Los trabajos y los días. Elvira Hernández (Cf. Vicente Undurraga). Santiago: Lumen. 2016. 300 pages.
In the past few years, the work of the Chilean poet Elvira Hernández has been honored by an entire literary generation; the publication of two fundamental books that bring together a large part of her production saw the light with wisdom to mark in poetic territory a landing beach, a site from which to dock in the middle of a general storm: Actas Urbe edited by Guido Arroyo (Alquimia) and Los trabajos y los días, whose selection depended on Vicente Undurraga (Lumen, 2016).
Both selections, and especially the last—that concerns us here—effortlessly show the grasp of a poet who, with each project, risks searching for a new voice with variations in forms and construction, submitting writing to one of its modern principles par excellence: to be another. Los trabajos y los días is not only the unfolding of a craft carried out rigorously for years, but is also the congregation of all the possibilities that a writer can wager, a gathering of her internal twists, concerns, that range from the rewriting of the Olympic classics to the development of a cabinet of curiosities where ancient maps, comet records, descriptions of birds, travel logs, art collections, and bestiaries come together.
In this sense, this anthology is most similar to the descriptions of Albertus Seba or of the botanical travelers of the 19th century such as Humboldt and Bonpland, all of them restless investigators of the forces that direct nature and that Elvira Hernández seemed to discover in this junction between the urban and the wild that is within that urbanity. But above all, crossed by a critical will that has never abandoned her, from the famous La banera de Chile (The Chilean flag) to the unedited book that’s included here, Pájaros desde mi ventana (Birds from my window); that was not only the testimony of the radical nature of the dictatorship and the test of the disarticulation of his speeches, but also of the failure of the return of democracy and the powers that put the world in check today.
That critical bravery is what contracts an agreement and that possibly brings so much to the new readers and young poets to see a model of action in it, of exemplary diligence with the context and maintenance of a line—never high sounding—which we know has a major biographical cost. Seen from this telescopic lens, the reminiscence of this collection to the foundational poem of Hesiod is not risky—nothing in poetry is. Both works speak of the recognition of a civilian life, of a way of sustaining, of a behavior of the non-human, of the powers over it. And examining the Greek, it would seem that Elvira pays attention to it: “Without fear and trusting the wind, drag your quick ship to the sea and place all of your load in it.”
The load is first and foremost a microscopic work with language and how she herself says at the beginning of her Álbum de Valparaíso, “do I unload or do I fall off the precipice?” Words, linguistic twists and turns, oral games, dismembering technical and technocratic language, the possibility of incorporating words into the poem like shyster, nematode, fritanga or expressions in “beating like a drum”, “machetying”, and “hueviche” style. The language of the streets enters this collection, modified, made to twist and turn within the poem. An example of this is Arre, Halley, Arre! [Let’s go, Halley, Let’s go!] a project of the eighties where Elvira’s goal was to make a registry of the sightings of Halley’s Comet over the national territory, the big excuse by the military on call to divert attention from its systematic violations of human rights. And at the same time, the poet discovers that none of these fictitious interviewees—as in a large part of television—directly saw the path of the celestial body. All watched its passing on television, the daily news, word of mouth, or the radio: “Pasé noches enteras estudiando su imagen / frontal, de perfil, de espaldas / y fue como verlo íntegro. / ¿Lo vi? Lo recuerdo” [I spent entire nights studying its image / head-on, from the side, from the back / and it was like seeing it in its entirety. / Did I see it? I remember it].
“Nos empujan por los bordes / nos desganchan y lapidan / arrancan el fruto verde” [They shove us toward the border/ they release and stone us / they uproot the green fruit], she tells us in the poem “Maceta” [Bouquet] and it is without a doubt in these moments that she takes the first person plural, that we manage to see a perspective in which her voice doesn’t distance itself, it’s there with us to open a gorge joined with the natural course of history or of how it has been written. There’s no other poet of her generation that has dodged the transformations of the country and, certainly, we could say that the staging of the contradictions of these times (with their amnesties and silences) can be traced back to poetry. For no part of her work attempts to go against the discourses of institutionalism and effacement of crimes and names: “El río de la vergüenza es el único que debiera de ser navegable” (“Compacto” [Compact]) [The river of shame is the only that should be navigable] (“Compacto”). And later in the poem, “Restos [Remains]”: “Los arrojaron al mar / Y no cayeron al mar / Cayeron sobre nosotros” [They threw them into the sea / And They didn’t fall to the sea / They fell on us]. Writing about the disappearances that made many of her writings circulate underground for decades, like for example, those that make up the period of Cuerpos (Bodies) found in various parts from 1982.
In this collection, its last book is undoubtedly a peculiar outcome. Birds from my window is the search for a close object of study: the garden and the birds that visit it. Each one of them opens a reflection, an instance. These microcosms allow general conjectures in a dry planet, piled with a “césped que es plástico / nieve que no es nieve” [plastic grass / snow that is not snow]. Part of the fauna that populates the neighborhood has gone, dragonflies and Southern lapwings replaced by “maquinillas / con aspas que mapean desde la altura / como fumigarnos como piojos” [razors / with blades that map from the height / as if to fumigate us like lice]. Elvira doesn’t let meditation of the minimum not be political, although there is an apparent craving for calm.
In some way this poetic act reminds us of the shift of the artist David Hockney toward the landscape of his native land, a return to the scene, threatened and that investigates the modified nature where even the seasons aren’t as they were before: “Yo dudo de lo que puede ser nombrado Primavera” [I doubt what can be called spring]. It is not insignificant that she brings Hockney, known equally for his versatility and chameleon-like capacity to leap to distinct techniques, registers, and representative manners. And it is like the poem “Arte contemporáneo” [Contemporary art] says: “El arte es en algún momento / un animal vivo” [Art is in any moment / a living animal]. It’s the artist’s job to return to this organic nature and wild state against domesticity of profit and extraction.
This collection made by Vicente Undurraga undoubtedly celebrates this adventure toward the wild, that which the North American poet WS Merwin said he did not recognize until he looked for it. Here, Elvira Hernández consolidates a work that doesn’t fear investigating the borders of a language, compromise, and her own curiosity as a scribe. She maps a vast mental landscape full of sounds that takes us back to the situation of women and men of these times.
Diego Alfaro Palma
Translated by Emilee Romero