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Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Paris 1925: Ordinary Autumn & All of a Sudden by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

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)

becomes

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

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

Manifestos by Vicente Huidobro Translated by Tony Frazer (Shearsman Books)

The 1910s and 1920s were the Golden Age of artistic manifestos. Surrealists, Suprematists, Ultraists, Unanimists, Vorticists, Dadaists, Futurists: you gathered a group, you selected a name, you started a magazine, you adopted a café or established a salon, and you published a manifesto. Or in many cases, numerous manifestos as you refined your aesthetics and politics, and responded to critics. The manifesto was a recruitment prospectus and a marketing tool. It was also a kind of genre in its own right, where, as a poet, you could show off your aptitude for startling collocation or paradox and display your commitment to daring and modernity.
Chilean poet Huidobro had already produced an Ars Poetica before his arrival in Paris in 1916:

Por qué cantáis a la rosa, ¡oh, Poetas!
Hacedla florecer en el poema:
(Why sing about the rose, poets? Make it bloom in the poem.)

Another fronts his Saisons Choisies in 1921 (he wrote in both French and Spanish). This book, four years later, is a refining and responding one. It surveys the opposition. Cocteau is worthless. Soupault ‘must be excommunicated’. Futurism is simply out-of-date: singing about war and athletes is older than Pindar, and singing about aeroplanes doesn’t make you futuristic if you do it in old-fashioned ways. Surrealism’s advocacy of automatic writing, madness and dreams makes for poor poetry and besides, jettisoning reason is impossible. On the other hand, Huidobro shares the Surrealist opposition to realism, and approves much of the poetry quoted in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto. He largely agrees with them that successful imagery is about ‘the bringing together of two distant realities’, while claiming the idea is not new.

Clearly Huidobro’s Creationism is a cousin of Surrealism. Great poems arise from the poet’s délire (euphoria) and superconscience (superconsciousness). They involve l’inhabituel (the unfamiliar), ‘humanising things’ and making the abstract concrete and the concrete abstract. Nothing must be anecdotal or descriptive, but everything should be newly created, like l’oiseau niché sur l’arc-en-ciel (the bird nestled on the rainbow). Or horizon carré (square horizon). And, of course, such work can only be produced by les gens d’un esprit vraiment supérieur (people of a really superior mind), for le poète est un moteur de haute fréquence spirituelle (the poet is an engine of high spiritual frequency). This last, rather futurist, image is rhetorically dramatic but evidently unfalsifiable as argument. It illustrates a common weakness of manifestos, whose polemical cast often entails appeals to science and philosophy while betraying that their writers are experts in neither sphere.

Despite his upper-class super-confidence (or arrogance), Huidobro’s repetitive ‘I’s and insistent name-dropping (Apollinaire, Picasso, Gris) expose a certain plaintiveness. No-one’s paying enough attention. He’s obliged to be his own critic, quoting, explaining and praising his own poems. Creationism ultimately became an art-historical also-ran and Huidobro returned to Latin America. Nowadays he’s well-known there but often overlooked in Anglophone surveys of the modernist ferment, so it’s great to see his works reappearing. This one is in a useful parallel-text edition with a contextualising introduction and makes for a fascinating read.

Guy Russell 12th August 2020

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