In 2004, John D’Agata edited an anthology of lyric essays called The Next American Essay. Starting with John McPhee’s essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” D’Agata organized his anthology chronologically, including one essay for every year from 1975 to 2003. The 1980 essay, May Morning by James Wright, was included to honor the death of Wright in that same year. D’Agata used the introduction to this selection to justify the inclusion of a poem, explaining that, in May Morning, “a poetic argument is presented with the same kind of formal perfection that is admired in the essay’s traditional ‘five-paragraph’ form.”
I would like to consider 1957, the year of Gabriela Mistral’s death, and propose that some of Mistral’s prose poems would be better classified as lyric essays. In his explanation of the lyric essay, D’Agata goes on the say “that the lyric essay does not exhaust a subject. Rather, it moves associatively, taking leaps, depending on gaps, on suggestion, and on the music and tonality of language.” The lyric essay thrives in an intellectual space that delights in variety and risk, as does much of the writing of Gabriela Mistral.
The Coconut Palms is an example of a prose poem that is a lyric essay. Mistral begins the essay with a statement to root our collective consciousness to her subjective estimation: “We immediately recognize the coconut palms; they cannot be counted.” She proceeds with a fabled explanation of why there are so many palm trees—the Spaniards planted a tree for each dead Indian. This action, she explains, remade the landscape so that it no longer resembled itself. Through vivid, language-rich description, Mistral makes the argument that this bloody, racially-driven past is still very alive.
My favorite part of Mistral’s essay is how she closes by describing the relationship between the palm trees, which helps strengthen the argument of the essay: “They touch heads and draw back their bodies. They dream with a tall hardness….” Mistral’s personification of the trees turns the the palms into a vehicle for metaphor, a conceit that carries through the entire essay. The use of metaphor works especially well because Mistral is speaking about the spirit of the dead. The idea of spirit would be abstract and unapproachable if she had not chosen represent it with a specific, tangible symbol. This physical association allows the reader to see the spirits, hear their palms bump together and feel their bodies and roughness. The physical embodiment of the spirit also allows the reader to build a relationship with the spirit, or at least Mistral’s concept of it.
As poets and writers, we are all working to reclaim language and use it to create our symbols of meaning, our life-long conceits. Learning to use language is a process of rebellion, negotiation, and discovery, and I am thankful for Gabriela’s stubborn words that nod at the mystery of what is possible and impossible to ask of language: “This is all I know how to articulate about my experience. Do not force me to discover more.”