Stone Telling

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Litanies in the Dark

by Lisa M. Bradley

Swiss-born Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni (1892-1938) was the first woman accepted into the Buenos Aires intellectual community and “more often than not was the only female present at their gatherings.” [1] Despite her inclusion, Storni's relationships with her male colleagues were often less than convivial. Even ostensibly well-educated men, such as Jorge Luis Borges, reacted badly to her “controversial feminism, her indomitable honesty, and her barbed wit.” [2] Storni responded to these dismayed, dismissive colleagues with the same perseverance that carried her through the many trials of her personal life.

Storni's Italian-Swiss parents lived in Argentina before her birth and returned there when she was four. Because of her family's economic misfortunes, Storni worked from the age of 11. She paid the rent by age 12. She also began writing at age 12, although she had to steal forms from the post office to use as writing paper. At age 14, she worked in a factory. When she was 15, she left home to tour the country with a theater company.

About a year later, Storni returned home to pursue her teaching degree. To support herself, she worked in the chorus of a somewhat disreputable theater, which, when discovered by the school staff, caused a brief scandal. She recovered and attained her degree but later had to resign only months into a teaching position because she was pregnant and unmarried. The father of her child is believed to have been an older, married, socially prominent man in town. To escape the gossip, she moved to Buenos Aires with her infant son. There she fought less-qualified men for various jobs while assembling her first collection, La Inquietud del Rosal (The Restlessness of the Rosebush).

Her debut was “characterized by sexual candor, transgressive humor, and a defiance of the patriarchy.” [3] Even today, readers may find the honesty in Storni's poem “La Loba” (The She-Wolf) innervating:

I have a son, the outcome of love without marriage,
For I couldn't be like the others, another ox
With its neck in a yoke; I hold my proud head high! [4]

A good number of women predisposed to sympathize with Storni as a female poet instead felt insulted. Meanwhile, the critics (primarily men) were alarmed by Storni's temerity “to speak and publicly express her desires, her feelings, and ideas.” [5] Storni further provoked critics by refusing to follow any established ideological or artistic movement. And when an employer demanded that she stop writing her shocking poetry or be fired, she quit.

Perhaps in response to such pressures, Storni forged a friendship with another female luminary of the Latin American poetry world: Gabriela Mistral. Storni's relationship with Mistral is intriguing because of the contrast in personalities: Gabriela, the strategic, self-protective poet who crafted a schoolmarm persona to curry professional favor and died of pancreatic cancer in her sixties; and Alfonsina, the theatric, enfant terrible who flouted convention at every turn and committed suicide at age 46 when her breast cancer returned.

Despite written correspondence beginning in 1920, the women did not meet face to face until 1926. Nevertheless, Storni dedicated a poem to Mistral: “Letanias de la Tierra Muerta” appeared in Storni's collection Languidez in 1920 (“Litanies of the Dead Earth,” Languor). Later, Mistral's first collection, Desolacion, included a poem dedicated to Storni: “Poema del Hijo” (“Poem of the Son,” Desolation, 1922).

Although Storni was not a speculative poet, per se, “Letanias de la Tierra Muerta” describes a spent, postapocalyptic world familiar to most readers of cautionary science fiction. Likewise, the anthropomorphizing of earth, sea, and stars is a natural mode for fans of folkloric fantasy.

It's interesting that Storni felt the need to range into speculative territory with this poem. Perhaps sexism pushed her in this direction. She and her female cohorts were already portrayed as quasi-mythical beasts: angelic beauties more notable for their feminine charms than their craft (Delmira Agustini, an Uruguayan poet and hero of Mistral and Storni's) or impertinent trolls who disrupted the “natural” order of things (Storni herself). Describing a dystopian future allowed Storni to condemn the status quo and what she considered its inevitable results. Anthropomorphizing nature allowed her to describe a different, “more natural” order that included women artists.

The poem begins with an exceptionally dark “Once upon a time.”

There will come a day when the human race
will have dried up like a dead vine,

and the ancient sun will be
like the useless ashes of a burned torch...

the dead earth, like a blind eye,
will go on turning without peace forever...

In Storni's premonition, the earth resembles a zombie: dead but doomed to keep moving until it falls apart. The blind-eye simile hints at an emerging theme of tragic missed signals, which I shall discuss later. For now, note how Storni further blurs the distinction between living and dead with her description of that dead-but-spinning earth:

All alone, with her favorite creatures
exhausted and sleeping in her womb.

(Like a mother who goes on even though she has
the poison of dead children in her womb.)

This stillborn imagery also appears in Mistral's “Poema del Hijo.” [6] That poem's narrator once yearned for a child, but now claims to be relieved not to have borne a child with her unfaithful lover: “blessed my womb in which my lineage dies!” Like “Letanias,” Mistral's poem blurs the line between death and sleep, the narrator imagining “a baby with my tired mouth/ my bitter heart and my defeated voice.”

In Storni's poem, further paradoxes unfold. We are told the buried humans are sleeping, like dead children. But we learn that, beneath the soil, the humans join hands. All of them, “Blacks, yellows, browns,/ whites, malays, mestizos...”,[7] bemoan the wars, materialism, and slander that doomed their existence. The sleeping-but-not humans rue their lost cities, from the “seductive palaces of Spain” to the “hidden caves of Eskimos.” Post-cataclysm, all cities are ruins. The humans also pine for the beauty of nature, for now the sea is a block of ice and the moon may be mistaken for a mausoleum.

The humans “moan in a sad chorus” but seem unable to change their lot. Their repeated mea culpas can be read as litanies: formulaic appeals with a predictable (non)response from the universe. Other litanies come from the abandoned sea:

it will dream of ships and waves... will create illusions on the beach with the moon...

...will want to open its mouths
to swallow rocks and men,

to hear the horrible screams
of shipwrecked sailors...

Whereas the earth spins on, stolid in its persistence, the sea yearns for interaction, for the rhythm of creation and destruction it once enjoyed with humans. It recites its verses and waits with increasing impatience for a response from its creative opponent. [8]

In this cold, dark landscape, only a single statue of a woman stands as a reminder of “the brief flash of humanity.” The sole remaining artwork is a figural representation of a human. Storni describes the statue as

The last refuge of that form
made in God's image,

that form in which God, overcome by its subtlety,
found beauty without knowing it.

Remember the blind-eye simile and note the repeated theme here. The buried humans did not properly appreciate (“see”) the beauty of their natural and engineered worlds. Likewise, Storni explains, God did not perceive the beauty he'd created when he made humans (specifically, one might conclude, women).

A passing star sees the statue and wonders:

“Who is this statue of a woman who dares
to move by herself through a dead world?”

The reader might wonder, too. Is the statue Mistral? Storni? An amalgam? After all, both poets were women who dared to move independently through the world. It is unclear from the text whether the statue represents a real woman or an idealization, but in either case, the statue memorializes human (notably female) attributes that an artist wished to make last. The star feels a powerful attraction to this icon:

And it will love her by celestial instinct
until she falls at last from her pedestal.

The lovestruck star then attempts to bring the earth back to life.

...O tired earth
dream for a moment of spring!

Absorb me for an instant: I am
the universal soul which changes and never rests...

The star doesn't try to recover the statue itself, so the “celestial instinct” seems to be a sympathetic response: more important than the statue (or any particular artwork or artist, Storni implies) is the artistic impulse, that desire to immortalize what we find beautiful, what we love. The star clearly shares the creative instinct to immortalize love. It does not want a fellow lover to be extinguished.

Why doesn't the star seek out the human who made the statue? Perhaps the star cannot see the buried humans. Seeing only the external, the star might think the earth was the artist. The poem's previous examples of perceptual failure do not bode well for the true creator of the statue.

The star, acting in good faith, attempts to share its essence with the snuffed earth. The star's essence is mutable and restless, like the artistic process itself. Sadly, the spectre Storni portrays is of human destruction taken so far there is no recovery. Another set of litanies unfurls, this one between the star and the trapped humans:

How they will move beneath the earth,
those dead who are closed inside her womb!

How they will push toward the divine light
wanting to fly toward what enlightens them!

As it turns out, the dead are too long gone, too far buried beneath layers of dirt and time.

Defeated and stacked together
they will not be able to leave their ancient nests,

And to the call of a passing star
no one will be able to cry: I love!

It is not “I think, therefore I am” or even “I create, therefore I am” implies Storni, but “I love, therefore I am.” Because art, like mortals, can be destroyed, what matters—what seems to trigger the star's celestial instinct—is the continual striving to preserve the beloved from death. Without that striving, we have the zombie-like planet revolving in sullen silence; we have the sea mourning for its opponent; we have stillborn humanity.

Thus the deepest tragedy is not the crumbling statue, the wrecked city, the doused earth, or the loss of any particular life. It is that missed connection. Buried in the earth it has killed, humanity cannot declare its love. Just as God missed the subtle beauty of humanity (made in the Creator's image) and just as humanity squandered its better, creative nature, the star abandons earth, unaware the humans even exist, let alone that it has roused these kindred spirits only to abandon them.

At poem's end, alone and artless, humanity recites its litanies in the dark. This is the path we are on, Storni warns. This is the future that awaits us if we do not change the status quo. We need to embrace our better natures, see the purpose of art, and get on with the work of preserving the people and things we love as best we can.


[1] Freeman, p. ii

[2] Menes, p. iii.

[3] Menes, p. ii.

[4] All translations of Storni's poems cited here are by Jim Normington, from Freeman 1987.

[5] Galan and Gliemmo quoted by Menes, p. ii.

[6] Translated excerpts of Mistral's “Poema del Hijo” are from Le Guin 2003.

[7] Ellipses in original, presumably an aposiopesis attempting to reflect the innumerable variety of human races.

[8] I'd be remiss not to mention Storni's nearly lifelong affinity for the sea. She wrote numerous poems about it, lived alongside it, and eventually killed herself within it.


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

Freeman, Marion, ed. 1987. Alfonsina Storni, Selected Poems. Fredonia, NY: White Pine Press.

Horan, Elizabeth, and Doris Meyer, eds. 2003. This America of Ours: The Letters of Gabriela Mistral and Victoria Ocampo. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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

Menes, Orlando Ricardo. 2009. My Heart Flooded with Water. Selected Poems by Alfonsina Storni. Pittsburgh: Latin American Literary Review Press.

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 current issue of Goblin Fruit or at her blog, where she recently completed her poem-a-day project: