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Listening to the Lost, Speaking for the Dead:

Speculative Elements in the Poetry of Gabriela Mistral

by Lisa M. Bradley

In Gabriela Mistral’s poem “The Sleepless Woman,” the narrator lies in bed listening to a ghost climb up and down the stairs all night, every night. Despite the suffering he causes her, the sleepless woman tries to help the ghost:

When the night thickens
and what is upright reclines,
and what is ruined rises up,
I hear him climb the stairs.
No matter that they don’t hear him
and I’m the only one to sense it.

…From my bed I help him
with what breath is left me
so that he won’t hunt groping
and hurt himself in the darkness.

Gabriela Mistral sensed what others could or would not, whether it was the anguish of her dead son or of Chile’s marginalized populations. Mistral channeled these perspectives into her poetry, but to achieve literary success, the Chilean poet had to craft a nonthreatening public persona. It is no coincidence that some of Mistral’s most famous poems portray women struggling to perform their roles under impossible conditions.

Mistral (1889–1957) won acclaim at age twenty-five, when “The Sonnets of Death,” written after an ex-lover’s suicide, captured first prize in a national competition. Mistral refused, supposedly out of modesty, to accept her award in person, thus establishing her persona as humble schoolmarm. In 1945, Mistral was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She remains the only female Latin American to be so honored.

Despite this early recognition, Mistral’s strongest work appears in her final collection, Lagar. The first section of Lagar (usually translated as Winepress) is “Locas Mujeres.” The “Madwomen” series portrays women in extremis: “strong, intensely human beings confronting situations to which no sane response exists.” [2]

It would be foolish to resist an autobiographical reading of these depictions. Mistral operated with “acute consciousness of the small number of authoritative positions from which she—as a woman in a male-controlled literary and political culture and as a product of the rural middle class—might speak.” [3] And yet she felt compelled to speak: “I write poetry because I cannot disobey the impulse, it would be like blocking a spring surging up in my throat.” [4] Part of this compulsion must have stemmed from Mistral’s feeling that she was writing not only for herself, but for all women, as well as for children, the uneducated, and the rural poor.

And so, a schoolteacher from the age of fifteen, Mistral cultivated a persona that helped her achieve recognition as journalist and poet. She parlayed this professional respect into diplomatic authority, working on educational reform in Mexico, acting as Chile’s consul to numerous countries, helping to found UNICEF, and serving on the UN Committee for the Rights of Women.

Navigating these varied social spheres exacted a heavy emotional toll, one magnified by backlash from Chileans who sent “hate mail, calling her Communist, deserter of her country, lazy writer, even lesbian...What hurt perhaps most was the accusation of being rich.” [5] Thus, to avoid any conflation of the poet and her subjects would be disingenuous.

I. The Sleepless Woman

The narrator of “The Sleepless Woman” never actually calls her nightly guest a ghost. Perhaps the closest she comes is referring to him as a memory: “tell his memory not to climb / so he can sleep and I can sleep.” She is, however, the only person in the house to hear him, and she admits he makes no audible sound: “The stairtreads of mute wood / ring out to me like crystal.”

Perhaps calling her guest a ghost would minimize or distort the truth. The narrator complains, “The vagabond who meets him / makes the tale into a fable.” It is only in this incarnation, as the fabled bogeyman, that we “see” the guest: “He scarcely carries flesh / is hardly what he was, / and a look from his eyes / freezes some and others burns.” [6] Clearly the guest’s firsthand, auditory presence is distressing. But this secondhand presentation is both worse and weakened. Ghastly as a moldering skeleton might be, it is easy to dismiss as standard ghost story trappings.

In the typical ghost story, the supernatural intrudes on the natural world. But the sleepless woman is not dealing with an intrusion. Her house “endures his body / like a flame that twists around it.” In this reversal of standard hearth imagery, what once contained “him” now is surrounded by him. The flame, once a symbol of comfort and nurturing, threatens to burn and engulf. The woman feels “the heat from his face / —a glowing brick—” against her door. Again, an object of domestic comfort—the hot brick that warms a cold bed—takes on a threatening aspect.

By day, the woman practices in front of a mirror, rehearsing the words that might convince her guest to disappear like her breath does from the glass. [7] But at night she is transfixed, listening to his endless procession and recession. She calls him “a jellyfish lifted on the waves.” [8] And, despite the fright they give swimmers, jellyfish belong in the waves. Likewise, the description of her front door “tall and red as a bonfire!” implies that the house—a metonym for the woman inside—attracts the restless guest. Her guest is not at fault, but his presence is torture, for himself and the woman.

Eleven years before Lagar was published, Mistral’s son, Juan Miguel Godoy, committed suicide. He was seventeen. After a politically (perhaps racially) charged altercation with other youths, Juan Miguel swallowed arsenic. Mistral watched him die. Her grief must have been compounded by memories of other suicides by friends and loved ones. Mistral believed her son appeared to her after his death. Their conversation convinced her Juan Miguel was in peace in heaven, but her grief persisted.

It is easy to imagine the sleepless woman as Mistral and her guest as Juan Miguel. But to call him a ghost would indeed minimize the truth. Mistral invokes this speculative element only to establish the much greater horror of human loss.

II. The Farm Woman

In “The Farm Woman,” an unnamed woman performs her daily chores:

For nobody she plants lilac
or prunes the azaleas
and carries water for nobody
in her looking-glass pails.

The woman seems trapped in an infinite loop. Only keep-away games with “someone who gives no shade / though he’s taller than her head” and the occasional dream relieves her domestic regime. Whatever humor we might read into the lines “She opens the gates though no one calls, / when no one comes in, she shuts them” is soon dispelled by the narrator’s entreaties:

scatter salt where she sows,
bury her tools of iron.

Make her sleep; put her to sleep
like a civet or an ermine.
When she sleeps, lower her arm
and cast her dream to the wind.

Readers discover the farm woman has been abandoned by Death. All her kin are dead, but she lives on. Perhaps drunken, demented Death lost her death in a poker game suggests the narrator. The macabre humor fits into a long tradition in horror, but Mistral may also have used humor to mitigate accusations of self-pity.

Wind and Archangel, her namesakes,
delivered to her door
the death of all her loved ones
without delivering hers.

Gabriela Mistral is a pseudonym. The poet’s given name was Lucila Godoy. Mistral refers to a regional wind and is the surname of one of Mistral’s poetic influences. Gabriel is a Christian archangel and the name of another literary hero.

By attributing Death’s dirty work to a wind and an archangel, Mistral suggests that she is the farm woman and her pseudonym flagged down Death’s underlings. When she wrote this poem, she had already lost her son, mother, and half-sister, leaving her “with no ‘bond to sect, party, or even clan.’” [9] Mistral also mourned three friends who had committed suicide and her longtime advocate and friend Pedro Aguirre Cerda (then-president of Chile), who died suddenly from tuberculosis. By sacrificing her birth name, the poem implies, Mistral eluded Death. Yet the coup was far from triumphant. However necessary her pseudonym may have been, Mistral clearly felt that, by using it, she forfeited her connection with loved ones.

III. Electra in the Mist

In Aeschylus’s Oresteia, which Mistral studied extensively while writing “Electra in the Mist,” King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to obtain a favorable wind that secures his side’s victory in the Trojan War. Queen Clytemnestra cannot forgive him and, with her lover, Aegisthus, murders Agamemnon. Clytemnestra’s daughter Electra then turns against her and implores Orestes (Electra’s long-absent brother) to avenge their father’s death by killing Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Once Orestes slays them, he flees, presumably abandoning Electra to whatever justice can be found in her mother’s home. Aeschylus too discards Electra, choosing instead to depict the hardships of Orestes, who is chased by the Furies until a divine court settles the affair.

Mistral’s first-person poem posits that Orestes and Electra fled together but were separated before the poem begins: “Orestes, I don’t know your course or your road. / If tonight you were here at my side, / I would hear your soul, and you mine.” Like Aeschylus’s Electra, Mistral’s version was offstage for Clytemnestra’s murder, but she feels the burden of vengeance as if she too dealt killing blows.

In Mistral’s poem, rather than blood-scenting Furies, it is Clytemnestra who manifests as a heavy fog,[10] who pursues the killers. Electra asks:

Could it be that the milk she gave us
still drips from her breast, and always will,
and that this salt the wind bears
comes not from the sea air, but from her milk?

Later, Electra suggests a more sinister explanation:

She was a woman alone in one lone palace
and now she’s a mist-albatross, mist-road,
a mist-sea, a mist-village, a mist-ship.
And though she killed and was dead, she walks
more agile and lighter than in her body
and so we spend ourselves without tiring her.

But the most terrible speculation in this poem is only hinted at. Several times Electra implores Orestes to find her or meet her somewhere. She assures herself Orestes is merely taking a shortcut or that some metamorphosis has occurred: “Perhaps the mist is your breath and my paces / are yours...”; “I’m mist that flows without seeing / or you’re mist that flows without knowing.” Electra’s doubts grow, though her fear remains too horrible to brooch directly: “But why do you walk so quietly / and go beside me without a word, / your step unsteady and your profile hazy...?”

Did the siblings flee together? Or is Electra alone? Is she in a true fog, or a metaphorical one? Is she lost in Attic Hellas or within her guilt-stricken mind? Is she a real person or a ghost—or merely an offshoot of Orestes’s identity?

At poem’s end, Electra says, “Orestes, brother, you’ve fallen asleep / walking or else you remember nothing / for you don’t answer.” Electra may continue to wonder, but the reader cannot. Despite all questions and supplication, Orestes never answers. Electra is, in fact, alone. No doubt Mistral could identify with such emotional isolation.

IV. Further Reading

Gabriela Mistral employed speculative themes in other poems—sometimes explicitly, as in “The Shaggy Woman,” “Cassandra,” and “The Death-Girl,” other times with the indirection that distinguishes poetry. Genre readers wishing to explore her work can start with Lagar, specifically the “Locas Mujeres” poems. Several translations (of varying completeness) make the poems accessible even to readers not fluent in Spanish.


Gabriela Mistral, Selected Poems, transl. Paul Burns and Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres. 2006. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.

Madwomen: The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral, ed. and transl. Randall Couch. 2008. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, transl. Ursula Le Guin. 2003. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Agosin, Marjorie, ed. 1993. A Gabriela Mistral Reader, transl. Maria Giachetti. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, translations are from Randall Couch’s Madwomen.

[2] Couch, p. 2.

[3] Couch, p. 3.

[4] Letter quoted by Couch, p. 17.

[5] Burns and Ortiz-Carboneres, p.18.

[6] Le Guin’s translation is dramatically different: “The moment he puts on his flesh / he becomes all he was, / and the gaze of his eyes / now freezes and now burns.” The difference between being a barely fleshed shadow of himself (in Couch’s version) and an empowered reincarnation (Le Guin’s) may arise from the ambiguity of apenas, which Couch reads as a matter of degree and Le Guin seems to interpret as a time reference. I prefer Couch’s translation, because it puts the lie to the vagabond’s fable.

[7] This is my interpretation of the text. Couch offers: “The next day I rehearse in vain / with my cheeks and my tongue, tracing the blanket of haze / on the mirror in the stairwell.” Le Guin translates the lines as, “Next day I try in vain to trace / with my cheek and tongue / the outlines of the dim blur / on the staircase mirror.” Mistral’s use of repaso implies a recursive activity; the tracing of the blur suggests capturing something amorphous (like a ghost) until it fades.

[8] Le Guin’s translation. Couch retains medusa in his translation, but in Spanish the word is the standard signifier for jellyfish. The mythic connotations are attributable to the language itself, not Mistral’s artistry. Granted, Mistral could have used a different, perhaps more scientific or specific, term, but that would have violated her preference for provincial (as pertains to region), authentic language.

[9] Letter quoted by Burns and Ortiz-Carboneres, p. 17.

[10] Le Guin uses the title “Electra in the Fog.” Fog does make the extent of the character’s blind groping more believable.

Lisa Bradley's work has appeared in venues as diverse as Mothering and Brutarian Quarterly, Cicada and ChiZine. She reads Spanish better than she speaks it, but frequently uses Tex-Mex in her writing (and her cursing). You can read her poetry in the upcoming issue of Goblin Fruit or at her blog, where she recently completed her poem-a-day project: