How Mistral's Poems Successfully Capture the Idea of Motherhood

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1506

The poems in Gabriela Mistral's second collection, Ternura, are supposed to be about mothers and their relationships with their children. The author called them ‘‘colloquies the mother holds with her own soul, with her child, and with the Earth Spirit around her, visible by day and audible by night.’’ Addressing the wide, emotion-laden subject of motherhood is an ambitious thing to try, ten times so because Mistral was not a mother herself. Like Emily Dickinson, she knew that she knew what she knew about her subject and did not feel the need to justify herself with the weak excuse of experience, which proves nothing (you can't, for instance, expect everyone who has a spleen to be qualified by that intimate experience to explain what it does or where in the body it is located). Unlike Dickinson, who published hardly anything in her lifetime, Mistral put her theoretical works out in the open for all who had really experienced motherhood to see and criticize, and she traveled the world, living in different countries as an emissary of her government, while Dickinson only left her hometown a few times in her lifetime. What are readers to learn from this? That Gabriela Mistral, living among mothers and children as an educator since age fourteen (and a child before that), did more research on the subject she was theorizing about than Emily Dickinson did, and that she was more confident about her conclusions. We know that she was successful in capturing the bonds of motherhood and that Dickinson was successful in capturing the complexities of romantic love. Neither case gives any conclusive evidence about experience, observation, or popular sentiment.

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It is, in fact, its bold departure from popular sentiment that marks Gabriela Mistral's greatness. The aspects of the maternal state of mind that she captures in Ternura are not aspects that we are accustomed to seeing on paper, and yet, as she did, we know they are right once we see them. Much of the public face of motherhood is about selflessness, about extending beyond oneself, about giving up all one has that is good, if necessary, and taking on another's troubles. Motherhood, in short, is the drama of life's most noble moments.

The problem, as even those of us who are not mothers can realize, is that this view of nobleness is incomplete. That which has life's greatest moments must logically be balanced with some rough spots as well. We seldom see art that probes the deeply troublesome things about being a mother. We hear that it's a lot of work with little thanks, but these apparent negatives actually add to the positive side of the equation, pointing out the superior character of one who can put up with such trouble. Sometimes, we hear macabre stories about negligent mothers, abandoning or abusing their children, but these stories are news precisely because they are so unusual. In patriarchal societies like the United States and Mistral's Chile, where men dominate the economies, mothers are paid for their labors with honor—this is referred to as "the cult of the mother,’’ in which society assigns special privileges to motherhood as well as special responsibilities. Unfortunately, honor is too often taken too far, blotting out the dishonorable instead of recognizing it.

What Mistral brought to the discussion with Ternura was a piercing examination of the subject, putting it into a quiet place, beyond all of the surrounding cultural noise and clutter in the atmosphere. She did not have to emphasize negative examples of motherhood because the truth is deeper and more profound than could ever be conveyed through specific examples about bad events. At the heart of the beauty of motherhood she found the psychological truths of sadness, loneliness, and fear.

The titles of the poems in Ternura are not the kinds of titles we see in the upbeat version that literature—not just the popular kind, but the most intellectual, too—often presents. They include ‘‘The Sad Mother," "Bitter Song,’’ and "Fear." The poems with titles that are less disturbing are no less forlorn in the stories that they tell about women who look at their children and see their own continuance (for whatever that's worth) and at the same time their own vulnerability. These women measure their own lives by how close or far their infants are to them.

‘‘Bitter Song,’’ for instance, starts with the mother/speaker suggesting that her son play a game with her, imagining that they are a king and a queen, and it goes on to say the bounties of nature are his, working into each stanza the refrain "Whose else could it be?’’ The son's birthright, granted to him because—well, because he is her beloved—includes ‘‘this green field," "this whole valley," "sheep and pasture," and "the gleanings of the harvest." A common paean to motherhood would be content listing the glories this mother wishes for her child, but Mistral includes a stanza in parentheses about the child shivering and the breasts of the mother ‘‘dry with suffering,’’ and later in the poem she repeats the entire stanza. The sense of motherhood is conveyed by the abundance she can see around her while watching her child do without, while the bitterness of the title comes from the repeated question that makes us think about who really does own this land, and how they could possibly deserve such wealth more than a son who is loved so much. The reason Mistral is able to introduce the darkness that is left out of so much other literature about motherhood is that there is a scapegoat, someone to blame for the suffering in this poem: the landowners.

And what of "The Sad Mother"? If there is one thing that the traditional uplifting ideal of motherhood does not have room for, it is sadness, except for the momentary sadness that occurs with a glimpse of life's difficulties. In the ideal of the selfless mother that popular culture promotes, it is the woman's place to keep quiet about her own suffering while tending to her child's; here, the mother openly discusses her existential terror and openly admits that her child is a way of blocking out what is frightening in her life. There are three four-line stanzas, culminating in this: ‘‘In you, my fear, my trembling / let my body sleep, / Let my eyes close on you / In you my heart finds rest.’’ The unsettling thing about this is not that it admits that a mother can be sad—as mentioned before, the mother's suffering often serves to make her seem more noble—but that she so blatantly uses her child as a tool. Mistral broke new ground on the concept of motherhood in Ternura by allowing selfishness into the same poem as maternal love, not claiming that either leads to or causes the other, only admitting that a respectable person may have both at once.

"Fear" is all about selfishness. The title refers to the fear that the child will one day go off and leave the mother alone. This in itself is a natural fear—no one wants to be alone, and the whole point of being a loving mother is that she wants to be with her child. But the courageous thing that Mistral does in "Fear" is having the poem's speaker admit that she would not want to be separated from her child even if it meant that the child would have a better life. She does not want her child turned into a queen, the speaker says, because "They would put her on a throne / where I could not go see her. / And when nighttime came / I could never rock her. . .’’ The poem does not look at the situation of the queen on the throne, which, presumably, would be pretty good: the mother, for once in literature, is lamenting her own loss at the child's gain. Like ‘‘Bitter Song,’’ there is an external society that is the cause of the problem between the mother and child in "Fear"—the three stanzas are about resistance to "them" turning the child into a sparrow, a princess and a queen, respectively—but this time the offensive intruders pose no threat to the child, only to the mother's self-interest.

Motherhood is not a fragile thing. There is no reason for our literature to view only a narrow range of what it involves, ignoring the fear and the sorrow, as if to talk about them would somehow be disrespectful to mothers (accusing them of not being able to transcend? suppress? of not being perfect?). It is understandable that one would want to focus on motherhood's brighter aspects as a sign of respect, but there is a greater respect in truth. Even those of us who are not mothers can tell that Gabriel Mistral had the truth in hand in her collection Ternura.

Source: David Kelly, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Kelly is an instructor of creative writing and composition at two colleges in Illinois.

The Themes of Loss and Separation

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In her Lecturas para mujeres (Readings for Women) (1923), Gabriela Mistral reflects on the role of women and mothers in society. She believes that mothers and motherhood represent the means to national formation in both the physical sense and the figurative sense. But she is in constant fear that mothers and women will be victimized and abandoned by the nation and their men. The conflicts between the expectations, creating life and then being abandoned by their offspring, are at the root of much of her writing, including her poetry. In the poem "Fear," she examines the conflict between traditional family values and family structures and the loss of those traditions.

Mistral has illuminated her deeply held belief in maintaining strong family bonds in Lecturas. In them she expressed a concern and uncertainty about what she saw as the dissolution of the family unit. She raised questions about the loss of husband/wife bonds as a result of the increase of outside activity by the wife, even though these were not the most important bonds. As Elizabeth Marchant notes, ‘‘the bonds between mother and child lie at the core of Mistral's concerns." Her poem "Fear," published in 1924, echoes a specific fear: the loss of the maternal bond between mother and daughter.

The importance of the role of the Latin-American mother to hold her children close is emphatically presented here. The plea for the child to sleep with the mother is strong and falls within the normal structure of Latin-American families. Mistral uses this image of the closely bonded pair to lend artistic power to the point she is making.

In Latin cultures there is a strong family bond built on affection between the same-sex members of the family, fathers for their sons, mothers for their daughters. Fathers develop a relationship with their sons that involves instructing the son in the ways of machismo, a typical Latin attitude that does not allow boys and men to show emotion, pain, or weakness of any kind. Mothers develop a relationship with their daughters and try to keep their daughters close, to instruct them in the ways of the household and how to be a nurturing mother themselves in the future. For mothers, it is important to keep their daughters free from outside influences as long as possible and to help them cultivate the sense of what is or is not important.

One important cultural aspect of the mothers' attempts to control their daughters' interactions with boys was through the role of a chaperone. When young people became attracted to one another or when the families of young people decided on mates for their sons and daughters, the mother of the girl often took the role of chaperone for the couple during social engagements. Some of these practices have since been forgotten, but Latin-American mothers still have great care and concern for the welfare of their daughters. For the mother, anyone or anything that comes between her and her daughter is an intruder and must be kept at bay.

There are three characters in the poem: a mother, who is the narrator; the daughter, who is the object of the mother's fears; and "them," an unnamed entity who has an effect on the other two. In "Fear" the intruders are different in each stanza, but they accomplish the same disturbing result: separation of the mother and daughter. In the first stanza the intruder is symbolized by the image of the swallow, a bird that seemingly flits to and fro without purpose or direction. The loss of the sense of direction is contrary to the mother's wishes. Mistral's statements about this sense of direction are found in her Lecturas when she urges her contemporaries to follow the ancient and eternal roles and models of the past. They are defined by her beliefs that "gender roles were stable and bonds between women and children were privileged,’’ according to Marchant. Therefore, any violation of these privileged roles was unacceptable. Such a violation was an interruption of traditional family roles and contributed to a loss of the opportunity for affection between the mother and her daughter, which constitutes her fear in this stanza.

The intruder in the second stanza is more sinister because it adds materialism to the distractions which interfere with the maternal bonds. The "golden slippers’’ are symbolic of the increasing materialism of society (even in the 1920s). The mother fears that the daughter will become so interested in material things that the mother will be neglected or forgotten. Mistral also addresses this issue in a prose poem, ‘‘To the Children.’’ (A prose poem is one in which the poetic wording is presented in paragraph form, not in the typical stanza form.) In this poem, the mother encourages her children to take the dust of her body after she has died and to use the dust for play and as a vehicle for remembering her after she is gone. She warns the children against letting her dust become part of a brick (a symbol of materialism) but rather to let her dust be a part of the road where the children play. In this way the mother will still be a part of the children's lives. In "Fear" the mother wonders how the daughter can play when encumbered by materialistic objects (the golden slippers). The loss of play then becomes the loss of the maternal bond when the daughter "no longer would sleep at my side.’’

For the mother the worst kind of departure is found in the last stanza. She warns her daughter against allowing someone else to make the decisions for her. Leaving under such circumstances will create a barrier between the two that is insurmountable. Here the mother fears that her daughter will take on airs and postures and that the daughter will assume that she is better than the mother and she will not allow her mother to comfort her. The mother says ‘‘I could never rock her ...’’ continuing the theme that the mother wants to provide comfort and nurture for her daughter. In this final stanza the ellipsis implies more in this line than is directly stated.

The inclusion of the ellipsis hearkens back to the previous ideas. But there is more than just the rocking, playing, and combing, the total ideal of comfort, nurture, and support that the mother desires to give to her daughter. The emotional impact of these three dots is theatrical, as when at the most intensely dramatic moment the actor's voice drops off and the sentence is left unspoken. The stanza finishes with a sense of desperation, ending with an exclamation mark.

In the third stanza the mother fears the most significant loss of all: the alienation of affection from her daughter. The simple pleasures of giving comfort, for example by combing her hair (symbolically maintaining the maternal bond with the daughter), will be lost forever. In her poem "Nio Mexicano" ("Mexican Boy") the act of combing a child's hair is mentioned four times and is the major symbol of keeping the maternal bond with her child.

The theme of the poem is loss and separation and is a concern that lies at the heart of Mistral's beliefs. But despite never having married nor borne children, Gabriela Mistral had what Herman Hespelt called ‘‘a deep but never satisfied maternal longing’’ which left ‘‘sadness on (her) life and work.’’ Examination of many of her poems will reveal a great affection for children and for the role of the mother in tending to her children. In the Lecturas, Mistral urges her contemporaries to follow the patterns of the mothers of the past. In this publication, she presses for a cohesive family unit with an educated mother as the central figure, says Marchant. This little poem makes the same point, as the mother cajoles, urges, and finally warns about the difficulties ahead if the daughter were to leave the mother under dubious circumstances.

In her poem ‘‘Close to Me’’, she is even more graphic and passionate in her beliefs that the mother/child bond ought not be broken. "Little fleece of my flesh / that I wove in my womb, / little shivering fleece, / sleep close to me.’’ Additionally, the last line in the poem ‘‘Close to Me’’ is even more dramatic. ‘‘Don't slip from my arms. / Sleep close to me.’’ These are the sentiments she expresses in "Fear," although not as directly. The importance of the role of the Latin-American mother to hold her children close is emphatically presented here. The plea for the child to sleep with the mother is strong and falls within the normal structure of Latin-American families. Mistral uses this image of the closely bonded pair to lend artistic power to the point she is making.

Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Literature of Developing Nations for Students, Gale, 2000. Mowery has a Ph.D. in literature and composition from Southern Illinois University.

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