In these days when surrealism has become a staple of breakfast cereal adverts, it’s hard imagining the original impact of, say, Paul Éluard’s ‘la terre est bleue comme une orange’ (the earth is blue like an orange), or Robert Desnos’ ‘je suis le bûcheron de la forêt d’acier’ (I am the woodcutter in the steel forest). Vicente Huidobro never signed up officially to the programme, a mishap that’s led to his absence from most surrealist anthologies then and now, but this bilingual volume brings together two small collections from the mid-twenties, the period when he was most influenced by them.
Reading this kind of work from a century’s distance takes some getting used to. The stuff about capital-W Woman can feel embarrassingly archaic, and the love-poems evince a paramour too scatterbrained to generate any intensity, let alone be reciprocated. Those about the seasons, the sky and nature manage better, refreshing these ultra-traditional subjects through their sheer oddity. The ocean, shipwreck and drowning feature heavily, not only as Symbolist allusions, but also perhaps because, as a Chilean in Paris, Huidobro must have spent quite a while on the Atlantic. There are openings rich in promise
Je possède la clef de l’Automne (I possess the key to Autumn)
Maintenant écoutez le grincement des paupières (Now listen to the eyelids creaking)
Parmi les grands figues de l’espace (Among the great figs of space)
albeit they’re quickly overwhelmed by whimsy. Structure is, naturally, one of the things being kicked against, but there’s the perennial problem of how else the readers are to be kept engaged. Perhaps, like the compliant beloved, they have to think, Well, at least the writer’s having a good time. And how artistic his dreams are!
One interesting feature is that while most avant-garde poetry of the time embraced vers libre, these frequently use rhymes. Some are of the coeur/fleur type that is the French equivalent of breeze/trees or moon/June. But others exploit less common rhymes as a way to link unrelated lines or, as here, to tease with a sonic false-reasoning:
Le Printemps est relative comme l’arc-en-ciel
Il pourrait aussi bien être une ombrelle
(Spring is relative like the rainbow/ It might as well be a parasol)
The book also includes Huidobro’s Spanish versions, which give a glimpse into his ongoing editing:
Dans tes cheveux il y a une musique
(In your hair there’s a kind of music)
Hay una música silvestre
En tus cabellos leves
(There’s a wild music/ in your light hair)
where the supplementary adjectives suggest a poet not yet quite certain of his effects.
All that said, there’s a certain charm here. It might be the sheer insouciance, the sheer eccentricity, or the fresh resonance for our times of lines like ‘le ciel est gratuit’ (the sky is free of charge). In whatever case, it’s definitely helped by a marvellously self-effacing translation which chooses the clearest word rather than showing off the translator’s verbal agility, doesn’t move lines about, and doesn’t privilege rhyme over other poetic effects, as often happens. It’s also unafraid of leaving a nonsense line as nonsense rather than killing by interpretation, a particular danger with this kind of poetry. The book’s appearance finally extends access to Huidobro’s less famous work beyond completists and specialists, which is surely a good thing.
Guy Russell 21st October 2020