Thursday, February 15, 2024

Eliana Hernández-Pachón, The Brush, trans. Robin Myers


There are so many ways to narrate horror, and it’s hard to know which one is right. A dry, detached notarial record full of specific data and times, numbers, measurements, like a forensic report? A journalistic chronicle, be it objective or subjective, that tries to access the suffering of the victims? A fantastical reenactment in which terror swells unnoticed? A devastating, symbol-laden poem in the style of Paul Celan? A fictionless novel in the vein of Primo Levi or Truman Capote?
            The Brush, by Eliana Hernández-Pachón, recounts one of the worst massacres in early twentieth-century Columbia, committed by paramilitary forces (with obvious military complicity) in the village of El Salado and its environs, the Montes de Maria. Here, the author chooses a seemingly straightforward way to narrate horror: narrative poetry in third person that describes what befalls a peasant couple (two indirect voices, Pablo and Ester) as soon as signs suggest that something terrible is about to happen. The language is serene, colloquial, familiar, and the voices issue from the mouths of these names: Pablo, Ester, Pablo, Ester, husband and wife. The omens, the fear, the warnings flutter down like snow from the sky. When the threats of danger intensify, Pablo decides to bury his sole treasure, in a secret place: in case he survives, or in case someone from his family survives. (afterword, “How to Narrate Horror?,” Héctor Abad Faciolince)

From Colombian poet Eliana Hernández-Pachón, translated from the Spanish by Buenos Aires-based poet and translator Robin Myers, with an afterword by Héctor Abad, is The Brush (Brooklyn NY: Archipelago Books, 2024), an intense, book-length narrative poem composed in three scene-sections, opening with Pablo, followed by Ester, and then what happens next. “Seventy more of those bullets are fired that day.” the poem “The Investigators explain:” opens, “A mere / ten strike the trees.” The Brush is composed, as the press release offers, as “a response to a traumatic event in recent Colombian history: the massacre in the village of El Salado between February 16 and 21, 2000. Paramilitary forces tortured and killed sixty people.” There is something that literature can do and do very well, and that is act as witness, offering a way to document and acknowledge, to process, and The Brush shines a spotlight on Colombian history perhaps little known across North America, writing on what can’t be imagined, but an event that leaves its scar across not only history, but on the lives of those that remain. “When the bodies collapse in the town square,” the poem “The Brush continues:” opens, “picked out at random, / the houses are left behind with their yards, / their kitchens, their sheets pressed smooth, / receiving, still, / the sun’s warm touch.” This is a powerful and evocative collection, devastating for its subtlety, and composed with enormous care and unflinching gaze.

The Investigators ask:

What did they do to them? Did they kill the ones they killed because they were on the list, or because they tried to defend themselves? What else did they do that day? Was there any warning? How did they get here? That other boy—why did they take him away? Who said he’d stolen their animals? We heard about the man riding a burro. Where did that happen? How did that happen? How many did they shatter into? Were the connections made a long time ago, or were they made and unmade again and again? Did they stay behind as lookouts? Did they leave? Did they leave after that day?


No comments: