Review: Winepress by Gabriela Mistral (translated by Ursula K. Le Guin)

Published in Selection Poems of Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s religious, conservative counterpart to the more radical Pablo Neruda … is what I thought before actually reading any of her poetry. On reading this, a selection from her last complete collection, I find poetry that is rather elemental, grief-stricken and unearthly. Published in 1954, nine years after winning the Nobel Prize and three years before her death, Le Guin explains in her introduction that Mistral foregrounded the title of the collection in an earlier poem. “In death’s wide winepress,” Mistral wrote, “still you will not trample out my breast!”, evoking the crush of mortality, the squeeze of blood-purple juices. It is a fittingly visceral, vital image for a death-lurking collection that is nonetheless filled with the defiance of that final exclamation mark.

Skipping the prelude of the full collection, Le Guin’s selection begins with a series of poems entitled Crazy Women, 13 of the 15 translated here. These suggest various female archetypes, some old, some new, such as The Dancer, The Farmwife, The Sleepless Woman, Prisoner’s Wife, and in one instance simply A Woman. Other series follow, some continuing those begun in earlier collections, such as Nature II and Trickeries II. There are poems around objects (Trades, Time, War, Religious) and actions (Raving, Mourning, Wandering). Le Guin explains in her introduction her idiosyncratic approach. She couldn’t speak or write in Spanish, but had learned to read it enough to attempt this translation. “I worked on those,” she writes, “That I could translate and abandoned those I couldn’t”.

It is grief that the poems in this collection centre around. Mistral’s adopted son Miguel had suicided at the age of 17 in 1943. Only in Anniversary is he named, as Mistral remembers details of his childhood:

Still it feels strange to me

to not section your oranges,

not eat up the bread you left,

and not unlock and lock

your house with my key.

In this poem and others Mistral finds grief an in-between place between life and whatever comes next: “you not knowing that you’re on your way/I not knowing that I follow you”. In Mourning she conveys the dissociative power of loss, finding “in a single night the tree of mourning/sprang from my breast”. She is no longer flesh and blood, in fact not even wood and roots, but something more diaphanous, the startling image of a “smoke-tree”, barely there, without heat. Her neighbours hear her voice behind the smoke, but all they see is:

One colour in all seasons,

one same smoky shape,

and never a bunch of pinecones,

to make fire and dinner and joy with.

While this poems address her mourning directly, I could feel Miguel’s absence throughout, in the man haunting The Sleepless Woman:

He comes and goes all night

unmeaning gift, given and taken,

jellyfish floating on the waves,

now drifting off, now drifting near.

He is there seemingly in Ocotillo, in which Mistral sees in the cactus’s shape a “wind-bruised body” that she sponges clean and straightens “what was darkened and abused”. And he is there in A Woman, suggesting experience so common as to be universal:

When she says ‘Aleppo Pine’

it isn’t tree she means, but child

and “pool of water”, “mirror of gold”

mean the same thing

Although it is tempting to reduce these poems to a specific grief, they blur seamlessly into more existential concerns. As Le Guin writes, Mistral “left Chile at twenty-four and never lived there again and wrote about it all her life”. Mistral writes about home as if it is the same in-between place, a journey begun but only finished in death. The Return is explicitly about the great Homeland in the sky, but also speaks to dislocation and longing of those who’ve left places behind:

And we come back, futile,

so tired, and empty-handed,

stammering names of ‘homelands’

that we never reached.

She longs for the road and open spaces, asking in Doors (which is about what it says), “why did we make them/make prisoners of us?” “I long to go away,” she writes, “to leave/this superfice of earth,/this horizon like a stag/dragged down by sadness”.

It is aching, heavy stuff. But there are moments throughout when the fire of life roars through her, the “heaven-fallen pheasant” that The Fervent One lights wherever she goes. There are hints of passionate love, like the two people holed up in a house in The Lucky One, “the wall black with time/and the lichen on the threshold’s dead,/and whoever calls us by our name/gets tired of calling”. Or in Message To Blanca, in which the poet responds to an invitation:

I’ll arrive, if I do, on a mild wind,

so as not to freeze your plains,

or at the edges of your dream,

with love, and without a word.

Who is this person, the “sister” Mistral is writing to (the poem itself is dedicated to Blanca Subercaseaux, the daughter of a Chilean writer and politician)? Later she writes, “And don’t cry if I don’t answer,/for my sin was words”, evoking Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name”. As scholar Licia Fiol-Matta writes, Mistral’s queerness has been the subject of debate since Chile emerged from the Pinochet dictatorship. Under Pinochet, Mistral was forged by cultural gatekeepers into a kind of national figurehead for a patriarchal, Catholic and conservative society, in part to offset Neruda’s communism. In reality Mistral was much harder to pin down, and although debate still rages, the emergence of correspondence between Mistral and Doris Dana, the woman she was living with in California when she died, paints a picture of an unequivocally queer relationship between two women. As always in queer history absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence; there are so many reasons queer people haven’t left records. Lack of what Elizabeth Horan hilariously called “smoking-vibrator proof” has been used over and over to erase queer people.

For all the emotional precision of the poetry in this collection, I was perhaps most drawn to Mistral’s otherworldly, elemental imagery, evoking the stark beauty of her homeland, particularly the Elqui Valley where she was born and raised. Here the bright green of the fertile and irrigated valley is surrounded on all sides by arid hills, and beyond them the Andes rise to rarified heights. In The Other Woman she conceives of, not a lover’s mistress, but another woman who lives inside her, “dryness and fire”, “stone and sky”, a “fire-eagle” she rids herself of. The four exquisite poems in a series on Time conjure the austere beauty of the valley, particularly in Night:

The garden’s growing blurred,

the farm has sunk under,

and my Andes consume,

the sharp cry of their summit.

Although the translation can never match the rhythm of the Spanish (which is provided alongside the translations), Le Guin does a solid job of transforming them. Fittingly Mistral saved the best for last (although she left a number of unpublished poems behind). Last Tree is a wonderful summary of life, art and mortality. Mistral writes of “the loneliness I chose,/and the loneliness I got”, encapsulating a life of ceaseless wandering; and of “my game of give and take/with wind and clouds”, a lovely description of poetry. But it goes in stranger directions, as Mistral imagines returning for a second life as a tree: “Sometimes I feel the descent/of a fresh, soft air/and see rise around me/the round trunk – there -“. It is this same strange, ethereal place that much of this collection evokes.

Gay rating: 1/5 for hints of Mistral’s queerness.

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