January 2004

Laura Felch


Altazor by Vicente Huidobro

“All languages are dead”: A startling statement for a poet to make about the tool of his trade. For Vicente Huidobro, language was dead. The book-length epic poem Altazor was written between 1919 and 1931, right as Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall with the devastation of World War I. The King’s Men were optimistically trying to put him together again; the poets, the artists, the scientists attempted to create something within the space left by the destruction. Art may have been corrupted by the propaganda of the war to end all wars, but this was a chance to make language anew. Poetry needed to be about execution, not just a “lady harp of beautiful images.”

Altazor refuses to simply represent a distilled version of life. The modern age had arrived –- the age of radios, bridges, skyscrapers. The vehicle of this new age was the aeroplane. The unsung hero of this epic is Charles Lindbergh, who flew non-stop across the across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 and proved that anything is possible. Thus our protagonist Altazor, the Anti-Poet, echoes his journey, only he flies away from the earth entirely, gaining speed, the rhythm of words cascading perpetually faster. In this emptiness of space, he has the liberty to “revive the language/ With raucous laughter/ With wagons of cackles/Witch circuit breakers in sentences.” When he reaches the Einsteinian boundary of language, his words turn from poetry to energy.

In Altazor’s world, language acts. A “brutal painful grammar” massacres the old “internal concepts.” Words are not mere representations but the things themselves. There are words that have the “shades of trees," words with “the atmosphere of stars,” words that “ignite,” words that “freeze the tongue.”

What happened to the language? Why, asks the reader, did it die? Too many “stellar words” and “cherries of vagabond goodbyes.” Now, says Huidobro, we are “looking for something else." Let us play the “simple sport of words” with pure words and nothing more, “no images awash with jewels.”

Our hero Altazor flies further from the earth, further from Latin Homeric poetry tradition, closer to the pure pleasure of sound. Sentences romp and play, nouns masquerade as verbs, prepositional phrases hijack sentences, but the meaning and power behind the words remains constant:

The waterfall tresses over the night
While the night beds to rest
With its moon that pillows the sky
I iris the sleepy land
That roads towards the horizon
In the shade of a shipwrecking tree

By interchanging associated words, Huidobro keeps the connotation behind the phrase while infusing new life into old themes.

With Altazor, Vincente Huidobro releases poetry from the chains of nostalgia and sets “fire” to a “shivering language." Translator Eliot Weinburger maintains Huidobro’s playful game of words, resulting in a forceful and timeless epic.

Altazor by Vicente Huidobro, Eliot Weinberger (Translator)
Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 0819566780
196 pages