Poems by ELVIRA HERNÁNDEZ
Translated from the Spanish by THOMAS ROTHE
Poems appear in both Spanish and English.
When Elvira Hernández began publishing poetry in the 1980s, the few pictures that appeared of her in literary supplements never revealed her entire face. A hand, an arm, a post, a leaf, a slightly out-of-focus photograph would interrupt the frame to conceal her identity. Whereas some of Chile’s most renowned poets—Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Pablo de Rokha—chose unique pseudonyms difficult to forget, Hernández, whose birth name is María Teresa Adriasola, adopted a pen name that could easily get lost among the crowd. Far from an artistic pose or esoteric performance to gain attention, Hernández’s decision to remain unrecognizable speaks of the very real political persecution that swept through Chile and the Southern Cone during the 1970s and 80s. To write or make art in the asphyxiating environment of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, in the midst of disappearances and exile, media complicity and a cultural blackout, implied an act of resistance, a conscious decision, despite the risks involved, to create dangerously, as Albert Camus and, later, Edwidge Danticat would say.
Hernández’s entire poetic universe is informed by these circumstances, using the nuances of language to produce multiple meanings and interpretations. When we cannot voice our opinions in public, we are forced to encode words, connect with our interlocutors through covert messages. But Hernández goes beyond encoding to mold a unique voice within Chilean literature that seeks to connect culture with politics and history. Her poetry, often balanced on a seesaw between so-called high and low art, dissects the past in order to offer a possibility of moving forward, but always against the grain of modern society’s increasingly accelerated pace and desire for immediate gratification. In this sense, many of her poems take on the form of a palimpsest, layered with language from different cultural contexts and time periods.
The two poems I have translated here come from the chapbook un fantasma recorre el mundo, published in Chile in 2012 by Cuadro de Tiza. This title could be translated as a spectre is haunting the world, following the original’s reference to the opening line of the Communist Manifesto. In this short book of nine poems, Hernández exposes the violence of late capitalism, especially on bodies and language, and explores the relationship between the production of goods, knowledge, and power, not only questioning dominant ideologies, but also dominant aesthetics. There is nothing distinctively “Chilean” about these poems, aside from the author’s perspective, as they speak of transatlantic relationships, the circulation of goods and ideas between Western Europe and Latin America.
Translating Hernández’s work involves a process of searching for layers of meaning in another language. While I have chosen words or phrasings that may sound a bit off to the English-speaking reader, this is meant to convey a sense of strangeness, also present in the original, and move the reader closer to the uneasy space in which Hernández often leaves us. Instead of smoothing out the kinks, I have attempted to recreate the foreign elements of these poems—which, I hope, inclines the reader to remain alert, as if immersed in an unfamiliar setting.
en la casa de colón
dedicado a Javier Bello
en ningún lugar
en parte alguna
se presentarían poetas disfrazados de faros
si no los obnubila el espejo
habrán sentido la salida de la mandorla
a esta hora quizás tramitan
la recuperación de sus equipajes perdidos
de acuerdo: no es el teide el que humea
es un cráter boreal que saca la voz
y regala otro manto de azufre
recién llegada te atienes a otros descubrimientos
el negativo de una américa estampada por tiépolo
cielos impuros aguas secas
y el oro –todavía el oro–
como en unas pascuas
vienes del pasado al pasado
supones que cruzarás el urola
si no se interpone el leteo y
otras mariguanzas de la mente y
el río de los mendigos1 deja de ser una fascinación
en el viaje a una destartalada semilla
en verdad no sabes dónde pararás
ya no quedan viajes
solo un rebotar donde no rebota la metralla
un desplazamiento de pateras y rápidos navíos-otan
pánico que lleva a acurrucarse
¿en dónde larrea?
un… ¿adónde irá ese cardumen?
sardinillas aéreas aviones no-tripulados
el horizonte renueva su aspecto de fosa común
los fantasmas son los únicos que no olvidan sus lugares
y tú llevas esa pálida coloración
in the house of columbus
for Javier Bello
would poets meet dressed as beacons
if their mirrors were not fogged
they would have seen the mandorla set sail
perhaps at this hour they are filing claims
to recover their lost luggage
agreed: that’s not the teide releasing fumes
it’s a boreal crater speaking up
offering another blanket of sulfur
as a newcomer you deal with other discoveries
the negative of an america captured by tiepolo
an emptied cornucopia
impure skies dried waters
and the gold—still the gold—
scratching it licking it
giddy like a child on sweets
you come from the past to the past
you plan to cross the urola
if the lethe and other mental tricks
don’t intervene and
the river of the beggars2 loses its appeal
on the journey to a decrepit seed
but really you don’t know where you’ll stop
there are no more journeys
just a ricochet where no shrapnel ricochets
a movement of rafts and speedy nato vessels
panic that leads to nestling
in larrea’s house?
a… where is that school going?
aerial sardines unmanned planes
the horizon restores its mass grave appearance
spectres are the only ones who remember their place
and you wear that pale complexion
1 “El río de los mendigos”: óleo del pintor veneciano Canaletto (1697-1768).
2 “Rio dei Mendicanti” (River of the Beggars), oil on canvas by Venetian painter Canaletto (1697-1768).
círculo de praga
¿estaremos acá para aprender de palabras? allá las lindas se nos han puesto saltonas alzadas y no responden. algo así como que no se dejan amarrar por ninguna teoría. a las claras han cortado el vínculo. hasta tememos que nos tiendan el huachi las condenadas. y no puede ser de otra manera si suenan a venenosas. ¿estaremos entrando a otro círculo? ¿nos estarán dando la despedida?
los que santiguaban con ellas ahora les ponen tres negaciones las desalojan del proverbio de la casa las humillan las cambian por películas. están muy muy reducidas casi a nivel de palabrería (más comen que hablan las bochincheras) recontrainfladas las veo cúmulos de palabrotas. en cualquier momento les ocurre lo de la burbuja. a mí se me figura que están recorriendo el mundo como fantasmas
the prague circle
are we here to learn about words? the pretty ones over there have turned into flashy insurgents that don’t respond. like resisting the constraints of any sort of theory. they’ve cut off relations with the clear words. we even fear the condemned words will tie a noose around our necks. and it couldn’t be any other way for they sound like venomous words. are we entering another circle? are they letting us go?
those who used to worship words now give them three denials: evicted from the proverb of their home humiliated exchanged for movies. very very reduced almost to the level of mumbling (rambunctious words eat more than they talk) hyper-inflated i see them cumulous with swearing. before long they’ll share the fate of a bubble. it seems to me they are haunting the world like spectres
Elvira Hernández (b. Lebu, Chile, in 1951) is one of the most important yet low-profile voices of contemporary Chilean poetry. Her work, which includes visual poetry and essay, is often associated with the neo-avant-garde generation of Chilean writers, which emerged in the 1980s through the artistic interventions and publications of Raúl Zurita, Diamela Eltit, and Juan Luis Martínez, among others. She has published the following books of poetry: ¡Arre! Halley ¡Arre! (1986), Meditaciones físicas por un hombre que se fue (1987), Carta de viaje (1989), La bandera de Chile (1991), El orden de los días (1991), Santiago Waria (1992), Álbum de Valparaíso (2002), Cultivo de hojas (2007), Cuaderno de deportes (2010), un fantasma recorre el mundo (2012), Actas urbe (2016), Pájaros desde mi ventana (2018), and Pena corporal (2018). In 2018, she was awarded the Jorge Teillier National Poetry Prize and the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Poetry Prize. Her only work to appear in English is The Chilean Flag, published in 2019 by Kenning Editions.
Thomas Rothe (b. Oakland, California, 1985) holds a PhD in Latin American Literature from the Universidad de Chile and is assistant professor at several universities in Chile. His translations have appeared in The Arkansas International, MAKE Magazine, Asymptote, InTranslation, Jacket2, and Lunch Ticket, among other journals. He has translated Jaime Huenún’s Fanon City Meu, Rodrigo Lira’s Testimony of Circumstances (with Rodrigo Olavarría), Julieta Marchant’s The Birth of Thread, and Emma Villazón’s Expendables. He is currently editing a collaborative translation of Carlos Soto Román’s 11, forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2022.