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Sabbath Day – Chile

February 4, 2016


Chilean poetry is my newest discovery as I continue my year of reading multi-national literature. I had, of course, read Pablo Neruda  before, but I have just discovered his teacher, Gabriela Mistral. Mistral was the first Latin American, and the only Latin American woman, to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She should be much better known than she is. Mistral received the award in 1945 “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.” I discovered her in my anthology of international poetry and immediately ordered a volume through inter-library loan. It has been a week a brief for the congregation I serve, with three funerals in seven days. In the midst of this grief I read “the footprint”about the fleetingness of life.Mistral has been translated by Ursula Le Guin and published in a dual language collection of Selected Poems. Mistral’s first collection of poetry, Desolation, which is about her grief and desire for a lover who betrayed her for another woman and subsequently committed suicide, was emotionally devastating.

Introducing the collection, Le Guin wrote:

This translation was a labor of love for many years. There is no other voice in poetry like Mistral’s, from the miraculous clarity of her rounds and lullabyes, to the fiery rage of her love poems, to the dark complexity and visionary power of her late work. I hope this book may begin to restore this amazing poet to the recognition she deserves. Most of all I hope it comes to the hands of readers who will love her.

My son loved her onomatopoeia “fluttering butterfly.” Speaking of which, I also found at the library My Name/Me Llamo Gabriela, a children’s book about the poet which I read to my son as a bedtime story two days ago. Gabriela was a teacher, travelled the world, was committed to the rights of children, helped found UNICEF, and shaped education in Latin America. There are several other bi-lingual children’s books listed on amazon, if you would like to introduce this woman to your own children.


Grief was a theme of the Chilean poems I have collected. There is of course Neruda,

Tonight I can write the saddest lines,

a poem about loss wandering lost. I read many of these poems during a snow day last weekend when the whole city was shut inside. As the snow created an unexpected sense of Sabbath, I read Neruda’s “Keeping Still”:

A moment like that would smell sweet,

no hurry, no engines,

all of us at the same time

in need of rest.

I also read Enrique Lihn, whose poem “Torture Chamber” evoked the resentment of a poor person appealing to a rich person: “your alms are my salary” and so on for 60 lines – each describing the interconnectedness, distance, despair and rage that exist within systems of  economic apartheid.

Jorge Teillier writes of “The End of the World”  as a non-event, which reminded of nothing more than our failing democracy and the current election cycle.

Because of the deaths in my congregation, this week of reading grief everywhere came as a particular gift. And the collection of Mistral poems will have a treasured place on my shelf (when I eventually own it and can mark it up). Hint. Hint. It’s only eight months until my birthday and eleven until Christmas.


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