Book Report: Madwomen

Published January 24, 2017 by Iphis of Scyros


Surprising myself, I’ve already finished the next book on my Read Harder list. [And it is to be noted that I wrote 95% of this review on campus yesterday afternoon.]  Of course, it was for #23 “Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love,” so maybe that’s not quite so surprising.  Or rather, it helped that the book of poetry I picked turned out to be extremely short.


Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was a Chilean poet who achieved both national and international renown, was the first Latin American to be named a Nobel laureate in literature (in 1954) and helped found UNICEF.  To be honest, I only skimmed the introduction, but it looks like she led a very eventful and tumultuous life.  (A full biography would probably be very interesting.  A summary in an introduction to a book usually tends to leave out so much that it becomes confusing.)

In any case, Madwomen:  The Locas Mujeres Poems of Gabriela Mistral seems longer than it is (at least in this edition, anyway), because it prints the original Spanish and the English translation on facing pages.  Since I don’t speak Spanish (though I did take a couple of semesters in it before my trip to Peru in 2008), I obviously only read the English translation.  (Which is, after all, what the challenge is about, let’s not forget.)

I can’t say that I understood the literal meaning of every single poem, but even when I wasn’t sure precisely what she was describing, the emotional tone was always clear.  Frequently mournful, sometimes angry, but always too lucid to be truly “mad,” and yet the intensity of the emotions on display did mean that the people of Mistral’s era (particularly the people of her childhood) would likely have labelled those women as insane.

The poems that most grabbed my attention, naturally, were the four poems in the voice of female characters from Greek myths.  (Because whether or not I’m currently active in blogging about it, I will always be me, and my heart lies in the bosom of Greek mythology.)  These were, in order, “Antigone,” “Electra,” “Clytemnestra” and “Cassandra.”  The last two were definitely my favorites in the whole collection, no question.  In “Clytemnestra,” Mistral brought out strongly the essence of Clytemnestra’s despair over the loss of Iphigenia, and how that has brought out her intense hatred of Agamemnon.  Interestingly, it also proved that one of Electra’s conclusions about her mother was wrong.  I liked that; it added an extra layer of tragedy to the whole affair.  (Why is it that I’m so fond of tragedy in the Trojan War cycle, when I hate unhappy endings so much?  Is it some kind of bizarre schadenfreude?  But I like most of the characters in the cycle…)  “Cassandra” represented an enormous departure from any other portrayal of the character I’ve seen before.  It was entirely within her head, so there’s no indication in the poem about how/why she appears mad to those around her, which is already a bit of a departure from the usual.  But the real change was in…nope, actually, I’m not going to tell you.  You should read it for yourself to find out how Mistral’s Cassandra is different from everyone else’s.  (It should be available at most university libraries.  Even if you’re not a student, they’d surely let you read one three and a bit page poem.)

Anyway, while I was on campus yesterday, I checked out three books from the library that are going to be the next three in my challenge.  I felt the need to check them out all at once because I thought I might be dropping my class, but it turns out I’m going to stick with it after all, so I didn’t really need to check them out all at once.  (Except for the fact the class only meets on campus once a month, so it’s more convenient to get them all now, y’know?  That way I can return them all at once next month.)  Two of them are fiction, and hopefully will go pretty fast, though the one I’ve started (#4) is a bit odd in narrative style, which might slow me down a bit.  I’m thinking the other fiction book (#5) will go faster, even though it’s longer.   The other’s non-fiction (#3), so I have no idea if it’ll be fast or slow.  Hopefully fast, because I have my choices for #2, #21 and #19 on their way now.  And possibly#14, too…not sure, ‘cause it’s also from the micropress, and they didn’t really put up any, you know, plot synopsis.  But they were donating the proceeds to the ACLU, and what little they did put up sounded interesting, so I picked it up.  If it counts for the challenge, great, and if it doesn’t, I’m sure it’ll still be worth my time and money.)


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