The Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) is one of the most important figures in 20th-century Hispanic poetry and, along with César Vallejo, one of the pioneering avant-gardists in Spanish. Like Vallejo, he lived for many years in Paris but, unlike his Peruvian contemporary, he participated fully in the city's various artistic movements. Influenced initially by Apollinaire, Huidobro fell in early with both forward-looking French writers such as Pierre Reverdy, and with the Spanish expatriate colony, including Picasso and Picabia.
Originally from an upper-class Santiago family, Huidobro was fortunate to have the means to support himself and his family while he found his artistic way, and — after an early phase writing in a quasi-symbolist style in his native city — he threw himself into the Parisian artistic milieu with a passion, quickly becoming a notable figure. He also wrote in French — sometimes translating his own works into French, sometimes composing in both languages. His early forays in French were a little uncertain and the manuscripts show corrections by Picabia and Reverdy among others.
Octavio Paz referred to Huidobro as el oxígeno invisible (the invisible oxygen) of Latin American poetry, reflecting the fact that his influence was felt by poets right across the continent; in fact he was probably the major link between the European avant-garde and progressive literary circles in Latin America.
He was a also a successful novelist (Mio Cid Campeador — published in English translation in 1932 as Portrait of a Paladin), a would-be screenwriter (his script for a silent movie called Cagliostro won a major prize but was never filmed), a polemicist (writer of artistic manifestoes & founder of Creationism, with the Spanish poet Gerardo Diego), politician (a sometime member of the Communist Party, he also ran for the Presidency of Chile as leader of the Youth Party, which he founded), and a journalist (foreign correspondent in World War II). Huidobro was a restless soul and an artist of the very highest calibre. Today he is perhaps most revered for his extraordinary long poem Altazor, written over a period of some 12 years and finally published in 1931. (A superb translation of this work by Eliot Weinberger is available from Wesleyan University Press.) Less known is the long prose poem Temblor de cielo, published in the same year and written in the two years prior to its publication. Huidobro regarded the two works as his artistic testament, and the summation of his work at that point in time.
Altazor is the archetypal modernist Big Poem and belongs with other titanic efforts such as The Cantos, The Waste Land, and Trilce. It is fragmentary and alludes to the glories of the future, symbolised by flight. Temblor is more apparently unified, although this might owe more to its style of delivery: an ecstatic outpouring of words that largely revolve around the themes of love, sex and death. The Isolde to whom much of the poem is addressed is an idealised feminine figure who is part goddess, part idealised beloved, part Isolde from Wagner's opera and part Ximena Amunátegui, the young woman who had become the poet's second wife in the late 1920s. The poem is also a sustained lyric effusion of a kind that Huidobro had never produced before, and it marks the point at which his work moves on from the barnstorming avant-garderie of his younger years to a more grounded and mature style. It is also the last time that Huidobro was to adopt the godlike narrative persona that occurs in the earlier work. In Temblor, God is dead, or at least, an irrelevance. By implication, the godlike poet has also passed on.
The poem exists in two versions, one in Spanish and one in French. There is some doubt over which version has primacy, although it has been argued convincingly that the French version precedes the Spanish, if not throughout its composition. The present translation is from the Spanish, but the French has been referred to throughout, in both cases in the versions published in the UNESCO Obra poética of Huidobro. The translation of the title requires a mention: in Chilean Spanish, a temblor is an earthquake. Hence, one valid translation of the title is Skyquake (and indeed this was my initial version). However the French version of the title is Tremblement de ciel, clearly a milder form than ‘quake', notwithstanding the massive quake that occurs in the poem itself. In view of this I have opted for the milder English form of ‘Sky Tremor'. Neither version is absolutely correct: I suggest that you choose the one you prefer.
For those interested in the original Spanish text, there is a good, and cheap, reading version from Cátedra in Madrid, coupled with Altazor, and edited by René de Costa. The French version can only be had in the UNESCO edition of the Obra poética (ed. Cedomil Goic). The best general introduction to the poet is Vicente Huidobro: The Careers of a Poet by René de Costa (OUP, 1984).
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