Translated by Yvette Siegert
New Directions ($18.95)
by George Kalamaras
Alejandra Pizarnik was, according to Argentinean poet Enrique Molina, “the daughter of insomnia.” Too long reduced in English translation to a footnote or to being represented by a handful of poems in a rare anthology of Latin American women poets, Pizarnik forged a poetry that peeled the skin of darkness back to reveal the exploration of death, the wonders of childhood, and the heavy chains of an imagination that—like other female poets of her generation—inhabited the liminal space between the body and the universe. Extracting the Stone of Madness, a long-awaited selection of her work, explores this space in detail, with beautifully wrought poems that evoke (and don’t simply describe) the in-between. She tells us in her poem, “Paths of the Mirror”: “The pleasure of losing yourself in the image foreseen. I rose from my body in search of who I am. A pilgrim of my self, I have gone to the one who sleeps in the winds of her country.”
Pizarnik’s literal country is Argentina, where she was born in 1936, dying there by her own hand in 1972. But her true country is the limitless winds of the imagination. Her poems are dream-weaves of a soul in search of answers, a breath in search of a candle to extinguish in order to allow the darkness of the cave of the psyche to season it with the moist places of fierce animal tenderness. The paradox of her life is that her poems pivot between despair and celebration—even the celebration of despair. Her world is a world of self-consciousness and self-reflection, though rarely for the details of daily life, few of which her poems reveal. What is it like to desire not only to study the myths but to live them, in the dark murky places where the psyche bends back into itself consuming Adriane’s thread, back-tracking it to a way in rather than a way out? These are the moments Pizarnik allows us to touch, even as her poems scald and repel, as if moving our hands away from a burning book, our own psyche left smoldering on a beach of bleached bone and primordial ash. In one of her final, uncollected poems, “For Anna Becciú,” Pizarnik recounts, “I just came to see the garden where someone was dying on account of something that never happened or of someone who never came.” The often long lines of her poems read like hurricanes and land unresolved, as if she stepped into the body for a brief thirty-six years, unsure if she was fully in the body or partially out.
Is Pizarnik a Surrealist? Yes and no. Surrealism for her is more a word for something innate and not the designation of a process or a technique. No word can describe how she inhabits the liminal space of the in-between, where she is constituted of language and simultaneously not:
I, the sad waiting for a word
to name the thing I look for
and what am I looking for?
not the name of the deity
not the name of the names
but the precise and precious names
of my hidden desires
something in me punishes me
from all my lives ago . . .
Her seemingly Surreal turns remain disembodied, like a ghost in search of a ghost, one foot in the grave and the other in the human psyche—a heightened moment in search of the ordinary, and vice versa. Imagine a dream in which you dream yourself dreaming—those are the murky layers of consciousness she explores. In Knives and Angels: Women Writers in Latin America, she explains her connection to Surrealism this way:
I believe that signs, words, hint at things, they suggest things. This complex way of feeling language leads me to believe that language cannot express reality; all we can do is speak about the obvious. That’s where my desire comes from to make poems that are terribly precise, despite my innate Surrealism, and I want to work with elements from the inner shadows. That is the main feature of my poetry.
Inner shadows are not only her subject matter but her various points of origin. Even her earliest poems collected here from 1965’s Works and Night demonstrate these seed shadows, somewhere between Surrealism and not. In “Your Voice,” the ambiguity of a seeming dangling modifier troubles the border between self and other: “Ambushed in my writing / you are singing in my poem.” “Meaning of Her Absence” continues this interpenetration of landscapes, again complicating the relationship between self and other, and again drawing this ambiguity from dark wells, with the assistance of knife-edge line-breaks that cut meaning forward and backward at once:
if I dare
look on and speak
it’s because of her
shadow linked so gently
to my name
in the rain
in my memory
for her burning
face in my poem . . .
For Pizarnik, there is little hope of emerging whole, since the burning that cleanses with an inner alchemy also scalds, leaving permanent scars of despair: “The name I was called by is already lost.” Still, she tells us in the beginning of “Of Things Unseen,” a poem from a later phase of her work, we have language—which itself is a lot—and a deep primordial desire that will maintain the fires forging our words: “Before words can run out, something in the heart must die.” What complicates Pizarnik’s vision, saving it from annihilation, is that after her entire world is stripped away, some inner core remains—obscure, disembodied, perhaps abstract—a core where the possibility of psychological resolution resides. As she continues “Of Things Unseen”:
The light of language covers me like music, like a picture ripped to shreds by the dogs of grief. And winter reaches for me like a woman who has fallen in love
with a wall.
Just when I’d hoped to give up hoping, your fall takes place within me. Now I am
only but this within.
One leaves this poem as one leaves many of Pizarnik’s powerful treks through the psyche—splintered yet whole, whole yet fragmented. If one falls “in love with a wall” has one become wedded to a great obstacle of nothingness, or to a resilience capable of supporting an entire house? To be only “this within,” is one reduced to a hope in hope of giving oneself up? Is the fall that “takes place within” a psychological sinking, or an arrival at ultimate compassion—by becoming that part of the other that stumbles and falls?
In fact, one often leaves a Pizarnik poem with more questions than answers, which is not confusion in her case but a richness that allows for multiple points of orientation. New Directions and translator Yvette Siegert should be applauded for finally making available a substantial offering of Alejandra Pizarnik’s work; I only wish the book included an introduction for readers coming to her complexities for the first time. Still, the publication of Extracting the Stone of Madness should be celebrated, with the hope that it points the way to making available more of the voices of Latin American women poets, too often relegated to the margins.