Tribute to Gariela Mistral

March 23, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

More than ten years ago, when my thesis advisor asked me to translate some of Gabriela Mistral's poetry, I had never heard of her. But I am ever so grateful because Mistral's writings have had a profound impact on my life. Growing up in rural Chile, Mistral was mostly self-taught. She then became a schoolteacher in her late teens. Having served a small community, Mistral began publishing and eventually left Chile and moved around the world as educator, ambassador and human rights advocate. Her mestiza background as well as her understanding of children and poverty made her an incredibly powerful voice. She also wrote with precision. In 1945, she became the first Latin American author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the fifth female. And yet, she is seldom read or heard of in English. I understand that we have an astounding amount of quality contemporary literature being produced, and yet, I firmly believe that there are voices from the past who should not be lost. In my mind, Mistral has been marginalized for two reasons. First, I feel that being female affects her reception. Second, she left Chile and never really returned. I think that being a female poet in the beginning of the 20th century, coupled with the fact that she was continually moving, negatively affected her posterity.

In 2003, Ursula Le Guin published a selection of Mistral's poetry. In the introduction, Le Guin wrote, “I do want to talk about her [Mistral's] current obscurity, for she was a famous poet in her lifetime. One would expect a Nobel Prize winner to be well represented in English.... It is not a problem of language, or a North-South problem. Mistral's work is only partly accessible even in Chile. Her roving life left her works curiously dispersed. The four books of poetry published during her lifetime came out in New York, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.... The problem of Mistral's reputation also has something to do with, alas, gender. Having been adulated as a poetess, she is not read as a poet.” In other words, we cannot celebrate her works with equal fervor to, say, a poet like Neruda, who has become known as the “people's poet”. It's not a contest between one poet or another, but I would argue that both have added great value to society. Mistral's contributions include voices for children and poor that were unheard before her poems. She also discussed indigenous issues. She interacted on a diplomatic level as well as a literary level. Since she is one of Neruda's teachers, I would argue that she is the first “people's poet”.

Mistral vividly discusses nature, youth, age and loss. She adeptly responds to a wide variety of crises, and in multiple languages. Considering that her formal education ended at age twelve, she never ceased to educate herself. An ability to educate oneself combines external and internal resources. In other words, Mistral was able to take advantage of the flourishing culture within Chile, but also proves that she had an incredibly able mind. She read literally everything that she could. Additionally, she traveled as much as possible, gaining experience and insight from each position. I sincerely hope that we continue to honor voices like these, regardless of gender. Voices who reflect humanity, empathy and power. In celebration of her voice and her ethics, here are a few lines as translated by Ursula Le Guin from Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, (2003).

From "El Reparto" ("Sharing Out")

If a woman born blind

were here by me

I'd say to her softly, softly,

in a voice full of dust,

– Sister, take my eyes. ...


And take my knees, too,

if yours have been

shackled and stiffened

by the snow and cold. ...


If I can end used up,

shared out like a loaf,

scattered south and north,

I'll never be one again.


I'll be disburdened

in a pruning of branches

that fall away, dropping

from me as from a tree.


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On Tinkers

October 6, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Myth is what happens to a strong belief once the belief has changed. In other words, what was once firm belief, turns into cultural story and entertainment. They become important narratives, but not necessarily belief systems. For example, we know who Zeus is, but I doubt that anyone believes the story of Leda and the Swan. (I say that with some hesitation because one could argue that the story is really about transformation, and that that particular myth represents the idea of change. I do concede that change is indisputable.) My point is, rather, that at one time, a society upheld Zeus as a supreme being and now we anthologize those representations into myth as opposed to religious texts. These stories often address the uncertainty of change or new beginnings. They analogize situations for which we have no data and no real coherent answer. They often come from ancient societies, but in today's blog I want to take a peek at a recent novel which, I argue, demonstrates the way that history sometimes feels mythic.

Recently I read the contemporary novel, Tinkers by Paul Harding. I felt that the novel ably demonstrated this idea of transformation from the almost-impossible (or unspeakable) into the mundane. By weaving fictional texts in and out of his story, Harding creates the mythic beginnings of a family. Through a poetic, winding style, the reader must piece together the family history. The men in this family all carry one trait, that of epilepsy. In the beginning, societal fears surrounding epilepsy in conjunction with the other-worldly experience of a seizure, defines the men. The omniscient narration style allows for historical notions to fluidly enter the stream of consciousness of one who experiences an episode. Therefore, through three subsequent generations, we better understand the historical time period as well as the individual characters.

In the first generation, the father is sent to an insane asylum (which was the only 'treatment' for epilepsy at this time). In the next generation, the insane asylum option exists, but the father abandons his family before being committed. Instead, he turns to a mundane city life in which he bags groceries and remarries. In this new life, he is valued and treated as normal. It is as though he has gone through a transformation from mythic beginnings to mundane humanity. Once the men remove long-held beliefs (placed upon them by society or reputation), they achieve the power to direct their own lives. They have stepped outside of the long-held belief which previously devalued their lives. Instead, the reader hopes that future generations will go on to live a life which achieves some level of happiness, despite disability.

The passage below exemplifies these mythic beginnings. In this section, a son watches a father fish for an apple. Whether he is actually watching this scene is less important than trying to see how the son understands his father. He literally imagines (or sees) his father's disintegration. The narrator does an excellent job of describing this ethereal being return to what must be the stuff of all beginnings.

“Another time I found him fumbling for an apple in the barrel we kept in the basement. I could just make him out in the gloom. Each time he tried to grab a piece of fruit, it eluded him, or I might say he eluded it, as his grasp was no stronger than a draft of air threading through a crack in the window. He succeeded once, after appearing to concentrate for a moment, in upsetting an apple from its place at the top of the pile, but it merely tumbled down along the backs of other apples and came to rest against the mouth of the barrel. It seemed to me that even if I could pick an apple up with my failing hands, how could I bite it with my dissipating teeth, digest it with my ethereal gut? I realized that this thought was not my own but, rather, my father's, that even his ideas were leaking out of his former self. Hands, teeth, gut, thoughts even, were all simply more or less convenient to human circumstance, and as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too, were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to be stars or belt buckles, or lunar dust or railroad spikes. Perhaps they already were all of these things and my father's fading was because he realized this: My goodness, I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow; peel back my scalp and you will see my cranium covered in the scrimshaw carved by an ancient sailor who never suspected that he was whittling at my skull – no, my blood is a Roman plow, my bones are being etched by men with names that mean sea wrestler and ocean rider and the pictures they are making are pictures of northern stars at different seasons, and the man keeping my blood straight as it splits the soil is named Lucian and he will plant wheat, and I cannot concentrate on this apple, this apple, and the only thing common to all of this is that I feel sorrow so deep, it must be love, and they are upset because while they are carving and plowing they are troubled by visions of trying to pick apples from barrels. I looked away and ran back upstairs, skipping the ones that creaked, so that I would not embarrass my father, who had not quite yet turned back from clay into light.”

Many thanks to the conversation group which opened up this incredibly poetic text to me!

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Pascal in Discussion

May 20, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I am excited about our newest addition to the Quarterly Discussion. In July, we will be discussing a selection of Pascal's Pensées. In addition to discussion, the journey to understanding often involves clear articulation of a thought through writing. So, I propose that we all attempt a few pensées of our own, a few thought poems or prose poems. It is immensely instructive for a couple of reasons. First, this offers insight into the process of someone like Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and scientist, attempting to understand the intangible things of life through words. Second, it is instructive for the development of thought itself. Not everyone enjoys writing, and some are better at speaking than writing, but I find that the experiment of writing about one thought and carrying it to some sort of final conclusion, is always useful. Third, creative experiments develop an extra resource in our own minds. We draw upon this resource much more often than we realize. This experiment is not a requirement of the discussion, but is simply designed to add something to your own experience. If anyone would like to join me in writing a few pensées,then I will post a handful of them on our blog after July's discussion. I invite you to send me your thought projects anytime within the next two months. I will compile them and post a handful on our blog after our July Quarterly Discussion.

If you are interested in the July Quarterly Discussion, we have room in either: Thursday, July, 14, 2016 at 4 pm PDT; or Saturday, July 16, 2016 at 9 am PDT. For more details, email Alissa at Feel free to send your pensées to me as well. I look forward to hearing from you.


Below are some sample pensées. These pensées were written by Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor:

1] On Language – A disappearing language is no less spectacular than an exploding planet, a supernova or volcano. Repercussions ripple out among estranged beings. Maybe the language lingers. If oral, it lingers in some codex hidden deep within a body of peoples. Perhaps in the sense of cadence and rhythm. Perhaps in the deeply buried idea of taboo. Or as a subject-verb structured world. If written, then form and shape, or purpose, allows for a different kind of eloquence. Do we know what shadows shape our world, what hieroglyph, what rune, what character? We cleave to what was cleaved.

As a body of peoples, we see the world in a way that is inherently informed by language. Yet, putting thought into words makes fools of us all, attempting the impossible. We absolutely underestimate the force and power present within a single mind. Both mouth and pen struggle to represent a single thought in words suitable, appropriate and transmittable. Ad infinitum.

We have heard that languages die. But what sort of death would this be? What sort of burial? Would there be a recorded last speaker who suddenly, and at no one's suspense or expectation, simply disappears? Into the... ether? How does something exist, and then not? Language even lacks an acceptable word for the ether of the infinite.


2] On Beauty - We find meaning only after we lose something dear. Just like life, to take what we give and rename it at the end. Meaning arrives simultaneous to the moment's conclusion. Singular moments, singular meanings, yet each linked to the next. Something greater than ourselves grants memory and then takes it back again. It is beautiful to recognize the moment. Just like beauty, to sneak in along the fringe.

We do not know for what we search and sometimes we do not know why we search. The closest I can say is that we attend our daily duties with a sense of upkeep. And in the day to day grows a self. Swells the soil from deep within over the smallest germ – the cost of which is both time and mortality.


3] On Thought – Computers offer proof of the development of human thought, but they do not develop human thought. Those tools were built before human hands – or at least in tandem – and remain far from the narrow reach of our human hands. Perhaps emotion informs these hidden tools of human thought. A map of emotions would be similar to crows in flight: erratic, cacophonous, yet graceful enough to land among some treasures.


4] On Space – It has been said that a house reflects the tenant. I am tenant of no house except the mountains, seas and deserts and they absolutely reflect who I am. This is the space that guides, limits and extends my imagination. 


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February 26, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Defining poetry is next to impossible, and I have been studying it for as long as I can remember. Its power thrills me. The fact that poetry escapes definition really seems appropriate to me. In an effort to wrangle with some of the ideas of poetry, I have composed a sort of poem out of fragments of my own words in combination with other authors who I greatly admire. It was meant as an exercise towards understanding, but grows immeasurably as the words are read and shared and re-read. Feel free to share your thoughts on poetry as well. And as always - enjoy!


1] A point is that which has no part/ 2] And a line is length without breadth/ 3] And the extremities of a line are points.(1)

Perihelion. Compare aphelion.

The still point of a turning world.(2)

Ethics. Land ethics. Something about voice above silence. But also about the location of silence.

An aesthetic of embodiment.(3)

How can I be? How can I be like? How can I be in? How can we

And the shadow became Fortino and I was/ the shadow following his shadow following/ my shadow become Fortino.(4)

The overflowing of a space, meaning there is a space and it does not contain enough. The frame contains a singularity. A shadow that dances only in a memory, which grays even as it writes.

The swift, thin-waisted fish.(5)

The moment, the singularity, resurges again and again. Each generation wears it differently. Sometimes the shortest path to the point is no path at all.

Hard on the land wears the strong sea...(6)

Chopin keys a nocturne above the calming sea. Sandy beach with slanting light. Twenty six words for sol/sun/luz/light...more if you include musical expressions. And I do.

A delight, half-graspable.(7)

A red dress dances through a doorway. The doorway trimmed in light of moon; roses white and red and bleeding.

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,/ Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:/ Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,/ Sings this to thee: “Thou single will prove none.”(8)

A human record. Recorded emotion acts like twine, tying events and individuals in history directly to me.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,/ The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,/ Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,/ And of ourselves and of our origins,/ In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.(9)

We think it rapid, but in fact, the evolution of truth within ourselves is exceedingly slow.

(We are all, of course, the hosts of images.)(10)

Idea/ Breath/ Sound/ Struggle/ Survival/ Song.


(1) Euclid's Elements, definition numbers 1-3.

(2) "Burnt Norton", T.S. Eliot.

(3) “As You Crave Soul”, Frank Bidart.

(4) Fortino Sámano (The Overflowing of the Poem), Virginie Lalucq, Jean Luc Nancy, Translated by Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue.

(5) “At Black River”, Mary Oliver.

(6) John Berryman, song 1 from 77 Dream Songs.

(7)“Endymion”, John Keats.

(8) Sonnet VIII, William Shakespeare.

(9) “The Idea of Order at Key West”, Wallace Stevens.

(10) The Way Things Are, Book III, Lucretius.


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