For fear of losing her job as a schoolteacher in provincial Chile, Lucila Godoy Alcayaga used the pseudonym Gabriela Mistral. Her writings include poetry, stories, criticism—political and literary—and numerous prose pieces, many of them political enough to have attracted unwelcome fame. Never having children of her own, she made an international reputation early in her career with elegant poems about children and motherhood. As a teacher, she devoted a significant portion of her life to young students, who included, informally, a teenager named Ricardo Reyes, who would receive, as she did, a Nobel Prize in Literature. His pen name was Pablo Neruda.
Tala was the third of four collections that Mistral published in her lifetime. Tala means “felling,” as in the felling of trees; the title has also been translated as Devastation. The modest volume’s proceeds went to the benefit of orphans displaced by the Spanish Civil War. This gesture was typical of Mistral, considering how strongly her poetry speaks to the nurturing of children. At the same time, her work was by turns emotional, visionary, and possessed by a sensuality that in part may account for her desire to separate her life as a poet from her life as a teacher.
By the time Tala was published, Mistral had seen much more of the world as a diplomat and an education consultant than she had when her first book appeared in 1922. Mistral’s deep interests in children and the mystic qualities of nature remain a key element of her third collection, but the intensity of anguish that distinguished much of her previous work gives way, in Tala, to a more controlled sense of observation. This is not to suggest any lack of maturity in her early work, only that with Tala, the reader encounters an older, widely traveled poet who has come to more comfortable terms with the tragic events of life. There is an undeniable emotional drive to these poems, but the reader will find a noticeably heightened sense of the poet’s journalistic eye. The collection conveys a sense of the somewhat ethereal atmosphere of life on the South American landscape. In “Riches,” Mistral writes, “I have an abiding bliss/ and a lost fortune,/ one like a rose,/ the other like a thorn.”
There is a touch of autobiography here, pointing to the devastating loss she suffered as a young woman in love with a man who committed suicide. Mistral’s poems often deal with her grief over Romelio Ureta’s death. Here, the poet’s grief is merely implied, offered more as the memory of an emotion than the emotion itself. The poet has attained the necessary distance from the tragedy to apply her art to it in new ways. Earlier poems on the subject deal with recent wounds, the poet now looks at old scars. All likelihood seems to have been that Ureta and Mistral would have married and had the family the poet longed for all of her life. Mistral never did marry, creating for herself a surrogate family in every community she joined as a teacher or diplomat.
“Riches” is a brief, imagistic lyric that considers the inadvertent exchange, as it were, of the conventional family she had anticipated for the unconventional one she found. There is surely pain in this poem, but it is pain in retrospect: “I am rich with purple and with melancholy./ Oh, how beloved is the rose,/ and what a lover, the thorn!” The direct statement of her grief in Mistral’s earlier work is here given over to sensory image.
“Grace” is an example of the type of work for which Mistral earned “visionary” as one of the many honorable adjectives commonly ascribed to her work. Once again, the poem’s primary vehicle of expression is the image. The speaker’s acute awareness of the senses seeks the reader’s appeal on an affective level rather than an intellectual one. Sensory experience is made palpable; the poet shares a deceptively simple epiphany, without explanation or analysis. The reader is led to feel the poet’s experience through images that appear almost surreal: “A dappled bird,/ a bird like jasper/ went rainbow/ wild/ through the carriage/ of the air./ This same...
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