Jasmine Chatfield reviews The Chilean Flag by Elvira Hernández, translated by Alec Schumacher, Kenning Editions, 2019
The Chilean Flag by Elvira Hernández, translated by Alec Schumacher, Kenning Editions, 2019
Elvira Hernández’ detainment and torture for five days by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in 1979 was accidental, a case of mistaken identity, but in the years that followed the regime continued to monitor her. Feeling watched, Hernández (real name María Teresa Adriasola) wrote La bandera de Chile, a poem that eschews the personal in favour of the collective and that spoke to the heart of oppression in Chile. For a decade, the poem was mimeographed and passed around, before finally being published more widely in 1991 after the end of the Pinochet regime.
This new translation of La bandera de Chile (The Chilean Flag), presents Alec Schumacher’s English translation as well as the Spanish, allowing the reader to flip between the two to view the perfect alignment of the original concrete word-images beside their translations. This stylistic choice is one of the markers of the Chilean neo-avant-garde, including writers such as Juan Luis Martínez and Cecilia Vicuña, though Hernández did not consider herself part of a movement. Sometimes the words leave gaps and holes where things are unsaid (‘they do not have they do not have they are not’), or perhaps where things would have been removed under media censorship. Sometimes words wave on the page like a flag in the wind, like the Chilean Flag herself, or itself.
The Chilean Flag has the body of a woman: ‘her fabric swells up like an ulcerated belly’. When she is not hoisted high on a flagpole – ‘exhibitionist by nature’ – she skulks under the cover of darkness, where ‘a black hood engrievens her visage | she looks like an executioner of her own colours’. Her contradictory nature stems from a conflicted history, that of Chile.
Her femininity is less remarkable in the Spanish, where all nouns are masculine or feminine. Indeed, an earlier English translation by Daniel Shapiro for The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry had replaced the feminine with the neutral, the flag as ‘it’. Schumacher leans more into the idea of the flag as a woman, and originally his translation solely used ‘she’ and ‘her’ pronouns as a means of exploring this. When he spoke to Hernández about this on the phone, she went away to think, and in the time between that call and when they next spoke she had had a dream: a Chilean Flag of two faces, one of ‘she’ and one of ‘it’. With that, Schumacher took back to the translation with the two faces in mind.
Therefore, The Chilean Flag of this translation has two realities – the flag as object, and the flag as feminine body. A comparison is drawn between the subjugation of women and the subjugation of Chilean citizens under the regime. The body is not healthy. It is ‘ulcerated’, ‘malnourished’ and ‘brandishing daily eczemas’. Its vulnerability has been taken advantage of by those who use it as a symbol to oppress. The flag is secretive, has an agenda and a will – ‘The Chilean Flag forces herself to be more than a flag’ – but ultimately she has her power removed, she cannot speak, and ‘says nothing about herself’.
The interchange of the Flag between object and woman conjures unusual and arresting images: ‘stabbed by matadors’ flags she bleeds in a plastic bag’, a line that sounds almost out of a nursery rhyme, its jauntiness a mockery that serves to underscore the degradation of the country. The Chilean Flag is ‘used as a gag | and that’s why surely that’s why | no one says anything’.
The flag was originally a symbol of the country’s independence from Spanish rule. In the poem, this is its ‘already dead history’. That the flag came to be used against the population is a common form of political control. Schumacher in the translators’ notes draws a comparison between how the Chilean flag became a tool for oppression, and how black US athletes today can lose their jobs for refusing to stand for the national anthem – in both cases, patriotism is used against citizens to bend them to the will of the ruling class. In the UK, the British flag has become somewhat synonymous with the Leave campaign, supporters of ‘Brexit’ and the rise of nationalism and fascism in the country. Symbols of unity too easily become corrupted and used against the people they represent. In the end, ‘The Chilean Flag loses heart | and gives in’ – she has been defeated, for now.
The Chilean Flag is a foreigner in her own country
she doesn’t have ID
she isn’t majority
she is no longer recognised
the prolonged fasting has put death’s thumb on her
The passivity of the Chilean Flag, echoed in the sparseness in which it lies on the page, creates a picture of the Flag as beaten, abused. The poem pulls no punches in conjuring for us each manner in which the Flag has been humiliated, patronised, left for dead. But the mimeographed poem, defiant of the cultural blackout and censorship of the 1980s, distributed through underground circles, became a symbol of resistance in itself. As symbols tend to do, it took on something of its own life, became something more than ‘just’ a poem – became in its own way an opposing, revolutionary emblem to that of the tormented flag.
– Jasmine Chatfield
Jasmine Chatfield is a writer and performer based in Manchester, UK. In 2017 they won a Northern Writers’ Award and their poems have been published in several locations. They co-founded experimental pop cabaret FLIM NITE that runs in Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and London.