2018)

That deeper meaning is where poetry approaches music, because you cannot put that meaning in words in an intellectually comprehensible way.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Hymn To Time

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Time says “Let there be”
every moment and instantly
there is space and the radiance
of each bright galaxy.

And eyes beholding radiance.
And the gnats’ flickering dance.
And the seas’ expanse.
And death, and chance.

Time makes room
for going and coming home
and in time’s womb
begins all ending.

Time is being and being
time, it is all one thing,
the shining, the seeing,
the dark abounding.


I first came across Ursula K. Le Guin as a teenager in one of the new/used bookstores in Minneapolis. These were combination comic book, sci-fi fantasy, news stand and porn  that existed back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They were a little seedy and exactly the kind of thing as a teenager I found exciting. I came across a well read copy of the The Left Hand of Darkness and from there I looked to read Le Guin when ever I bumped into her again.

Le Guin wrote fantasy, children’s books, novels, poetry and translations and did it all brilliantly.  She won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel, becoming the first woman to do so. Her book Cat Wings was a favorite of my daughter when she was little. Her translation of The Tao is completely unique of all that I have come across and the details around her choice of words in the translation provides insight that goes far beyond any other translation I have read. ( I think I own 4 or 5 different translations.) Her novels explore themes that are as relevant today as when they were written on topics like the environment, social justice, sexual liberation, gender equality, technological responsibility,  and a moral code of right and wrong even if right does not always prevail.

Le Guin’s writing career spanned more than 60 years and in that time she published 12 volumes of poetry along with everything else.  If you know her for only her science fiction or novels, I recommend you check out some of her poetry, including her final volume of poetry – Finding My Elegy.  Le Guin wrote poetry in a variety of styles, both highly structured and free verse. I completely agree with her sentiments that writing sonnets is difficult in part because so many brilliant ones already exist, its hard to think anything you write is unique. In several interviews, Le Guin shared some of her approach to writing poetry, here’s a quote from one below.

The sonnet is probably the form most people think of when you talk about poetic form, and I find them terribly difficult. I write very, very few anymore.  Maybe because there are so many very very good sonnets.  I don’t know, that does’t usually worry me. It’s just not a form that I work with very well. The quatrain, on the other hand, is a straight form in a way – just four lines, that’s it. There’s no other definition, but you can make it just as strict as you please with rhythm and rhyme and so on.

Ursula K. Le Guin

The Fine Arts

by Ursula K. Le Guin

JUDGING BEAUTY, which is keenest,
Eye or heart or mind or penis?
Lust is blindest, feeling kindest,
Sight is strongest, thought goes wrongest.