On Sex and Death: Vicente Huidobro’s “Skyquake: Tremor of Heaven,” co-translated from Spanish by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong

by Gabriella Martin

Huidobro_Cover_FrontWithin the first few lines of Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro’s Skyquake: Tremor of Heaven, co-translated by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong, an ear and an eye fuck inside a beaker, but there’s no time to linger on the logistics of that—this is a cosmic love story of much grander proportions. Composed as twin originals in Spanish and French between 1928 and 1931, this roving long prose poem witnesses the perpetual, agonized yearning of separated lovers seeking one another across eternity and infinity, where they collide—gloriously—on occasion, before scattering through the universe once again. It is a poem that speaks to violence and desire and the violence of desire. It is, in essence, a meditation on the entanglements of sex and death.

Vicente Huidobro (1893-1948) is a giant of the Latin American and transatlantic avant-garde, moving between artists’ circles in Madrid, Paris, Buenos Aires and Santiago in the early twentieth century. He is best known for developing creacionismo, the avant-garde movement (of which he was, in effect, the only member) in which the poet rejects mimesis to strive instead for absolute creation, taking on the role of “un pequeño dios”—that is, a little God.[1] Despite Huidobro’s prominent place within the historical avant-garde, he is often overshadowed in the canon of Chilean poetry available in English translation, led by figures such as Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral. Within Huidobro’s extensive oeuvre, Skyquake might be considered a sequel, of sorts, to his more widely-known poetic project, Altazor, translated into English by Eliot Weinberger in 1988. The two works are often paired together, as Skyquake expands upon what Infante and Leong describe as Altazor’s (and I can think of no better description) “apocalyptic eroticism.”

The attention and care that Infante and Leong have put into excavating the most accurate editions of the Spanish and French originals—Temblor de cielo and Tremblement du ciel—and in turn translating from both versions, is immediately evident, and commendable. As their detailed and engaging translators’ notes make explicit, respect for the poem’s bilingual origins drives their methodology. This approach makes the translators’ task altogether more difficult, as it involves folding multiple originals into their rendering, but also more expansive. Even more, the poem itself is already a loose reworking of the myth of Tristan and Isolde, adding yet another translational layer to the project’s lineage. At the same time, the translators are academically-minded; while there is room for more riskier experimentation, they have prioritized accuracy and closeness to Huidobro’s word choices, intimately following the Spanish and French—an understandable choice given the book’s archivist inclination.

In this regard, publisher co•im•press’ clever trilingual format lends itself to a translational reading that positions Skyquake’s various versions not as discrete entities, but as relational parts that together form a whole work. The physical arrangement draws attention to the act of translation itself; the reader is not only forced to read this as a translation, as one of many possible versions of the text, but it also destabilizes the assumption of a one-to-one, direct correspondence between a source text and its translation. As scholar-translator Karen Emmerich reminds us, “[the] ‘source,’ the presumed object of translation, is not a stable ideal” (2).  In Skyquake, it is unclear whether the French or Spanish came first, thus even what we view as the “original” is already marked by a process—or the possibility—of translation. Infante and Leong bring to light Emmerich’s observation that translators might “need to negotiate the existence of multiple texts…or even engage in the editorial finessing of a new so-called original” (20). The impact of this is greater, though—disrupting notions of equivalence paves the way to see translation more clearly as creation, rather than replication, and in turn, as an unequivocally creacionista act.

Moreover, one of the most compelling aspects of both the poem and the translation project at hand is the many layers of doubling that have taken place at various junctures. The co-translators’ choice of a dual title in English—Skyquake: Tremor of Heaven— is very much an intentional nod to the mirrored originals from which it was crafted. Additionally, the double title elucidates the weaving between the intimate and the cosmic realms staged in the poem itself, distinguished by the different connotations of “quake” and “tremor,” of temblor and tremblement. A “skyquake,” a massive disruption and re-ordering of space during which, perhaps, “the air loses its own boundaries” (24), is juxtaposed with a heavenly tremor—a different, small-scale form of disruption, evoking the tremor prompted by the touch of a lover, or perhaps more obviously, the tremor(s) of orgasm, which, admittedly, bridge the earthly and celestial realms. It is this leap between personal, physical pleasure and eternal, infinite yearning that forms the central tension of the poem, and which the double title ingeniously signals.

This tension is perhaps most intricately explored through the poem’s presentation of sex and death as mirrored, inextricable processes. Like the speaker and their lover, the two acts collide magnetically, at times literally intertwining: “There the curious ones of tomorrow will discover the intermingling of our skulls and our bones” (23), or, “Here is man upon woman from the beginning until the end of the earth, eternally like a stone upon a grave. You are nothing but death upon death. Contemplate the spasmic gesture as it dies in death” (21). Isolde openly embraces death—flirts with it, even, “[she] hears the voice of the tombs and opens her mouth to bite into death” (19). Violence and eroticism merge in the command, “—Isolde, look at me in battle, look at me at the most harrowing moment, when all is lost” (24). Burial, even, becomes a penetrative act, “Here we are at last asleep in the sex of the earth” (34). These collisions tease at the fine line between creation and destruction, action and inaction, beginnings and endings, which lie at the core of creacionismo itself.

Indeed, Skyquake is situated so far outside space and time as we know it, beyond our meager human plane, that the sudden, occasional appearance of a contemporary, recognizable object—a gunshot, or a judge, for example—is jarring, as it grounds the poem back to Earth, away from the galactic, ethereal realm that Huidobro has crafted throughout. The poem operates on a vast timescale, returning to a primordial age with striking images: “Isolde, Isolde, bears were once flowers in the ice age. When the thaw came, they freed themselves and ran off in all directions” (3). It is disorienting, dizzying in magnitude, pointing toward a godly presence; that is, the creacionista poet as a “little God” is both outside the poem, having created a vast universe that exists only on these pages, and also within it, as the specter of an “Eternal Father”  tinkers away in a cosmic laboratory (1) and “[rocks] newborn planets” (9).

Perhaps, in sum, the work’s driving force is best embodied by the lines: “Your destiny is to be in love with danger, the danger within and outside you, to kiss the lips of the abyss, and to achieve, with the assistance of darkness, the final triumph of all your endeavors and dreams sprinkled with morning dew” (3). Ultimately, we’re all hurling toward the abyss, yet we nevertheless fuck and fall in love and fight battles and get lost in pleasure as we roll toward it. Maybe, as Skyquake suggests, to love is the abyss.

Huidobro, Vicente. Skyquake: Tremor of Heaven. Translated by Ignacio Infante and Michael Leong. co•im•press, 2020.

Gabriella Martin translates from Spanish and Catalan, and holds a PhD in Hispanic Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Currently based at Aarhus University in Denmark, her academic work explores twentieth and twenty-first century Iberian translational literature.

Work Cited:

Emmerich, Karen. Literary Translation and the Making of Originals. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

[1] This line originates from Huidobro’s 1916 poem “Arte poética,” and is often cited as the driving ethos of creacionismo.

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