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The Politics of Female Identity in the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Gabriela Mistral

Comparative literature shows us the existence of counterpointing lines in a great composition in which difference is respected and understood without coercion. – Edward Said

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1967)  by Nathan Isaevich Altman

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1967) by Nathan Isaevich Altman

History, Antonio Gramsci suggests, leaves in us an infinity of traces through heredity, family, and collective and personal experiences, but it doesn’t provide us with an orderly guide or inventory. Our challenge then, says Gramsci, is to try to make sense of it. The most interesting of human experiences, he suggests, is the task of interpretation, the task of shaping and making sense of History in order to understand our own history in relation to other people’s, to move beyond our own experience, to transform into someone else, from a unitarian identity into an identity that includes the other, to understand oneself in relation to others and others as one understands oneself (Selections From the Prison Notebook 56).

Much groundbreaking criticism has been written on Gabriela Mistral and Anna Akhmatova. What can I tell you that you have not heard a thousand times? For a long time the poetry of these two women have been reread and reexamined independently from each other. However, there is no study that illustrates the remarkable similarities between the work and lives of these very complex and yet distinct poets. Therefore, a comparative study seems important to bring together the work of two figures, though quite different, were able to negotiate and construct through their poetry similar politics of female identity. Akhmatova and Mistral transform and transcend personal and private histories into universal themes. Their literary experimentation, the changes to the status quo their work profess, their individual experiences of history, their move away from Symbolism, their embrace of Realism, their straightforward narrative style, and their economy of language are all to compelling, and thus important objects of study. Indeed, I propose to study these elements in the light of the historical context, the philosophical and literary schools and movements that impacted both poets.

Both born in 1889, yet separated by different cultures and by the powerful traces of the different historical trajectories of Russia and Chile, Akhmatova and Mistral created ways to articulate the particularities of their lives as women of upper class Russia, the former, and Chilean working class, the latter. Mistral was born into the so-called Parliamentary Republic (1891-1925), though not a true parliamentary system, in which the chief executive was elected by the legislature. In reality, this was the heyday of classic political and economic liberalism. On her part, Akhmatova (a daughter of a rural engineer) was born at Bolshoy Fontan, near the Black Sea port of Odessa, at the end of the reign of Alexander III, Tsar of Russia (1881-1889), and into an upper class provincial family, contrasting with Mistral’s working class roots. In her conversation with Lidiia Chukovskaia, Akhmatova mentioned that her ancestors came from Russian nobility and from the Genghiz Khan, and that her grandmother, Anna Yegorovna, was the daughter of a rich landowner and a Akhmatov princess (Zapiski ob Anne Akmatovoi 176). If she was an aristocrat or not may be questionable, but what is important is that Akhmatova thought of herself as one, and this was part of her identity as a person and as a poet.

Lucila Godoy Alcayaga Known as Gabriela Mistral Chilean Poet

Lucila Godoy Alcayaga Known as Gabriela Mistral Chilean Poet

Interestingly enough, both Mistral and Akhmatova, adopted pen names, Ahmatova’s real name was Anna Andreyenna Gorenko, but changed to one of her ancestor’s last names (Khan Akhmat). Similarly, Mistral’s name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, but adopted as her pen name two of her favorite poets’, Gabriel d’Annuzio and Frédéric Mistral. Be that as it may, the history of their poetry has value and meaning independently and also presents a reflection and interpretation of the world in which Akhmatova and Mistral lived. Their work interprets and shapes the traces of their histories in an attempt to transcend their own experiences, and transform the personal/private existence into universal themes that include the other.

The twentieth century began with remarkable historical and cultural changes: two world wars, the Avant Garde, new scientific and technological achievements, the birth of psychology, among others. These changes opened the door to alternatives for Mistral and Akhmatova, particularly because the context of the times eased the way to experimentation and changes to the status quo. Not surprisingly then, the spaces opened by revolutionary trends in the arts and politics allowed Akhmatova and Mistral to create a space in Russian and Latin American poetry (worlds dominated by male authors) to express their poetic voice.

Both Mistral and Akhmatova belong to a great collective talent of the first two decades of the twentieth century. In order to express their individual experience of History, Mistral purposely moved away from Symbolism, a poetic thread that had dominated most literature, especially poetry, and it was highly embraced by Latin American’s Modernismo, a literary movement (1880-1910) characterized by tremendous creativity nuanced with emphatic rebellion, almost to a point of narcissism. On the other hand, we may have trouble identifying Akmatova as a symbolist, since she seems the ideal embodiment of Acmeism. She belonged to the postsymbolist era of Russian poetry, probably the most brilliant in its history. The acmeists were neorealists and neo-Parnassians, and it’s difficult to compare Acmeism with anything in the West, because it has no counterpart. In a few words, Acmeism was an offspring of Symbolism but without mystical assumptions, seeking a simple depiction of reality, including the human psychological phenomena. Acmeism came into being in a series of steps, the first one of which was the founding of its literary magazine Apollo by Akmatova’s fellow poet and first husband, Nikolay Gumilev. Months later, Gumilev organized the Guild of Poets, whose title suggested the idea of poetry as a craft made of words without “priestly” presumptions. Lastly, the acmeists wrote a manifesto, “Acmeism and the Heritage of Symbolism,” in which they stressed the importance of clarity and logic, as opposed to the opacity and nebulousness of mysticism. Most of Akmatova’s work is devoted to worldly subjects, but the simplicity and lucidity of her poetry may be an understatement reminiscent of Pushkin’s (whom she adored). She was a twentieth century humanist, but then again, so were all acmeists.

The enduring appeal of Symbolism began in France in the 1880’s and became a driving voice in Russia and Latin America, but by the beginning of 20th century had reached, in both countries, a moment when it was no longer capable of further development, thus creating the necessity to invent new modes of poetic expression. Under this desire for poetry as a high and exact art, Mistral and Akhmatova crafted an economy of language and means contrary to the fashion of Symbolism, almost to a level of perfection. Unlike the symbolists of the time, neither Akhmatova nor Mistral seemed interested in “other worlds” or in the obscure employment of the language to access those mystical worlds. In his translation, Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Max Hayward reminds us that “Symbolism was the expression of Russian Zeitgeist … a symptom of the age … There were many different strands, often incongruous, or conflicting: end-of-the-century decadence, Nietzscheanism, Christian mysticism …” (6). An urge to escape from oneself, society, and culture was a common thread, Hayward suggests, “escape into the past or the future, into cults … it was essentially a romantic impulse, but one that prefigured and anticipated great historical change … ” (7).

The precision of realism evident as a narrative technique in the novel is ever present in Mistral’s and Akhmatova’s poetry. Both present personal and emotional experiences employing brevity, at times, to a point of laconism. Their poems are charged with feelings. So, while the symbolists were escaping to mystical worlds, having what Hayward calls “ideological preoccupations and high-priestly pretentions,”(8) Akhmatova and Mistral were concerned with crafting a language that allowed a straightforward narrative style, a language that possessed a logic of its own, and was the basic material to create poetic artifacts. The economy of language of their verse and a conscious desire for logic in the structure of the poem, especially in syntax as a means to assure precision, are, to a great extent, the aspects that bring Akhmatova’s and Mistral’s poetry to a common ground.

“Нет, и не под чуждым небосводом, / И не под защитой чуждых крыл,-/ Я была тогда с моим народом, / Там, где мой народ, к несчастью, был.” (Ахматова, 196) (No foreign sky protected me / no stranger’s wing shielded my face. / I stand as witness to the common lot, / survivor of that time, that place.) (Kunitz, Hayward 56). These verses from Akhmatova’s “Реквием” (Requiem) (1935 and 1961) present an intense personal emotion intertwined with an almost matter-of-fact sense of being. I want to stress the importance of the sense of intimacy in Akhamatova’s poetry, especially in her poems of the 1930’s. An intimacy not at all related to erotic emotions, but rather, an intimacy in which she expresses her desperate feelings towards her son Lev Gumilev (later, he became a scholar of the Asian Prehistory, by the way), who was taken to prison by Stalin. Be that as it may, veiled behind this intimacy themes of betrayal, lie, and despair, infused Akhmatova’s poetry, not at all containing love connotations but political allusions to the Russian Revolution, and to Stalin’s Purges and his regime of terror. “Реквием” (Requiem), whose poems are dated 1935-1940, speaks for Akhmatova herself and for a nation. Chukovskaia tells us that she saw Akhmatova as a force that could transform reality, a power beyond the living person and individual identity (11). It’s no surprise that in “Реквием” (Requiem) she crafts a collective pain and despair that is intimate and yet utterly public. In a prose introduction to the poem, Akhmatova explains that the poem arose from a request from a widow, when both women were standing in a line before a prison. The other woman asked Akhmatova if she could talk about this experience, “Requiem” was the poet’s response.

In Mistral’s “La que camina” (She Who Walks) (translation by Marjorie Agosín in Gabriela Mistral Reader), intimacy no doubt presents a turn towards classicism by resemanticization of the trope of personification of nature and animals, and repeated allusions to Cassandra. Hallucination, prophecy, and raving are constant elements of the poem, but imbedded in a great simplicity of language:

Igual palabra, igual, es la que dice

y es todo lo que tuvo y lo que lleva

y por su sola sílaba de fuego

ella puede vivir hasta que quiera. …

Se va quedando sola como un árbol

o como arroyo de nadie sabido

así marchando entre un fin y un comienzo

y como sin edad o como en sueño. (Mistral, 624);

( … That same-self word is what she says,

it’s all she keeps and all she carries

and on its single syllable of fire

she can live as long as she wants.

… She grows solitary as a tree

or as a creek nobody knows.) (Agosín, 17)

It is in this experimentation with their use of language and drive for a narrative poetry that aligned both poets with the Avant Garde. Mistral, for example, is considered by some critics as radically conservative because she employed traditional themes like motherhood. Yet, when we study her poetry through the lens of linguistics and identity with the Latin American vanguard, the interplay between language and a critical reflection of identity becomes evident. An example of this interplay between language and female identity is present in “La Otra” (The Other) from her book Lagar:

Una en mí maté:

yo no la amaba.

era la flor llameando

del cactus de montaña;

era aridez y fuego;

nunca se refrescaba. (Mistral, 593);

(I killed a woman in me:

one I did not love.

she was a fiery flower

of the mountain cactus;

she was thirst and flames,

never stopping for refreshment.) (Agosín 16)

The voice granted in Latin American societies to the sorrowing woman has been employed by many writers. Mistral employs and adopts female suffering, identifying herself with the grieving woman as a mean for her own voice. In “Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva, and the Mater Dolorosa,” Margaret Bruzelious argues that Mistral assumes the role of la madre with its concomitant association with the divine power of the Virgin Mary (so revered in Catholic Latin America), connecting her (Mistral) to “a source of female authority in a male-dominated world.” (216). The role of intercessor, as voice, connects maternal speech and maternal suffering in some of Mistral’s poems, crafting a “collective” identification with female suffering. But Mistral voices female suffering from the marginal space, seemingly aware of the Virgin’s association to motherhood and womanhood (an idea so embedded in Catholic consciousness), to show the disfunctionality of women’s sorrow. Images of female despair inundate the verses in “La Otra” (The Other), identifying the poet with the other woman, becoming a voice, and like in Akhmatova’s case, a voice representative of a collective I.

Bruzelious notes that the characteristic that empower Virgin Mary are her capacity of bearing the greatest sorrows, and her “limitless fidelity and tireless devotion … ” (215). Employing penetrating intuition with words (in a world regulated by men), Mistral affirms psychological dysfunction as both a consequence and a cause of marginality and isolation. The poet seems to refer to her other self, the self that exacerbates her sense of displacement. Further in “La Otra,” she expresses: “Doblarse no sabía/ la planta de montaña,/ y al costado de ella/ yo me doblaba.” (Mistral, 593); (This mountain flower/ did not know how to bend-/ but by her side,/ I bent/) (Agosín 16). Given that one relates to others and to the world around by means of one’s own conscious self, to experience part of one’s self as an impediment suggests that something is wrong with the “conventional” sense of womanhood. Later in the same poem she writes: “La dejé que muriese,/ robándole mi entraña./ Se acabó como el águila/ que no es alimentada.” (Mistral, 594); (I allowed her to die,/ robbing her of my heart’s blood./ She perished like an eagle/ left to starve.) (Agosín 117). But maternal speech, Bruzelious argues, can only exist if validated by maternal suffering (217). And it is precisely this validation that Mistral employs to bound herself with the mariginalized other, giving tongue to the sorrowful woman.

In her personal life, Mistral went beyond the social boundaries of what was expected from a woman of her time: she was unmarried and had no children on her own. She exploits the characteristics of the Virgin that make her the perfect intercessor: she has no other children (in fact, is almost impossible to think of Mary as the mother of other children), and she has no husband (or the one she has, Joseph, is reduced to a subsidiary role). Mistral fathoms these attributes, associating herself with this “solitary” female figure, and in the process becoming a powerful voice, speaking through her poetry within her own cultural tradition. As Bruzelious suggests, for Mistral using this image “was a way to address female experience and summon to her side a cultural authority that allowed her to speak as a woman” (218). Mistral appropriates the suffering woman’s complete acquiescence, which empowers her to be a voice.

Similarly, Mistral uses the Virgin Mary’s attributes to associate them with any woman. Her central quality of suffering is not an inner subjective attribute, but an attribute defined by an exterior relation (to her son). Paradoxically, Mistral suggests a transvestite position in which she refuses to be violated by conventions and gendered categories, creating a space beyond the opposition male/female, disguised under the mask of female sorrow:

Sosegó el aletazo,

se dobló, lacia,

y me cayó a la mano

su pavesa acabada…

Por ella todavía me gimen sus hermanas,

y las gredas de fuego

al pasar me desgarran. (Mistral, 594);

(The thunder in her wings

became silent;

she fell and withered

in my hands,

final embers …

Her sisters still cry out

to me for her sake,

and a clay fire

claws me in passage.) (Agosín 118)

Mistral also creates a savvy comparison between the peasant woman and the Virgin Mary. In the poem “La mujer fuerte” (The Strong Woman) from Desolación, she parallels both women through their isolation from the putative father of their children, as well as through their purity. Female purity contrasts with the drunken image of the tavern, and woman is the image of abundance plowing the field, while bathed in a resplendent glow. As the Virgin, the peasant woman is “ a marvel, a miracle,” but she also embodies suffering, she is “a lament, a flood of tears”. In this way, Mistral presents the archetypical peasant woman, mother of earth and daughter of soil, but her suffering is that of the Virgin, without making explicit reference to her. The peasant woman is then sacralized, bestowing the poet with a powerful ability to speak, thus exalting both women’s attributes:

Me acuerdo de tu rostro que se fijó en mis días,

mujer de saya azul y de tostada frente,

que en mi niñez y sobre mi tierra de ambrosia,

vi abrir el surco negro en un abril ardiente.

Segar te vi en enero los surcos de tu hijo,

y sin comprender tuve en tí los ojos fijos,

agrandados al par de maravilla y llanto.

Y el lado de tus pies todavía besara,

porque entre cien mundanas no he encontrado tu cara

¡Y aún te sigo en los surcos la sombra con mi canto! (Mistral 756)

(I remember your face which is fixed in my days,

Blue-skirted woman with a sun-burnt face,

Who in my childhood an on my earth of ambrosia,

I saw open the black furrow in a blazing April.

In the tavern was raised the impure glass

By him who nailed a child to your breasts of lily,

And beneath that memory, for you like a brand,

The seed fell from your hand, serene.

I saw you sow in January the wheat of your son

And without understanding my eyes I fixed on you

Aggrandized to your wonder and lament.

And I would kiss the mud of your feet

Because among a hundred worldly women

I have never your face seen

And I still follow in the furrows the shadow with my song!) (Translation mine)

It is always the question of the question, of posing the compelling question of female identity at the propitious historical juncture. In Mistral’s and Akhmatova’s poetry, issues surrounding female identity are present through a conscious desire to eliminate any superfluous word. This unique poetic vision, in the time of grandiloquence and symbolism, leads both authors to create short poems of great clarity, but without compromising the imagery. Sometimes the sentences are stunningly short: In Akhmatova’s “Это твои рысьи глаза, Азия…” (Your Lunx-Eyes, Asia) (1945), the short verse actually stimulates a richness of the image and emotion: “Это рысьи глаза твои, Азия, / Что-то высмотрели во мне, / Что-то выдразнили подспудное / И рожденное тишиной… / (Ахматова, 217); (Your Lynx-Eyes, Asia, / spy on my discounter; / they lure into the light /my buried self… /) (Hemschemeyer, 23). The same occurs in Mistral’s “La desasida”(The Changed Woman): “Pero me iré cualquier día/ sin llantos y sin abrazos,/ barca que parte de noche/ sin que la sigan las otras,/ la ojeen los faros rojos/ ni se la oigan sus costas…” (Mistral, 604); (But someday I will go/ with not tears and no embraces,/ a ship that sales by night/ without the others following her,/ or the red beacons eying her,/ or her own shores hearing her…) (Couch 49). These verses show us fluidity contrary to the solidity of Symbolism.

Thus the verse becomes a direct expression of the substance of emotion and not just a metaphoric rendition. In Akhmatova’s “Он любил три вещи не свете…” (Three Things Enchanted Him) (1910) realism is the instrument of the poetic voice that presents a deep sense of resignation: “Он любил три вещи на свете: / За вечерней пенье, белых павлинов, / и стертые карты Америки. / He любил, когда плачут дети,/ Не любил чая с малиной, / И женской истерики. / … A я была его женой./ (Ахматова, 12); (Three things enchanted him: white peacocks, evensongs, / and faded maps of America. / He could not stand bawling brats, / or raspberry jam with his tea, / or womanish hysteria / … And he was tied to me.) (Kunitz, Hayward 56). As Ihor Levitsky notes, the intimacy becomes a secret bounding, between the poetic voice and the other (4). This intimacy as a secret bounding is also suggested in Mistral’s “Atardecer” (Dusk):

Siento mi corazón en la dulzura

fundirse como ceras:

son un óleo tardo

y no un vino mis venas,

y siento que mi vida se va huyendo

callada y dulce como la gacela. (Mistral, 787);

(I felt my heart melt

Like candles in the sweetness:

an oil of languor,

not wine,

fills my veins.

I feel my life fleeting

silent and sweet as a gazelle.) (Agosín 124)

As mentioned earlier, intimacy also permeates Akhmatova’s poems. As Chukovskaia notes, intimacy is a permutation of reality, which disappears behind the force of Akhmatova’s poetic voice (97). In Akhmatova’s “Последний тост” (The Last Toast) (1934) such permutation is veiled through individual loneliness:

Я пью за разоренный дом,

За злую жизнь мою ,

За одиночество вдвоем

И за тебя я пью, –

За ложь меня предавших уст,

За мертвый холод глаз,

За то, что мир жесток и пуст,

За то, что Бог не спас. (Ахматова, 193);

(I drink to my ruined home,

To my vicious life,

The loneliness spent together

And I drink to you –

To the lie of lips that betrayed me

To the deathly cold of your eyes,

To the fact that the world is rough and cruel,

To the fact that God did not save me.) (Kunitz, Hayward 18).

In Remembering Anna Akhmatova, Anatoly Nayman draws a forward comparison between both poets:

In 1963 a collection of poems by Gabriela Mistral came out in a translation by Savich, and for a time this little book [sic] was Akhmatova’s main source of reading. They were born the first year and Mistral first came to prominence in 1914. Her favorite authors were Russians … Her poetry was unexpectedly Acmeist and its tone, especially in the section called “Pain,” is surprisingly close to Akhmatova’s. (167)

Though assertive in regards to the way in which both poets might have influenced each other’s poetry, Nayman’s perspective on Mistral’s autonomy is narrow, essentializing, and lacks careful research. Mistral was influenced by the Russians, but all major world poets of the time were to a certain extent due to the spread of Russian existentialism, for one thing. But to consider Mistral “unexpectedly acmeist” is an oversight and simplification, since Mistral was infused by Latin American Modernism (concern with the reinvention and remodeling of the Spanish language). Far from being an acmeist, Mistral’s economy of language is the result of the conscious drive of the Latin American poets of the time to move away from the exaggerated ornamentation and exoticism of symbolism. Mistral also was influenced by theosophy, an alternative religion at the time that provided more freedom for women to speak themselves as human beings and not just as sexual beings. Randal Couch, in his translation of Mistral’s Locas Mujeres, states that elements of folk legend, theosophist and Christian parables, and Buddhist morality influenced Mistral (21). These elements often have “symbol-generating function that parallels the structure of parable or fable” (21). Mistral’s language is then anti-modern, a form of self-conscious archaism in which habitual associations and relations become themes. In “Los huesos de los muertos” from Desolación (The Bones of the Dead), the poetic voice suggests this association: “Los huesos de los muertos/ hielo sutil saben espolvorear/ sobre las bocas de los que quisieron./ ¡Y éstas no pueden nunca más besar! / (Locas Mujeres 11); (The Bones of the Dead are tender ice/ that knows how to crumble/ and become dust on the lips/ of the ones who loved them/ And they will never know how to kiss again!) (Couch 35).

In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva suggests that the speaking subject’s unconscious drives persist in the linguistic, psychic and societal orders. That is, the semiotic persists abjecting these rhythmic drives in the symbolic order (7). What Kristeva proposes is that the semiotic (the world of the mother) and the symbolic (that of the father) are interwoven in language and the dialectic, and this interrelation determines the discourses of narrative, theory, and poetry. The writer must embrace an identity that is not her own in order to reveal and revert the effects of patriarchy on her own psyche (8), and somewhat mediate the opposition between pre-linguistic plenitude vs. an alternative symbolic position. In Mistral’s and Ahkmatova’s work, language is primary, alive, and affirms itself in the cultural autonomy of poetry. It also creates a dialogue between the public and the personal. This dialogue suggests the power of the preverbal order of the semiotic that cannot be forbidden or repressed in the symbolic. In “La madre-niña” from Ternura, (The Mother-Child,) Mistral’s rejection of a patriarchal discourse is exposed: “Los que pasan/ igual que ayer,/ ven el patio/ con el maitén;/ miran la parra/ moscatel/ ¡y a mi niño/ no ven, no ven! (Mistral 255); (Those that go by/ the same as yesterday,/ see the courtyard/ with the maitén/ the see the muscatel/ vines/ and my child/ they don’t see, they don’t see!) (Agosín 26). On the other hand, in Akhmatova’s “Эпиграмма” (Epigram) a question is posed about a women’s ability for linguistic expression. Furthermore, the poem expresses doubt about female poetic rendition that Akhmatova herself desires to shut (1958): “Могла ли Биче словно Дант творить, / Или Лаура жар любви восславить? / Я научила женщин говорить…/ Но Боже, как их замолчать заставить!/” (Ахматова, 280); (Could Beatriche have written like Dante, / or Laura have glorified love’s pain? / I set the style for women’s speech. / God help me shut them up again!) (Kunitz, Hayward 137). Similarly, in “Музе” (The Muse) (1924) the poet suggests a strong conviction that she is above all embodiment and the only instrument of her poetic voice:

Когда я ночью ее прихода,

Жизнь, кажется, висит на волоске.

Что почести, что юность, что свобода

Пред милой гостьей с дудочкой в руке.

И вот вошла. Откинув покрывало,

Внимательно взглянула на меня.

Ей говорю: “Ты ль Данту диктовала

Страницы Ада?” Отвечает: “Я”. (Ахматова, 185);

(All that I am hangs from a thread tonight

As I wait for her who on one can command.

Whatever I cherish most – youth, freedom, glory – fades before her who bears the flute in her hand.

… ‘Are you the one,’ I ask, ‘whom Dante heard dictate / the lines of his Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’) (Kunitz, Hayward 201)

Mistral, however, seems more conscious of a need to create a dialogue between the public and the private than Akhmatova, presumably because the political spaces they occupy are distinct. That is, Akhmatova’s poetry reflects the experiences of a woman who sees herself as an aristocratic, and who sees the Russian glorious past as a way to elevate her poetry to the level of great Russian poets like Pushkin. However, Akhmatova’s poetics derive from a world of language that is symbolic, and negates the abjectivism or symbiotic brewing. Her jouissance is expressed by means of “a borrowed” language of order and law, departing from the world of the mother. What she depicts is a world semantically created by men. Yet, there are many grounds for Akhmatova’s attributions of her verses on her personal suffering, hunger, disease, communism, Russia, spiritual hurt, and nymphomania. This is in contrast to Mistral’s use of language, however, which flows from an apparent struggle that presents rupture. For example, her poetry is suffused with spiritual and religious themes, often a result of her personal beliefs. Closer examination of Kristeva’s idea in Mistral’s poetry may suggest a conscious desire to carefully craft a public image of a celibate, dutiful, heterosexual woman, a safe space to empower herself to be the “poetic representative” of those she desires to give voice to, “the voiceless” (children and women). Her voice comes from the other side, the voice that she hears in her own. In “Encargo a Blanca” from Lagar I (A Request from Blanca), Mistral expresses the idea of the poet as the people’s voice, the poet as a formulator of a world in which the weaker/the silent/the symbiotic mute can rise:

Yo no sé si podré venir.

Haber si te cumplo, hermana.

… Empínate por si me cuesta

hallémonos a media marcha,

y me llevas un poco de tierra

por que recuerde mi Posada. (Mistral, 272);

(I don’t know

if I’ll be able to visit.

We’ll see

if I can fulfill your wish, Sister.

… Rise up if I cannot make it

and we will meet half way,

and bring me a bit of earth

to remind me of my home.) (Agosín 121)

In “Hungry Wolf,” Ivonne Gordon Vailakis suggests that Mistral transgresses the patriarchal tradition by employing literary strategies to negotiate exclusion from the authoritative male tradition of the Latin American vanguard movement. “Mistral’s way to subverting this tradition,” Gordon Vailakis says, “is to use the mask as a deliberate representation and transformation of dominant social constructs – first foregrounding social constructs and then transforming them into new ones.” (115) Gordon Vailakis employs the term “mask” based on Mary Anne Doane’s idea of a mask that represents a “curious norm” containing inherent contradictions, thus “the difficulty of any concept of femininity in a patriarchal society” (115). In “La Trocada” (The Changed Woman) from Lagar, Mistral presents us with a woman that has been physically and emotionally harmed by an unknown lover. Despite her ordeal, Nature not only witnesses her transformation, but nourishes and protects her: “Así no fue como me amaron/ y camino como en la infancia/ y camino desatentada” (Mistral, 604); (This was not how they loved me/ and I walk as in childhood/ and wander now unheeding/) (Couch 128). The subject “they” is an unrevealed and abstract entity, the doer of her pain. Later, Nature saves her: “En el país de la gaviota/ del aire suyo voy llevada/ y le pregunto al que me lleva/ por qué, en bajando, fui trocada, / y me creen sobre las dunas/ en en salinas yo he sido salva” (604); (In the land of the seagull/ I’m being carried on his wind/ and I ask the one who bears me/ why, on landing, I was changed,/ and they believe me on the dunes/ and in the salt pools I’ve been saved/” (128). In the last stanza, Nature restores her innocence:

Y camino como la niña,

aprendiendo tierra mudada,

Clara patria color de leche,

lento olivar, lindas aguadas,

oyendo pido cantos no sabidos,

teniendo hermanas iguanas,

y ¡con extrañeza, con asombro,

y azoro de resucitada! (Mistral, 605);

(And I wander like a girl

learning a land transformed,

bright homeland the color of milk,

slow olive grove, lovely waters

listening I ask for unknown songs,

possessing iguana sisters

and with the strangeness, the wonder, and alarm of the resurrected.) (Couch 130)

Mistral and Akmatova bend the bow of poetry to create a sense of intimacy that brings down abstract renditions of pain and loss. The mourning that results from pain and loss is not presented in a sentimental manner but, as said before, through an extreme economy without sacrificing the imagery. This technique is perfected in their later works, in which the climax of poetic expression seems to have moved beyond moral security: the evocation of the glorious Russian past (in Akmatova’s case) and the tender didacticism of Mistral’s first works. Instead, inner turmoil and struggle are present in their later poetry, sometimes through a wired sense of humor, irony and a tragic sense of life. In Mistral’s “Locas Mujeres” (Mad Women) the heroines are strong, deeply human, and at the age of tragic circumstances that have no resolution. For example, in “Electra en la niebla” (Electra in the Mist) the poet, wearing the mask of Electra, portrays a fragmented subject, a woman who faces unimaginable conditions that prevent her from being a unitary subject, making her a “madwoman”. The poetic voice speaks through Electra’s madness: “En la niebla marina voy perdida,/ yo, Electra,/ tanteando mis vestidos/ y el rostro que en horas fue mudada./ Ahora solo soy la que ha matado./ Será tal vez a causa de la niebla/ que así me nombro por reconocerme./ (56); (In the ocean mist I wander lost,/I, Electra, fingering my garments/ and my face, for in hours I was changed./ Now I am merely one who has killed./It could be, perhaps, because of the mist/ that I take this name, to know who I am./) (Couch, 109). The same is true in “Antígona” (Antigone), in which the poet masks the heroine’s sense of abandonment, displacement and interior exile. Again, the mythological figure, Antigone in this case, serves to illustrate the experiences of women who suffer the madness of extreme suffering, the boundaries of myth, past, and personal experience dissolved, presenting female suffering as a universal: “Y ahora el viento que huele a pesebres,/ a sudor y a resuello de ganados,/ es el amante que bate mi cuello/ y ofende mis espaldas con su grito.” (45); (And now the wind that smells of mangers,/of sweat and the snorting of cattle,/ is the lower that lashes my neck/ and injures my back with his wail) (Couch 109).

The heroine accounts her decision of defying the rule of man (Creon’s decree of not allowing Antigone to bury her brother Polynices). She laments the tragedy her transgression brought on her. Mistral follows the dual logic of Hegel’s foundational dialectical reading of the play as a staging of a conflict between oppositions: masculine and feminine, public and private, and, I must add, Antigone’s inability to pluck herself out of her fate (as a sibling giving her life to bury her brother’s body, and her role in the incestuous Labdacid family) :

Iban en el estío a desposarme,

iba mi pecho a amamantar gemelos,

como Cástor y Pólux, y mi carne

iba a entrar en el templo triplicada

y a dar a dios los himnos y la ofrenda.

Yo era Antígona, brote de Edipo,

y Edipo era la Gloria de Grecia.

Caminamos los tres: el blanquecino

y una caña cascada que lo afirma

por apartarle el alacrán … la víbora,

y el filudo pedrisco por cubrirle

los gestos de las rocas malhadadas. (46);

(In summer they were going to marry me,

My breast was going to suckle twins

like Castor and Pollux, and my tripled

flesh was going to enter the temple

and give hymns and offerings to the god.

I was Antigone, scion of Oedipus,

and Oedipus was the glory of Greece.

The three of us walk: the white-haired man

and a battered cane that braces him

to push aside the scorpion … the viper

and the sharp stone, and to shield him

from the faces of the wretched rocks.) (Couch 94)

In Akmatova’s poetry, history makes no distinction between the personal and the private. The pain that a mother who has lost her child, or the sadness that two separated lovers experience is utterly private and utterly public, but it’s also part of History. Chukovskaia tells us that after one of her meetings with Akhmatova, as she walked back home, she memorized some of Akhmatova’s poems to prevent them from being lost: “I left her apartment late. I walked alone in the darkness trying to remember the poems … I had walked a sleepwalker, but instead of the moon, it was the poetry [Akhmatova’s] that had led me onward, and the world was absent.” (38).

Chukovskaia suggests that Akhmatova was a powerful living force and that something “greater” existed in her (meaning perhaps her poetry as representative of Russian greatness) (40). Chukovskaia’s implication positions Akhmatova as a voice of collective suffering through her own private despair. In “Памяти В.С. Срезневской” (To the Memory of V.S.Sreznevskaya) (1964) the opposition between private and public is mediated by the poetic voice: “Почти не может быть, ведь ты была всегда: / В тени блаженных лиц, в блокаде и в больнице, / В тюремной камере и там, где злые птицы, / И травы пышные, и страшная вода. / О, как менялось все, но ты была всегда, / И мнится, что души отъяли половину,/ Ту, что была тобой, – в ней знала я причину / Чего-то главного. И все забыла вдруг…/ (Ахматова, 299); (It almost cannot be, because you always were: / In the shadow of the blessed linden, in the siege and in the hospital, / In the prison cell and there, where there were evil birds… / As it seems that if they cut away half my soul, / The half that was you-…)( Hemschemeyer 495)

In the same way, Mistral’s allusions to female mythological characters, like Antigone or Electra, serve to universalize (female) pain and displacement, (a pain that transcends limits of myth and reality, past and present). It is also worth noting that in Akhmatova’ series of poems dedicated to male heroes and historical figures, memory is an image of immortality, a means to animate death. In “Александр в Фивах” (Alexander in Thebes) (1961) memory brings the hero back to us: “Все, все предать огню! И царь перечислял / И башни, и врата, и храмы – чудо света, / Как будто для него уже иссякла Лета, / Но вдруг задумался и просветлев, сказал:/ ‘Ты только присмотри, чтоб цел был Дом Поэта.’/” (Ахматова, 276); (To be sure, he was frightening and ferocious, the young king, / When announced: ‘You will annihilate Thebes.’ / … But suddenly he became thoughtful, and, brightening, / said: / ‘Just be sure that the House of the Poet is spared.’) (Hemschemeyer, 488).

In Akhmatova’s poetry, pain circulates universally, unifying humanity. This attribute of her poetry parallels Chukovskaia’s idea of Akhmatova as an embodiment of a collective other, Akhmatova as a catalyst for a text that has much to say about Russian’s pain, as well as the author’s own pain. For example, in her poems referring to past historical figures, the pain experienced by Macbeth or Dostoevsky is analogous to the pain that Russians experienced during the regimes of terror that struck the country during the Russian Revolution. In several of the sections of “Реквием” (Requiem), this democratizing nature of human pain is always present. In the section of the poem entitled “Посвящение” (Dedication) the tone stresses the agony of a collective entity:

Перед этим горем гнутся горы,

Не течет великая река,

Но крепки тюремные затворы,

А за ними “каторжные норы”

И смертельная тоска.

Для кого-то веет ветер свежий,

Для кого-то нежится закат –

Мы не знаем, мы повсюду те же,

Слышим лишь ключей постылый скрежет

Да шаги тяжелые солдат.

(Ахматова, 196-197);

(Mountains bow down to this grief,

Mighty rivers cease to flow,

But the prison gates hold firm,

…For someone a fresh breeze blows,

For someone the sunset luxuriates –

We wouldn’t know, we are those who everywhere

Hear only the rasp of the hateful key.) (Hemschemeyer 385)

The poetic voice is a collective voice, the voice of the Russian people, all the multitudes without exception who experienced the terror: “Это было, / когда улыбался / Только мертвый спокойствию рад. / И ненужным привеском болтался / Возле тюрем своих Лениград. /” (Ахматова, 197); (That was when the ones who smiled / were the dead, glad to be at rest. / And like a useless appendage, Leningrad / Swung from its prisons /) (Hemschemeyer, 387). In “Angels in the Stalinist House” Sarah Pratt suggests that alterity functions as the reader finds herself in her relations with Akhmatova , and the “Word” represented by Akhmatova (165). It’s relevant to clarify that the Word here is constituted as a primary or possibly the primary, aspect of reality (165). What Pratt expresses is that the nightmarish of Stalinism diminished the sense of reality, but that sense of reality is somewhat restored in Akmatova’s poetry, becoming something real beyond a doubt, and though her poems of the Stalin’s period represent that nightmare of reality, they represent something certain and trustworthy amidst all the uncertainty (165).

With somber tone the entire poem speaks on behalf of the people, but yet it remains private and personal, the boundaries of past and present, private and public, are blurred in almost all the sections of “Реквием” (Requiem):

Тихо льется тихий Дон,

Желтый месяц входит в дом.

Входит в шапке набекрень.

Видит желтый месяц тень.

Эта женщина больна,

Эта женщина одна.

Муж в могиле, сын в тюрьме,

Помолитесь обо мне. (Ахматова, 198);

(Mountains bow down to this grief,

Mighty rivers cease to flow,

But the prison gates hold firm,

… For someone a fresh breeze blows,

For someone the sunset luxuriates-

We wouldn’t know, we are those who everywhere

Hear only the rasp of the hateful key.) (Hemschemeyer 385)

In order to address the sense of displacement and distortion of reality that accompany war times and terror vis-à-vis the discourses of poetry, Pratt suggests that this collective otherness establish the poet’s identity within the confines of wartime, one among many people from all walks of life caught in terror and siege (167).

Let me finish but suggesting that a thin and permeable membrane falls to separate the poetic discourse of Anna Akhmatova and Gabriela Mistral, an aporia of the time and space in which these two poets lived. The counter pointing lines that connect their poetry, transcend the geopolitical realities of their time, and become depoliticized themes that moderate culturally opposite renditions of love, pain, loss, and female identity. The poetry of Mistral and Akhmatova presents not only their own experiences within the flow of their respective histories, but also returns us to the memory and forgetting of the past in order to help us make sense, as Gramsci suggested, of the disorderly aspects of History.

* * * * *

María Patricia Napiorski is an associate professor at Appalachian State University. Her research includes comparative literature by female authors (Latin American and Europe). She teaches U.S. Hispanic Literature, contemporary Latin American literature and film. She has published a number of articles, a monograph and a novel. She is currently working on her book, a comparative literary analysis between female Hispanic poets and European female poets. Publications: Articulación de la identidad hispana a través de procesos y prácticas nacionales vis-à-la política de Border Crossing en el discurso de Latinas en los Estados Unidos; Three entries in The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Latino Literature; “Spanioshing the English Language: Linguistic Overflow I the Poetry of Julia Alver and Victor Fernandez Cruz;” “Two Female Voices in the World of Poetry (Mistral and Akhmatova)” @ Moscow State Universtiy;” “The Politics of Border Crossing: Towards a Transnacional Encounter in the Work of Maria Luisa Garza;” “Desarticulación de las estructuras del poder dictatorial: el personaje femenino y una (re)lectura de Antígona en In the Time of the Butterflies;” “Transgresión y (re)articulación del arquetipo de la madre/esposa en Arráncame la vida de Ángeles Mastretta;” “Hacia una propuesta andrógena en La Plaza del Diamante de Mercè Rodoreda;” “Entre la maternidad y el erotismo: lucha por la integración de esta escisión del género en el arquetipo de la madresposa;” “Representatividad y Heterogeneidad en Hasta no verte Jesús mío de Helena Poniatowska.”

* * * * *

Works Cited

Agosín, Marjorie. Trans. Gabriela Mistral Reader. NY: White Pine Press, 1993.

Ахматова, Анна. Сочинения в двух томах. Москва: Издательство “Правда,” 1990.

Bruzelious, Margaret. “Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva, and the Mater Dolorosa.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 18.2 (1999): 215-233.

Chukovskaia, Lidiia. Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi. Vol. 1. Moscow: Kniga, 1989

Couch, Randal. Trans. Mad Women. By Gabriela Mistral. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008.

Gordon Vailakis, Ivonne. “The Hungry Wolf.” Gabriela Mistral the audacious traveler. Ed.

Marjorie Agosín. Ohio U P, 2003. P. 113-131.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections From the Prison Notebook. Eds & Trans. Quintin Hare and

Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971.

Kunitz, Stanley, Max Hayward. Trans. Poems of Akhmatova. Boston: Houghton Miffin Books,


Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Tras. León Roudiez. New York:

Columbia UP, 1982.

Levitsky, Ihor. “The Poetry of Anna Ahkmatova” Books Abroad 39.1 (1965): 4-9.

Mistral, Gabriela. Obras Completas. Ed. Margaret Bates. Madrid: Aguilar, 1964.

—. Locas Mujeres. Santiago: LOM Ediciones, 2003.

Nayman, Anatoly. Remembering Anna Akhmatova New York: Henry Holt Books, 1989.

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Trans. Judith Hemschemeyer. Boston: Canongate

Press, 1992.

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