By Rida Vaquas
All quoted poems are translated by Yvette Siegert.
Before anything else can be said, I am disoriented to write about Alejandra Pizarnik, knowing I shall refer to her formally as Pizarnik. For me now, how can she be anything other than Alejandra? Is there any deeper intimacy than the one who is your first port of call on a sleepless night, the nights where “anything is possible / except for / a poem”? To write about Pizarnik as purely an intellectual interest suggests the disintegration of my nocturnal alliances and a disavowal of companionship. Nonetheless the poet Pizarnik, who has earned her place at the boundaries of the Surrealist canon by playing “a very demanding game” (Cesar Aira), deserves an overview that is more than sentimentalism.
Alejandra Pizarnik was born in Argentina in 1936 to a Russian Jewish family. Her early years were marked out by being a distant observer to the rise of Nazism in Europe, as her sister Miriam Pizarnik recalls, her grandparents and aunts were in concentration camps whilst her family struggled economically in Buenos Aires. Her first poetry collection, later disavowed, “The Most Foreign Country” was published in 1955 when she was only nineteen, and she subsequently published six collections of poetry, her last one “A Musical Hell” being published in 1971. Pizarnik formed and disarticulated her poetic selfhood on the margins: she loved women, she spent the last years of her life in psychiatric institutions, in 1972 she died of an overdose in a country where suicide was a capital offense. Her works became subject to censorship following the military coup in Argentina in 1976.
Whilst there is a tendency in literary criticism to view the mental torment of women as the articulation of the interior self, what goes unexamined is the ways in which selfhood is mediated through external forces. This is not to suggest that Pizarnik was a politically minded poet, indeed her poetic output is notable for the absence of explicit political content, constraining itself to images from childhood nightmares: dolls, the night, gardens – recurrently suffused with death. It is only to make the observation that the poetic subject that Pizarnik constructed, the “monstrous girl” or “the girl drawn in pink chalk” was not purely interior, but was intended to be in a relation with the world in which her work was published. Her poetic persona, which she consciously constructed as autobiographical metaphor, was built in relation to a world where assuming the social functions of “adulthood” was an unbearably grotesque prospect. Her correspondence acknowledges the unsustainability of this child-poet persona, to her analyst Leon Ostrov she wrote “I feel like a teenager but I am finally tired of playing the role of Alejandra” in 1962. Thus to identify Pizarnik utterly with her metaphor is a devaluation: the absorption of the self into her poetry was a conscious performance, a process of work in itself, not an automatic reflection. By acknowledging her as “playing the role of Alejandra”, we can then ask questions of the world which formed her audience, the world in which this role was made possible.
Pizarnik’s poetry is often said to be wrestling with inadequacy of words: “words / do not make love / they make absence” (On this Night, In This World). However this is reductive, and perhaps it can be said that what is really at stake in her poems is a violent struggle to the death with the problem of absence. Words themselves may not be inadequate so much as being a marker of inadequacy – language becomes necessary when presence cannot be established. On this note, she writes “Each word that I write restores me to the absence for which I would write what I would not write if I let you come here”. Contrast this with how she writes of silence, in her diaries “Now I know why I’m in love, her silence is the presence of things instead of their imaginary representation”. Words cannot make love in Pizarnik’s poetic framework as language requires the absence of love. The quality she praises in Silvina Ocampo of “silencing yourself in a poem” (To a Poem about Water, by Silvina Ocampo) is precisely one she cannot attain, in setting out to construct “imaginary representations” rather than incarnate presences. She commands language in anguished consciousness that there “ought to be silence” (In Honour of a Loss).
Yet even as she develops a poetics of absence, there is a persistent subject who cannot help but be present, the self. Her poetic self fragments, doubles, hides, but nonetheless remains undeniably there. A late poem, dedicated to Anna Becciu states: “I just came to see the garden where someone was dying on account of something that never happened or someone who never came”. Absence is not known in blank spaces, only in gardens where the poetic subject is conscious of what is not there. What becomes clear: absence is made by the person who dies of it, the one who possesses the terrible agency of naming it. The self which states she is going to “hide behind language” (Cold in Hand Blues) is nonetheless present within the language, trembling, and speaking of her fear of speaking, whilst language shapes the contours of the self and defines the boundaries that the self has a horror of. Pizarnik’s poetic self is one that cannot be negated within the poem, rather it is necessary for the poem to hold its shape.
In Pizarnik’s reception, the “maudit” aspect of the formula “poète maudit” has been more frequently engaged with than the “poète” aspect. Moreover, there is a tendency in her mythologisation to regard her as object of that process, rather than a self-aware contributor (for instance publishing excerpts of her diaries in her lifetime). Yet her poetry’s rigour, its resistance to disintegration, is what commits a reader to its fearful absences. Pizarnik the poet is the one who played the demanding game, not the doll she represented herself as.
Pizarnik, Alejandra. Extracting the Stone Of Madness New Directions. 2016 (trans. Yvette Siegert)
Mackintosh, Fiona. Childhoold in the Works of Silvina Ocampo and Alejandra Pizarnik Tamesis Books. 2003
Aira, Cesar. “On Alejandra Pizarnik” in Music and Literature Number 6 2015 (trans. Katherine Silver)