The Dancer

July 21, 2006 at 10:06 am Leave a comment

Gabriela Mistral


The dancer now is dancing
the dance of losing it all.
Whatever she had, she lets it go,
fathers and brothers, gardens and fields,
the sound of her river, the roads,
her fireside tale, her face,
her name, and the games of her childhood,
as if she were letting everything fall
from her back, her breast, her soul.

On the edge of night and winter
laughing, she dances total poverty.
It’s the world she’s winnowing away,
the loving, hating, smiling, killing world,
earth crushed to a bloody vintage,
night with its sleepless excesses,
and the ache of homelessness.

Without name or creed or people, stripped
of everything and of herself, she gives from the core
beautiful, pure, with flying feet.
Shaken like a tree and in the eye
of the tornado, she bears witness.

She isn’t dancing the flight of the albatross,
salt-spattered, sport of the waves,
nor the lift and bow
of reed-beds in the wind,
nor the wind that fills the sail,
nor the smile of the high grass.

She isn’t called by her baptismal name.
She loosed herself from caste and flesh,
buried the beat of her blood
and the ballad of her adolescence.

Without knowing it we throw our lives
over her like a poisonous red garment.
And so she dances while vipers
crawl on her, biting, quick and free,
and let her drop like a tattered wreath,
the banner of a defeated army.

Sleepwalking, turned into what she hates,
she dances on, not knowing she is changed,
her gestures scattering and gathering,
gasping out our gasping breaths,
cutting the air that brings her no relief,
alone, a whirlwind, foul and pure.

We, we are the gasping of her breast,
her bloodless pallor, the wild cry
she sends from west to east,
the red fever of her veins,
the loss of the God of her childhood.

(translated from the Spanish by Ursula K. Guin)

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dancer from the dance”

– W.B. Yeats, ‘Among School Children’
Poems about dancers fascinate me. My favourite is probably Rilke’s Spanish Dancer, but this Mistral poem, recently discovered, is quite beautiful too. I love the way Mistral manages to convey both the grace of the dancer’s movements and the physical strain of the dance. This is a poem about the struggle of flesh trying to take form, and it’s mesmerising the way Mistral manages to weave the spirit of an entire people into this frail, shifting shape. Every time I read this poem, I am reminded of Stravinsky, because what Mistral is describing here is more than just a dance, it is a rite of spring, a sacrifice of limbs turned to fire. Spinning like a dervish Mistral’s dancer is so many things at once – adolescent, artist, feminist – a living, swirling whirlwind of a woman trying to survive “the red fever of her veins”.


For more on Mistral – a link to the Nobel Prize site.

And the poem in the original Spanish:

La Bailarina

La bailarina ahor est danzando
la danza del perder cuanto tenia.
Deja caer todo lo que ella habia,
padres y hermanos, huertos y campinas,
el rumo de su rio, los caminos,
el cuento de su hogar, su propio rostro
y su nombre, y los juegos de su infancia
como quien deja todo le que tuvo
caer de cuello, de seno y de alma.

En el filo del dia y el solsticio
baila riendo su cabal despojo.
Lo que avientan sus brazos es el mundo
que ama y detesta, que sonrie y mata,
la tierra puesta a vendimia de sangre,
la noche de los hartos que no duermen
y la dentera del que no ha posada.

Sin nombre, raza ni credo, desnuda
de todo y de si misma, da su entrega,
hermosa y pura, de pies voladores.
Sacudida como arbol y en el centro
de la tornado, vuelta testimonio.

No esta danzando el vuelo de albatroses
salpicados de sal y juegos de olas;
tampoco el alzamiento y la derrota
de los canaverales fustigados.
Tampoco el viento agitador de velas,
ni la sonrisa de las altas hierbas.

El nombre no le den de su bautismo.
Se solto de su casta y de su carne
sumio la canturia de su sangre
y la balada de su adolescencia.

Sin saberlo le echamos nuestras vidas
como una roja vest envenenada
y baila asi mordida de serpientes
que alacritas y libres la repechan,
y la dejan caer en estandarte
vencido o en guirnalda hecha pedazos.

Sonambula, mudada en lo que odia,
sigue danzando sin saberse ajena
sus muecas aventando y recogiendo
jadeadora de nuestro jadeo,
cortando el aire que no la refresca
unica y torbellino, vil y pura.

Somos nosotros su jadeado pecho,
su palidez exangue, el loco grito
tirado hacia el poniente y el levante
la roja calentura de sus venas,
el olvido del Dios de sus infancias.

Entry filed under: Falstaff, Gabriela Mistral, Spanish, Ursula K. Guin.

I Ask My Mother To Sing I Loved You

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