The Teller of Tales

The Teller of Tales
By Gabriela Mistral – 1889-1957

translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

  When I’m walking, everything
on earth gets up
and stops me and whispers to me,
and what they tell me is their story.

  And the people walking
on the road leave me their stories,
I pick them up where they fell
in cocoons of silken thread.

  Stories run through my body
or sit purring in my lap.
So many they take my breath away,
buzzing, boiling, humming.
Uncalled they come to me,
and told, they still won’t leave me.

  The ones that come down through the trees
weave and unweave themselves,
and knit me up and wind me round
until the sea drives them away.

  But the sea that’s always telling stories,
the wearier I am the more it tells me…

  The people who cut trees,
the people who break stones,
want stories before they go to sleep.

  Women looking for children
who got lost and don’t come home,
women who think they’re alive
and don’t know they’re dead,
every night they ask for stories,
and I return tale for tale.

  In the middle of the road, I stand
between rivers that won’t let me go,
and the circle keeps closing
and I’m caught in the wheel.

  The riverside people tell me
of the drowned woman sunk in grasses
and her gaze tells her story,
and I graft the tales into my open hands.

  To the thumb come stories of animals,
to the index fingers, stories of my dead.
There are so many tales of children
they swarm on my palms like ants.

  When my arms held
the one I had, the stories
all ran as a blood-gift
in my arms, all through the night.
Now, turned to the East,
I’m giving them away because I forget them.

  Old folks want them to be lies.
Children want them to be true.
All of them want to hear my own story,
which, on my living tongue, is dead.

  I’m seeking someone who remembers it
leaf by leaf, thread by thread.
I lend her my breath, I give her my legs,
so that hearing it may waken it for me.

La Contadora

Cuando camino se levantan
todas las cosas de la tierra
y me paran y cuchichean
y es su historia lo que cuentan.

Y las gentes que caminan
en la ruta me la dejan
y la recojo caída
en capullos que son de huella.

  Historias corren mi cuerpo
o en mi regazo ronronean.
Tantas son que no dan respiro,
zumban, hierven y abejean.
Sin llamada se me vienen
y contadas tampoco dejan…

  Las que bajan por los árboles
se trenzan y se destrenzan,
y me tejen y me envuelvan
hasta que el mar los ahuyenta.

  Pero el mar que cuenta siempre
más rendida, más me deja…

  Los que están mascando bosque
y los que rompen la piedra,
al dormirse quieren historias.

  Mujeres que buscan hijos
perdidos que no regresan,
y las que se creen vivas
y no saben que están muertas,
cada noche piden historias,
y yo me rindo cuenta que cuenta.

  A medio camino quedo
entre ríos que no me sueltan,
el corro se va cerrando
y me atrapa en la rueda.

  Los ribereños me cuentan
la ahogada sumida en hierbas,
y su mirada cuenta su historia,
y yo las tronco en mis palmas abiertas.

  Al pulgar llegan las de animales,
al índice las de mis muertos.
Las de niños, de ser tantas
en las palmas me hormiguean.

  Cuando tomaba así mis brazos
el que yo tuve, todas ellas
en regalo de sangre corrieron
mis brazos una noche entera.
Ahora yo, vuelta al Oriente,
se las voy dando porque no recuerdo.

  Los viejos las quieren mentidas,
los niños las quieren ciertas.
Todos quieren oír la historia mía
que en mi lengua viva está muerta.

  Busco alguna que la recuerde
hoja por hoja, herbra por hebra.
Le presto mi aliento, le doy mi marcha
por si el oírla me la despierta.

This poem is much longer than poems I usually post, but I found it very interesting. I think we are all “Teller of Tales.” We all have a story to tell. Anyone who knows me in real life will tell you that I am a shy person until I get to know you, then I can be quite a talker. I have a story or an obscure fact for most anything. I may not be able to remember what I had for lunch yesterday, but I can remember that Vermont used to alternate governors according to what side of the Green Mountains they lived on. I can tell you that Alabama Governor Lurleen B. Wallace once was publicized for going turkey hunting and was called Governor Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt) and that she weighed that turkey on the porch of my grandparents’ store. Telling that story will probably get you a whole dissertation on the governorship of Lurleen Wallace and how running for governor ultimately led to her death. It’s amazing the minutia in my head, yet when I play Trivial Pursuit, I often can’t recall those “trivial” details when I need to. 

The point is, we all have stories to tell. One of the things I love about working in a museum is that every object has a story. Every person behind that object has a story. We may not know all the details, and some things may be impossible to know, but the stories existed at one time or another. Can you think of a story or piece of minutia that is in the back of your head that comes up at odd times? What is that story?

About the Author

Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, was born in Vicuña, Chile. The daughter of a dilettante poet, she began to write poetry as a village schoolteacher after a passionate romance with a railway employee who committed suicide. She taught elementary and secondary school for many years until her poetry made her famous. She played an important role in the educational systems of Mexico and Chile, was active in cultural committees of the League of Nations, and was Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid, and Lisbon. She held honorary degrees from the Universities of Florence and Guatemala and was an honorary member of various cultural societies in Chile as well as in the United States, Spain, and Cuba. She taught Spanish literature in the United States at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico.

The love poems in memory of the dead, Sonetos de la muerte (1914), made her known throughout Latin America, but her first great collection of poems, Desolación [Despair], was not published until 1922. In 1924 appeared Ternura [Tenderness], a volume of poetry dominated by the theme of childhood; the same theme, linked with that of maternity, plays a significant role in Tala, poems published in 1938. Her complete poetry was published in 1958.

Note: I found this poem as part of a celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month on Poets.org, the website of the Academy of American Poets. National Hispanic Heritage Month (Spanish: Mes Nacional de la Herencia Hispana) is a period from September 15 to October 15 in the United States for recognizing the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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