Write the Things That Burn: The Poems of Alejandra Pizarnik


“I speak the way I speak inside,” wrote the great Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik. “Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.” Pizarnik, whose ubiquity in 20th-century Latin-American literature is indicated by the fact that many critics refer to her simply as “Alejandra” or “A.P.,” has not, historically, been on a first-name basis with English-reading audiences; that may change following the publication of Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, an invaluable 2016 release from New Directions that compiles new translations of three full-length collections and numerous uncollected poems Pizarnik left behind. This volume charts the final decade of the poet’s life, a period of her career in which she turned her gaze away from the world, facing inward to focus on the dark voices she channeled. On the page she carves out spaces of solitude and silence in which language is reduced to its very essence, a limited collection of recurring images and symbols. “When the roof tiles blow away from the house of language, and words no longer keep—that is when I speak,” Pizarnik resolved. Drawing from the dream-languages and word games of the surrealists, Pizarnik turns notions of lyrical subjectivity inside out with her kaleidoscopic procession of masks and personae; the strange music of her poems invites the reader in, and her revelations — cathartic and unsettling — are very nearly overwhelming.

Pizarnik’s friend Alberto Manguel described her small apartment as having “a small blackboard on which she worked out her poems, like a sculptor chipping away at a block that, she knows, contains a few essential, precious words.” The poems in the atmospheric Works and Nights (1965) bear out this effort with severely compressed forms, only a few stretching longer than eight brief lines. True to the collection’s title, these poems speak of the feverish, sleep-starved spaces of the night:
Someone, sobbing, measures
the lengths before dawn.
Someone punches her pillow
in search of an impossible
place of rest.
Masterfully evocative portraits in miniature, these poems summon the pregnant stillness of late evening, as well as an alluring darkness. Loneliness permeates these dark visions, but there are moments of sensual languor in this void: “Space. Blazing silence,” the poet intones, then breaks the line, a move that may evoke a lowered voice, a downward flick of the eyes: “What is it that shadows give each other?”

By 1965 Pizarnik had already established many of the recurring symbols and images most frequently associated with her writing, many seemingly drawn from a world of dark fairy tales. Her shipwrecked girls, beggars, and orphans lend a haunting quality to the work, as in “Dispatches”:
The wind had eaten away
parts of my face and my hands.
They called me ragged angel.
I lay waiting.
Much has been made of Pizarnik’s reliance on this particular set of tropes — which, in a decade-spanning volume like this one, occasionally risks feeling a bit repetitive. Most critics connect Pizarnik’s unique language of symbols with a fascination with dreams and esoteric symbols drawn from her reading of surrealists like André Breton and Antonin Artaud. Pizarnik builds on these images in 1968’s Extracting the Stone of Madness (from which the omnibus derives its name), incorporating the visions of “tragic ladies in red” into more ambitious and expansive poems and prose works, some spanning multiple pages. She also toys with subjectivity, confiding, “I am alone and I write,” then correcting herself: “No, I am not alone. There is someone here who is trembling.” Just who this trembling other might be remains ambiguous; Pizarnik, in her diaries, diagnosed herself with manic depression, and spoke of her “fear of all the selves struggling inside me,” but the power of these lines invites us into a more complicated (and disorienting) relationship with this work and its creator: invited in by Pizarnik’s hazy confessions, the reader begins to suspect that perhaps this someone is us.

Despite the presence of a few ladies in red, the poems in Extracting the Stone of Madness frequently dispense with the elaborate metaphors of Pizarnik’s early work in favor of a heightened sense of urgent candor, voices that speak frankly (if opaquely) of various sorts of deep alienation. It is as though the defamiliarizing exercises of the surrealists have been pushed to a further extreme, losing any sense of playfulness or winking absurdity. “If I’d had it close at hand, I would’ve traded in my soul to be invisible,” Pizarnik admits here, landing on a central theme. “Drunk on poems and on (why not just say it) the void of absence.”

The terror and the allure of invisibility and silence—in short, the will to disappear—remain focal points in A Musical Hell (1971), wherein Pizarnik presents words themselves as a means of concealment or defense, announcing:
i’m going to hide behind language
and why is that
i’m afraid
The precise nature of this fear remains elusive. In an interview near the end of her life, Pizarnik ascribed an almost superstitious quality to her writing process: “Among other things, I write so that what I fear won’t befall me…To write a poem is to repair the fundamental wound, the break.” In Pizarnik’s work, this break exists between reality and the language we use to describe it, inhibiting, by extension, the ways we connect with the people around us. To repair this break, however, called the poet to plumb the darkest depths of her visions, parsing an existential dread no language could convey. “I can’t just speak and say nothing,” Pizarnik insists. “That’s how we lose ourselves, the poem and I, in the hopeless attempt to write the things that burn.” And where does her exploration lead her, once she admits the hopelessness of her endeavor? “To blackness, to the sterile and the fragmented,” she concludes. It is difficult to read Pizarnik’s work without shuddering at what can only be described as profound depression. The poet’s full-length collections, here, are followed by an assortment of uncollected work, including poems written in the days leading up to her suicide, and if some lines manifest a crippling existential paralysis, others presage an irrevocable departure. “The poem takes me to the limits,” she writes, “far from the houses of the living. And where will I wander when I leave and don’t come back?”

Only in recent years have large parts of the Pizarnik oeuvre been accessible in English: besides the New Directions volume, readers can also enjoy the poet’s seminal 1962 collection Diana’s Tree, and can look forward, in 2017, to her 1955 debut, The Most Foreign Country — these last two chapbooks put out by Ugly Duckling Presse, all three in crisply evocative translations by Yvette Siegert. Despite Siegert’s efforts, a clear understanding of the liminal spaces Pizarnik wanders is not, ultimately, what we are left with. This is, after all, a language of dreams, of the hinterlands of the mind; many poems grip us with the insistent logic of nightmares, so convincing in the moment of reading, so hard to explain afterward. Like the work of Artaud and Pizarnik’s other spiritual forebears, Extracting the Stone of Madness is perhaps more strongly felt than understood, best experienced when read aloud, which is not to say that these texts aren’t utterly successful in their dark invitations. “I want to go / nowhere if not / down into the depths,” Pizarnik wrote near the end of her life, and went. The reader who lets her guard down may feel dangerously inclined to follow.