Translated by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong
by John Bradley
The translators have given this long prose poem a double title: Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven. This duality befits a book that Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) published in both Spanish, Temblor de Cielo (1931), and French, Tremblement de Ciel (1932). Huidobro’s poetic of “Behead the monster that roars at the doorsteps of dreams. And then let no one forbid anything” applies to his doctrine of creacionismo, where “the poet is a god” and also to this particular work, which evokes the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde.
Sky-Quake is broken into seven sections, yet even with these welcome breaks, the dense, wildly surreal prose makes for slow reading. Surrealist texts tend to work best in shorter forms, because once traditional narrative devices are discarded, longer surreal prose becomes hard to sustain—for writer and reader. One narrative device that Huidobro does employ in this volume is a constant address to Isolde: “Isolde, Isolde, how many miles separate us, how many sexes between you and me.” Despite the length (35 pages), Huidobro’s linguistic ingenuity never flags. The pyrotechnical language remains explosive throughout, no small feat. His inventiveness flares with passages like “The street of dreams has an immense navel from which the neck of a bottle peeps. Inside, there’s a dead bishop who changes color every time you shake the bottle.”
Huidobro’s Tristan is a cosmic entity, more mythic than mortal, who discloses such feats as “my throat once swallowed all the thunder in the sky.” He is obsessed with Isolde, whose characterization is problematic, as she’s completely passive. She’s a muse for the speaker, one that possesses no agency. In a passage that might allude to Lautreamont’s Maldoror image of a chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a dissecting table, Huidobro writes: “Then I bent over you as if over a dissecting table, and, sinking my lips into you, looked at you; your womb resembled an open wound and your eyes the end of the world.” No doubt Huidobro wants to shock the reader, but this does not change the fact that his Isolde exists only as a sexual fantasy: “Share your breasts to kiss.”
If the reader can set this sexism aside, the book offers ample linguistic feats of imagination, on a par with the best work of Andre Breton and Federico Garcia Lorca. Huidobro’s imagery can astound, in lines like this: “Hypnotized zebras go galloping by and there are windows that open in the darkness like parasites glued to the night.” Much like Pablo de Rokha, a fellow Chilean surrealist poet, Huidobro infuses his poetry with his massive ego: “My heart is too large for all of you. You have measured your mountains: you know that Mount Gaurishankar is 8,800 meters high, but you don’t know nor will you ever know the height of my heart.”
Much neglected by English readers due to a lack of translation for decades, Huidobro seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance. Another version of this book was published last year by Shearsman Books, translated by Tony Frazer and this year Shearsman released Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden, two works composed by Huidobro in Paris in 1925. Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven, with its trilingual format of English, Spanish, and French, and this wonderfully lucid translation by Infante and Leong, further establishes Vicente Huidobro as one of the most exciting voices of the early twentieth century. What other poet would dare to try to follow advice like this, given by an Aymara poet to Huidobro: “The poet is a god. Don’t sing about rain, poet. Make it rain.”