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
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?
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!
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!
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 rise from the wheat!