Two Augurs


by Jessica Sequeira

Celestial harmonium

Las cábalas del sueño,
by Olga Acevedo
Komorebi ediciones, 2019

Archaic, oracular and paradoxical ,  inspired by studies of occult philosophy yet destined for a wider readership unacquainted with these currents , this collection of poems by Olga Acevedo, originally published by Editorial Nascimento in 1951 and now reissued, comes as an invitation to look back at the broader metaphysical concerns of Chilean poetry. Here it’s possible to find resemblances to works like La visión comunicable by Rosamel del Valle, Oniromancia by Winétt de Rokha, the invocatory poems of Teresa Wilms Montt and several works by Gabriela Mistral, especially Desolación.

A very helpful afterword by Manuel Naranjo Igartiburu puts the book in the context of a move during this period toward “the return of the sacred”, with its remythification of the world and its idea of perennial philosophy. To make his argument he draws on figures like Henry Corbin, Mircea Eliade, René Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Aldous Huxley and George Steiner. Igartiburu offers fascinating biographical information about the poet. She was particularly close to Gabriela Mistral, to whom Igartiburu says she was an “amiga-discípula”; he quotes Mistral’s letter to her: “Usted, como yo, quiere mucho a su Buda, pero no suelta la mano de N. S. J. C., y tiene un furioso internacionalismo, pero es sólo Chile lo que le rezuma del corazón.” [Like me, you love Buddha deeply but don’t let go of the hand of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and though you have a furious internationalism, it’s Chile that brims over from your heart.] She also had close ties to other figures in the period such as Neruda, was deeply interested in theosophy and Rosacrucians, and studied yoga with Ramacharaka in India.

Yet by focusing on the idea of the sacred, Igartiburu also gives us a way toward Olga Acevedo beyond the facile lenses of either her life or the category of “women’s literature”, which can be essentializing and unhelpful in looking at the specifics of what a writer is doing. Focusing on a careful analysis of her work itself, he describes how Acevedo was interested in poetry for “su antigua capacidad mágico-sacramental de re-unir lo mundano y lo divino” [its ancient magical-sacramental ability to reunite the worldly and the divine], and notes the ways the formal structure of her texts mirror the stages of occult initiation. Sacred time is very important to her; in this work we find phrases like “Pensamientos a medio cubrir, pasos quebrados como pocillos sin objeto, mantos deshechos por el tiempo, creo que este es el atrio solemnísimo, la celeste cámara sagrada y el final de un Mahayuga.” [Half-concealed thoughts, steps like bowls that hold nothing, mantles unraveled by time, I think this is the most solemn atrium, the sacred celestial chamber and end of a Mahayuga].

Igartiburu notes Acevedo’s use of symbols: in her early work, she prefers the sacred mountain of ascension and initiation, later the image of mother earth, and in her mature works, the “great Architect”, also called Isis. For Acevedo, a symbol can’t be explained but must be performed again and again like music. In addition, he discusses her creative use of different names for God, and her ultimate suggestion that this divinity might be an androgynous force.

Across her work, he also finds an occult interest in bringing the world together in the recuperation of plenitude and harmony of the musical structure. In the last lines of this work we read: “La luz viene del Oriente, oh hermano. Cantemos ya, que el Terror se sepulta en plena noche y apunta en los profundos mundos subterráneos, la nueva música celeste y el nuevo resplandor de la esperanza…” [The light comes from the East, oh brother. Let’s sing now so the Terror is buried in the depths of night, and from the deep subterranean worlds appears new celestial music and a new radiance of hope…]. This work would extend to images like the “gran harmonium celeste” [great celestial harmonium] in later work like Los himnos.

This well-presented single volume makes the reader want to look up the complete version of Acevedo’s work with all nine of her books, edited by María Inés Zaldívar by Ediciones Universidad Católica last year.


Land that isn’t my land

Las renegadas: Antología
by Gabriela Mistral, ed. Lina Meruane
Lumen, 2018

The word “renegada” has multiple meanings: one who abandons religion, one who betrays a country, one who rebels. In Spanish, the feminine form of the word also carries the weight of “negada”, referring to the female writer who for too long has been either ignored, or as in Mistral’s case, read in less interesting ways than she might be. Mistral was a renegade in all senses, and this anthology of Mistral’s work by Lina Meruane, the personal selection of one writer by another, invites us to read her as a “renegade” in the plural form, acknowledging gender but offering us a new angle on Mistral beyond the often reified conclusions of academic sociology.

There’s something savage and indomitable about Mistral’s work that resists such easy categories; with one word, “renegade”, Meruane offers the reader a new intellectual forklift to consider Mistral’s ideas in all their weight. At heart, Mistral’s poetry offers a radical image of the human as a renegade from nationalist and even humanist forms of thinking, one far less interested in the “territorio” than in closeness to ancient wisdom and the “tierra”. “Ardió en mi cuerpo de aspirante a poeta el rigor de su palabra arcaica y andariega, castellana y árida, indígena, absoluta, infinita,” writes Meruane [“My body of a would-be poet burned with the rigor of her archaic and restless word, Spanish and arid, indigenous, absolute, infinite”]. With her division of the book into two sections, “Extravíos íntimos” [Private straying] and “Errancias terrenales” [Earthly wandering], with further subdivisions based on theme, she presents Mistral on the basis of concepts rather than identity, a move true to the spirit of the poet from the Valle del Elqui.

After all, as Mistral herself wrote in the line Meruane chooses as a title for her prologue, “Una en mí maté” [I killed one of my selves]. Mistral thought identities can be shed or taken up, and that personality is fluid and changeable. She also believed something similar about time and language: the archaic words and styles of yesterday can inhabit the poems of today. Language can be harvested from seedbeds, squeezed from winepresses, coaxed out of the sing-song rhythms of children’s songs, and twisted anew from the formal styles of before. For Mistral, style could visit the present as part of the wheel of cyclical time, and she found some of these inclinations captured in Eastern philosophy. Her great themes, the relationship between matter and spirit and the communication between life and death, led this renegade to question almost every form of “fixedness”, every conviction, to instead wander with mind and body. She aspired to become clear as water, spartan as a thistle.

Often she was a contradiction, like the arid plenitude of her beloved desert. She identified with the foreigner, child, nomad and ghost, inhabiting landscapes rather than countries, and preferred not to possess a human memory, but be like the trees, stones, wind, in the timelessness of the eternal: a time outside human time. Yet she complained about the people around her, and their amnesia. She treasured the present but couldn’t abide those who didn’t appreciate the past and didn’t understand that within time all things, suffering and joy, pain and pleasure, dwell in potential and can return.

Mistral was referred to as a pagan by her contemporaries for her Judeo-Christian beliefs heavily influenced by Buddhism, Hinduism, theosophy and astrology. The word “renegada” can be found tucked away in her poem “Montañas mías”. In these lines, she speaks of the mountains of her beloved northern Chile and says they will always remain to her. More than with any country or perhaps even any person, ultimately it’s her relationship with these mountains and this land, as much childhood and memory as physical landscape, that most obsesses her: “Y aunque me digan el mote / de ausente y de renegada, / me las tuve y me las tengo / todavía, todavía, / y me sigue su mirada / y ellas como que mecían / y como que me guardaban” [And even if they call me / absentee and renegade, / I had them and have them, even now, even now, and they seemed to rock me / and watch over me].

I have to admit that I’ve never much liked collections that gather disparate elements of an author’s individual books, but in this case the concept is intriguing enough that it works. As part of a larger ongoing reinvention of Gabriela Mistral, which considers her an intellectual who gives us other concepts and another style—like Helena Blavatsky, like Simone Weil—this act of decontextualization returns to us her hardness and strangeness beyond the proliferation of discourse around her figure, sometimes dull, sometimes interesting, but often using her as an excuse to further an agenda based on biography.

Las renegadas takes us back to the wilderness. Like the stones of the desert, Mistral remains. She was, and will be.


About the Author:

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French.

Image: From Venus Playing with Two Doves, Francesco Hayez, 1830