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Poems From Buenos Aires

Alejandra Pizarnik, a major voice of Argentine poetry, gains English-speaking readers 50 years after her suicide

Jake Marmer
April 02, 2020
Original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress
Original images: Wikipedia; Library of Congress

The history of Jewish migrations is, by now, so mythic that it can feel abstract and mysterious, even to the very person participating in these migrations. One’s own immigrant experience becomes too big for words and stories, yet needs to be expressed, explained to oneself and others. Perhaps this is why Alejandra Pizarnik, a major Argentine mid-20th-century poet and daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, did not write poetry that told stories of her family’s move across the ocean or explained her complex identity. Instead, she forged a poetic style, at once deeply abstract and private, and yet charged with emotional life of such intensity that her work became open and universal. Reading Pizarnik, we do not learn diasporic stories or facts—but immerse ourselves in profoundly diasporic experience.

Among the English-speaking readers in the United States, over the course of the past eight years, there has been a renaissance of interest in Pizarnik’s work. Over this short time span, nearly all of her major works have been translated or retranslated. This past year, Ugly Duckling Presse published The Last Innocence / The Lost Adventures, which, translated by Cecilia Rossi, brings together Pizarnik’s second and third poetry collections. Simultaneously, the press published A Tradition of Rupture, which is a collection of Pizarnik’s critical writings, translated by Cole Heinowitz. Why is Pizarnik, long considered to be a major voice of Argentine poetry, gaining English-speaking readers today, all of a sudden, nearly 50 years since her passing?

Born into a Yiddish-speaking family in Buenos Aires in 1936, Pizarnik attended a local Jewish school, and spoke both Yiddish and Spanish. Her first book, The Most Foreign Country (La tierra más ajena), was published when she was only 19. By the time Pizarnik took her own life at the age of 36, she was an acclaimed author and recipient of prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Fulbright, and others.

What does it mean for a poet to write, intimately and intensely, in the language that isn’t native for her family? What does it mean for a poet to write in the language that is not, in any way, her ancestral tongue? Perhaps it means that there are shadows of histories, unknown to the poet herself, that follow the poet’s every word. And although the Pizarnik we encounter in The Last Innocence / The Lost Adventures, is only in her early 20s, she seems already keenly aware of these shadows, as she describes them in the poem titled “Exile”:

Sinister madness to love a shadow.
Shadows do not die.
And my love
only embraces what flows
like lava from hell:
a silenced gathering,
phantoms in sweet erection,
priests of spume,
and above all angels,
angels as beautiful as knives
that rise in the night
and shatter hope.

What kind of exile is being described here—who is being exiled, and from where? The angels—traditionally, a positive and redemptive symbol, in Pizarnik’s rendering are haunting, beautiful, and ultimately, destructive. The stark comparison of angels to knives could be reminiscent of the Akedah, the biblical story of Isaac’s binding, where an angel stayed the knife and prevented it from doing what it set out to do—saving Isaac’s life yet also unveiling a lifetime of trauma.

The poet is in exile from everything that is concrete and permanent and, instead, is fatally drawn to that which is temporary and ephemeral—like phantoms, shadows and spume. Although erotic allusions are present in the poem, there aren’t any actual people here: just mythic shapes of one’s own psyche in a wrestling match with a self, alongside a fascination with destruction and lost hopes.

As Ana Becciu, Pizarnik’s longtime editor, helpfully points out in the book’s introduction, it was with the publication of her second volume that the poet altered her name. While her first book was published under Flora Alejandra Pizarnik—the name the poet was born with—in the subsequent collections, the first name was permanently dropped. Yet, in a way, it remained like the shadow that does “not die” but follows one eternally. In that way, the poem may point toward an exile from not only the past but one’s own self-identification.

Undoubtedly, The Last Innocence / The Lost Adventures offers a superb entry point into Pizarnik’s work. Yet, it was over the decade following the publication of this book, as the poet continued to hone her craft while retaining some of the same thematic obsessions, that she experienced a number of striking breakthroughs, becoming, paradoxically, both more articulate and more abstract. In “Primitive Eyes,” a poem that appears in her 1971 collection A Musical Hell, translated by Yvette Siegert, Pizarnik writes:

Where fear neither speaks in stories or poems, nor gives shape to terrors or triumphs.
My name, my pronoun—a grey void.
I’m familiar with the full range of fear. I know what it’s like to start singing and to set off slowly through the narrow mountain pass that leads back to the stranger in me, to my emigrant.

The opening sentence is neither a question nor statement, but a fragment that is somehow both. The place she refers to, where the fear “neither speaks in stories or poems” is, possibly, death, or a state of denial. It could also be this very poem, which is prosaic and does not look like poetry, lacking line breaks that would be typical for much poetry in Pizarnik’s day. Yet, the fragment isn’t quite a story either, for nothing happens here: We’re merely presented with an image, or a sketch. As in “Exile,” the poet is addressing the question of her own name—which, here, is something like a portal, a bottomless tunnel to a murky mystery of existence. Fear and depression seem to go hand in hand with this mystery, as does the “singing,” or poetry, that leads oneself “to the stranger in me, to my emigrant.” Note her usage of “emigrant” rather than “immigrant”—for her own “strangeness” is not so much her foreignness, as the need, or desire, to leave.

Indeed, in her mid-20s, Pizarnik left Buenos Aires and, seeking the life of art and poetry, came to Paris, where she lived for four years. It was there that she met Octavio Paz, a profoundly influential Mexican poet and, later, Nobel Prize winner who wrote a preface to one of Pizarnik’s books. During her Paris sojourn, Pizarnik wrote a series of poems in French, which, too, were recently collected and translated as The Galloping Hour: French Poems. It is surreal to contemplate the poet writing in her third language—all the more surreal for the fact that we are now reading these works in English translation. And so, the journey across languages becomes almost unfathomable, and as broad as the world itself. “Sex, Night,” one of the poems in her French collection, translated by Patricio Ferrari and recent Pulitzer Prize winner Forrest Gander, opens with:

Once again, someone falls in their first falling—fall of two bodies, of two eyes, of four green eyes or eight green eyes if we count those born in the mirror (at midnight, in the purest fear, in the loss), you haven’t been able to recognize the voice of your dull silence, to see the earthly messages scrawled in the middle of one mad state, when the body is a glass and from ourselves and from the other we drink some kind of impossible water.

For all of the poem’s gorgeously lyrical eroticism, sex, here, is not only the source of pleasure or gratification of desire but rather, a “mad state” in which one can attempt to capture and decode “earthly messages,” or images—the making of the poem. It is a way toward an artistic experience, toward recognition of self in the mirrors of one’s own sensory history. The image of the “impossible water” is paradoxical and perhaps points to a yearning for something spiritual.

It was also during her Paris years that Pizarnik wrote a number of works, strikingly reminiscent of Kafka’s parables. “Rescue,” dedicated to Octavio Paz, is one such poetic parable:

And it’s always the lilac garden on the other side of the river. If the soul should ask you if that is far from here, you should say, On the other side of the river, not this one, but the one over there.

This extremely short and poignant prose poem is parabolic as well as riddlelike. Starting with the word “And,” it feels like an overheard snatch of a conversation—one we’re lucky to be privy to. The soul, in this poem, is not the source of transcendent knowledge, but a more vulnerable, helpless, and uninformed aspect of a self—which comes to one’s inner poet, seeking an answer, or, as it were, a rescue. The repetition of the phrase “other side” seems to hint that there are more than just two sides, or two banks, to the river in question. It is as if there are far more than two, and that the “other side’s” otherness cannot be measured by distance—of years or knowledge—but that will always remain “other.” This eternal dream of the “other side” is as unavoidable for a migrant as it is for a poet—all the more so for the one who is both.

Once, in an interview (which appears in the newly published A Tradition of Rupture), when asked whether her career was impeded by the fact that she was woman, Pizarnik alluded to that same otherness:

Poetry isn’t a career; it’s one’s fate.
Although being a woman does impede my writing, I believe it is worthwhile to proceed from an exasperated clarity. In this way, I assert that it is a curse to be born a woman, just as it is to be a Jew, to be poor, black, gay, a poet, Argentine, etc., etc. What matters, of course, is what to do with our curses.

Being an outsider allows one to attain that which Pizarnik calls an “exasperated clarity.” And in that, Pizarnik belongs to a long lineage of artists-outsiders who, by being in the margins, have illuminated experience for the rest of the world. Indeed, during the modernist period otherness became a central literary concern. Artists in the margins epitomized alienation that underscored a key human experience in the West. The poet’s “fate” Pizarnik refers to is not merely the ability to profoundly feel one’s condition, but also the inexplicable need to explain it, and to turn it into art, which would serve as an explanation for others, as well

The revival of interest in Pizarnik’s work has a curious precedent. Just over a decade ago, English-speaking readers learned of Clarice Lispector, an illustrious Jewish Brazilian author who, for decades, was virtually unknown in North America. Yet, after publication of Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, nearly all of Lispector’s output was translated and retranslated. There are streets named after Lispector in various Brazilian cities; her statue is erected in Recife, a town she and her immigrant parents settled in. And yet it is Lispector’s otherness that made her so important to Brazilian literature. As poet Ledo Ivo wrote, “The foreignness of her prose is one of the most overwhelming facts of our literary history, and even of the history of our language.” In the past decade, Lispector’s foreignness became an object of keen interest in the United States, as well.

And in this, perhaps, is the answer to the question of Pizarnik’s growing popularity, as well. For very obvious reasons, a vast majority of foreign-language literature, translated and read in the United States, originated in Europe, and was written by men. This is as true for readers of Jewish literature as it is for wider audiences. The audiences are now finally ready for the likes of Pizarnik and Lispector. Yet, one can’t but feel that there are others, many others out there, waiting to be rediscovered and translated.

Jake Marmer is Tablet’s poetry critic. He is the author of Cosmic Diaspora (2020), The Neighbor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Talmud (2012). He has also released two jazz-klezmer-poetry records: Purple Tentacles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cosmic Diaspora Trio), and Hermeneutic Stomp (2013).