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Four— Women, Literature, and National Brotherhood
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Gender, Race, and Nation in the Poema de Chile

Gabriela Mistral's Poema de Chile[12] is a collection that Mistral began in the 1920s and worked on for twenty years, much of the time living in Brazil and traveling widely as an international intellectual figure and educator. It is perhaps in keeping with the problematic relation between women and nation, and between women writers and nationalist writing, that the collection was never finished. It was edited posthumously by Doris Dana and is not always included in summaries and anthologies of Mistral's work. Though a work of major proportions (seventy-seven poems in 250 pages), the collection is quite marginalized in the critical legacy on Mistral. The Poema de Chile is problematic for patriarchal criticism in a way other writings of Mistral are not. Most of Mistral's writing has been subjected to the common critical strategy of reading women's texts as autobiographical or "personal," contained in a private sphere that is an appendage of the domestic. Nationalist or patriotic writings by women tend to confound this strategy. They cannot easily be read back into the domestic sphere, for they take as their very subject matter the impersonal entity of the nation-state; their authorial voice is that of the citizen. What follows is not an attempt to "rescue" the Poema de Chile from obscurity or to nominate it for admission into the poetic canon. Rather, it is an attempt to think about this remarkable and problematic work in connection with gender and traditions of nationalist and patriotic discourse.

From this perspective, one of the most conspicuous features of the Poema de Chile is that its author opts entirely out of a long-standing heroic tradition of patriotic poetry that celebrates official history, singing the glories of battles, generals, sons in service of the motherland, and the like. This is the tradition of such canonical works as Alonso de Ercilla's La Araucana or José Joaquín Olmedo's La victoria de Junín , revived in a radical, counterhegemonic guise by Pablo Neruda in his Canto general (1950).[13] In contrast with this historical, often militaristic tradition, Mistral writes about Chile exclusively as nature. The Poema de Chile consists entirely of titles like "Cobre" ("Copper"), "La chinchilla" ("The Chinchilla"), "Luz de Chile" ("Light of Chile"), and "Manzanos" ("Apple Trees"). The official or public history of Chile plays no role in the work; patriotism and nationalism in their political guise, affirming the imagined community, are absent. Rather, following another powerful criollo tradition, love of country is expressed through a passionate engagement with ecology and geography, America as primal paradise.


At first glance, one might see Mistral's focus on nature as a straightforward "feminine" choice. But to do so is simply to insert her poem into patriarchal meaning systems and to fail to see it also as an intervention in those systems. Within modern patriarchal forms of knowledge, nature is female and history male. With respect to the normative male subject, nature/woman is an Other, and the object which that subject appropriates. Nature is the woman-object on which men sow the deeds of history; on which men bestow the nomenclatures of science; which the explorer discovers and the colonizer develops or tames. In the case of the neo-Romantic poetic tradition, nature is that which the poet contemplates and appropriates as a correlate of his inner state. Men's dominance over nature in such writings is often expressed symbolically by the speaker's position on a high point or promontory (the "promontory poem" is recognized as a lyric subgenre) and through fantasy in which the landscape is transformed in the poet's imagination. One thinks of José Heredia at Niagara or atop the Teocalli; of Alexander von Humboldt's influential writings which sought to merge the poet and scientist into a single speaker-seer surveying the American landscape. This traditional configuration of the (male) poetic subject inspired by contemplation of the (female) landscape impinges heavily on Mistral and is one she reorganizes in her poem.

Though passivity is most often associated with the woman-landscape on which the male acts, it is important to note the equal passivity and immobility of the contemplating man-poet in neo-Romantic nature poetry. It is precisely this immobile observer that Mistral abandons. In a highly original gesture, she substitutes a mobile poetic voice and a narrative configuration. The speaking subject in the Poema de Chile is a woman who returns to Chile as a spirit after many years of absence and travels through the country on foot in the company of an Indian boy. In many respects Mistral's discourse abandons the dominance over nature that is traditionally expressed in the elevated stance of the promontory poem. The rejection of such a stance is explicit in the dramatic opening poem of the collection, titled "Hallazgo" ["Discovery"]. Here is its first stanza:

Bajé por espacio y aires
y más aires, descendiendo,
sin llamado y con llamada
por la fuerza del deseo,
y a más que yo caminaba
era el descender más recto
y era mi gozo más vivo
y mi adivinar más cierto,
y arribo como la flecha
éste mi segundo cuerpo
en el punto en que comienzan
Patria y Madre que me dieron.


Literally translated, this reads:

I came down through space and air
and more air, descending,
without calling, but being called
by the force of desire,
and the more I walked
the straighter was my descent
and the greater my joy
and the straighter my aim,
and like an arrow I land
this my second body
at the point where they begin,
Fatherland and Mother I was given.

The poetic "I" uses her strength to descend into the landscape rather than to climb up to a promontory from which an immutable, totalizing vision might be claimed. The play on grammatical gender ("sin llamado y con llamada") may be intended to foreground this choice as a female one. Yet the erotics of the stanza are intensely male—the phallic arrow impelled by its own desire, heading for its mark, its pleasure ("gozo") intensifying as it approaches. Conspicuously, the arrow's target is neither simply the fatherland nor the motherland, but the doublet Patria y Madre, a reverse of the conventional epithet "la madre patria." The speaker's desire is aimed at a parental couple; it is thus markedly not oedipal in character (one is reminded of de la Parra's figure of a founding mother and of Dora Meyer de Zulen's identification with the Inca founding couple).

The contrast between Mistral's practice in this opening and that of her contemporary Neruda is striking. Early in the Canto general , Neruda's famed "Alturas de Macchu Pichu" begins with a descent, but it is a descent into death, self-disintegration, and absence of desire, from which the poet emerges in the famous line "Entonces subí hasta ti, Macchu Picchu" [then I ascended to you, Macchu Picchu]. Neruda then recovers the traditional promontory stance in the heights of the Incaic ruins, from which he contemplates an overwhelmingly masculine march of history.

The traditional subject-object relation between man-poet and woman-landscape is substituted in Mistral's poem with an intersubjective one, the mother-child relation between the poetic "I" and the adoptive Indian child who accompanies her on her trek through Chile. Nearly all the poems in the collection are addressed to the child or are dialogues with the child. The speaker's project in many of the poems is to pass on her everyday knowledge of Chilean nature to her offspring, a mentoring activity quite distinct from both romantic self-expression and scientific classification. Indeed, the verb mentar —"to name" or "to mention"—is a key term throughout the work, as Mistral's "I" names the world for the accompanying child (see, for example, "El Mar" or "Salvia").


Historicity is thus present in the Poema de Chile not in the form of canonical history (battles, treaties, dates to be commemorated) but in the "micropractices" of social reproduction through which one generation continually shapes the next. Indeed, masculine heroics are explicitly set aside in poems like "Perdiz," ["Partridge"] where the poet-mother admonishes the child for wanting to catch birds:

—¡ Ay, tienes tiempo sobrado
para hacer la villanada!
Los hombres se sienten más
hombres cuando van de caza.
Yo, chiquito, soy mujer:
un absurdo que ama y ama
algo que alaba y no mata,
tampoco hace cosas grandes
de ésas que llaman "hazañas."

[—Ah, you have plenty of time
to make mischief!
Men feel more
manly when they go hunting.
I, little one, am a woman:
an absurdity who lives and loves
something that praises and does not kill,
nor does great things
of the kind they call "deeds."]

Equally, Mistral's engagement with Chile in the poem is not played out in any of the fraternal imaginings Anderson identifies with nationalism. There is no imagined community in Mistral's poem, only the national territory naturalized as an ecological entity, and a concrete maternal (not fraternal) relation. Though there is patriotism in the work, then, there are no politics, at least in conventional senses of that term.

Though Mistral's relation with her child interlocutor is one of dominance in which the poet-mother has authority, her addressee is anything but the silent recipient of her words. Their relation is dialogic, conflicted, continuously challenged—as in the poem just quoted—by the contentious, querying child. At times, it is quite unclear who is leading whom (see, for example, "A veces, Mamá, te digo" or "Boldo"). Mistral's mother-child dyad is in many ways true to life, capturing vividly the experience of women who move through their days from task to task in the company of a small child. At the same time, Mistral's dyad contrasts markedly with stereotypes of the mother-child pair: the silent motionless icon of Mary and the baby Jesus, both parties looking outward with no possibility of dialogue between them; the endlessly mobile Llorona, who, unlike Mistral's ghost mother, is moving in search of, not in company with, her children. In effect, Mistral puts republican motherhood in motion, generating an unusual apolitical


citizen-building project. Like Portal in the poem discussed earlier, Mistral pulls the mother-child dyad out into the street and makes it into a locus of social agency, power, and consciousness. Unlike Portal's poem, however, criollo racial hierarchy remains in place in the Poema de Chile , in the infantilized Indian dependent on the Euro-american for knowledge and understanding. This is an aspect also shared by Neruda's Canto General .

In addition to reworking established poetic stereotypes, Mistral in the Poema de Chile explicitly challenges the identification of women with the domestic. Hatred of houses is a recurrent theme in the collection, developed at greatest length in the poem "Flores" ["Flowers"]. This text opens with the child challenging his mother's habit of avoiding houses:

—No te entiendo, mamá, eso
de ir esquivando las casas
y buscando con los ojos
los pastos o las mollacas
¿ Nunca tuviste jardín
que como de largo pasas?

[I don't understand you, mama, this
thing of avoiding houses
and searching with your eyes
for pastures or groves
Did you never have a garden
so that you pass them right by?]

The mother replies at length: "No es que deteste las flores / es qe me ahogan las casas" [It's not that I hate flowers / but I am suffocated by houses]. Like the sinner, she says, she both loves and hates houses: "Me las quiero de rendida / las detesto de quedada" [I love them to rest in / I hate them to stay in]. She prefers "cerros y montañas" [hills and mountains] to "rosas y claveles" [roses and carnations], because "los cerros cuentan historias / y las casas poco o nada" [mountains tell stories / and houses few or none]—a clear, ironic inversion of established identifications of history with the human world.

This theme is picked up in a number of the poems, such as "A dónde es que tú me llevas" ("Where are you taking me"), in which the child wonders,

O es, di, que nunca tendremos
eso que llaman "la casa"
donde yo duerma sin miedo
de viento, rayo y nevadas.

[Or is it, tell me, that we will never have
this thing they call "home"
where I can sleep without fear
of wind, lightning or snow?]


The mother's reply is that what she seeks for her son is not a house, but racial justice and land:

Te voy llevando a lugar
donde al mirarte la cara
no te digan como nombre
lo de "indio pata rajada,"
sino que te den parcela
muy medida y muy contada.

[I am taking you to a place
where looking at your face
they do not call you
"split-footed Indian"
where they give you a piece of land
fully measured and reckoned.]

What she seeks for herself, however, is never stated. The "I" of this remarkable work remains a deracinated, dispossessed ghost in a national limbo, and at the same time a spokesperson with a sense of national identity and entitlement. Urbanization and industrialization, the realities of modernization, play no role in that mission. Not a single city, or even a town, is encountered by the wandering pair. No smokestacks or slag heaps besmirch the landscape. Modernization has no role in the future Mistral's "I" projects.

In sum, the Poema de Chile reorganizes the literary patrimony in a poetry of movement and action which is not, however, a poetry of heroics or transformation. Nationalism and amor patrio are deployed in the private domains of mother-child relations and personal reminiscence; yet these private domains are explicitly dissociated from a domestic sphere. They are transposed into an idealized outdoor world through which woman moves with freedom and authority in relations that are vertical and maternal, not horizontal and fraternal. The Chile Mistral celebrates contrasts to an extreme with Anderson's model of the modern nation. In her heart there lives no image of fraternal communion (to paraphrase Anderson), only a commitment directly to the national territory as a concrete and "natural" thing. In her Chile there is no fraternity, and in fact there are no men. It is an escapist vision of whose limits Mistral was perhaps aware when she abandoned the project in the 1940s. The image of a fully empowered female citizen was as inaccessible then as on the day she was born—more inaccessible, perhaps, than a hundred years before, when Gorriti's virgin Isabel stood up alone among the corpses of the fratricidal national brotherhood.

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