Alejandra Pizarnik’s work has long served as a touchstone for Latin American writers. The late Argentine poet has been cited as an influence by everyone from Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar to Octavio Paz, who described her writing as exuding “a luminous heat that could burn, smelt, or even vaporize its skeptics.” But this fervor didn’t reach the English-speaking world until some four decades after her death, with the publication of her collection A Musical Hell in 2013. Since then, translations of five more collections of her poetry have appeared to near universal acclaim, and several of her poems have been published in The Paris Review. Ugly Duckling Presse has recently published A Tradition in Rupture, which presents Pizarnik’s critical writings in English for the first time. In the excerpt below, she ponders the nature of poetry and the pain of revisiting past work.
Poetry is where everything happens. Like love, humor, suicide, and every fundamentally subversive act, poetry ignores everything but its own freedom and its own truth. To say “freedom” and “truth” in reference to the world in which we live (or don’t live) is to tell a lie. It is not a lie when you attribute those words to poetry: the place where everything is possible.
In opposition to the feeling of exile, the feeling of perpetual longing, stands the poem—promised land. Every day my poems get shorter: little fires for the one who was lost in a strange land. Within a few lines, I usually find the eyes of someone I know waiting for me; reconciled things, hostile things, things that ceaselessly produce the unknown; and my perpetual thirst, my hunger, my horror. From there the invocation comes, the evocation, the conjuring forth. In terms of inspiration, my belief is completely orthodox, but this in no way restricts me. On the contrary, it allows me to focus on a single poem for a long time. And I do it in a way that recalls, perhaps, the gesture of a painter: I fix the piece of paper to the wall and contemplate it; I change words, delete lines. Sometimes, when I delete a word, I imagine another one in its place, but without even knowing its name. Then, while I’m waiting for the one I want, I make a drawing in the empty space that alludes to it. And this drawing is like a summoning ritual. (I would add that my attraction to silence allows me to unite, in spirit, poetry with painting; in that sense, what others might call the privileged moment, I speak of as privileged space.)
They’ve been warning us, since time immemorial, that poetry is a mystery. Yet we recognize it: we know where it lies. I believe the question “What does poetry mean to you?” deserves one of two responses: either silence or a book that relates a terrible adventure—the adventure of someone who sets off to question the poem, poetry, the poetic; to embrace the body of the poem; to ascertain its incantatory, electrifying, revolutionary, and consoling power. Some have already told us of this marvelous journey. For myself, at present, it remains a study.
If they ask me who do you write for, they’re asking about the poem’s addressee. The question tacitly assumes such a character exists.
That makes three of us: myself; the poem; the addressee. This accusative triangle demands a bit of examination.
When I finish a poem, I haven’t finished it. In truth, I abandon it and the poem is no longer mine or, more accurately, it barely exists.
After that moment, the ideal triangle depends on the addressee or reader. Only the reader can finish the incomplete poem, recover its multiple meanings, add new ones. To finish is the equivalent, here, of giving new meaning, of re-creating.
When I write, I never imagine a reader. Nor does it ever occur to me to consider the fate of what I’m writing. I have never searched for a reader, neither before, nor during, nor after writing the poem. It’s because of this, I think, that I’ve had unforeseen encounters with truly unexpected readers, those who gave me the joy and excitement of knowing I was profoundly understood. To which I’ll add a propitious line by Gaston Bachelard:
The poet must create his reader and in no way express common ideas.
Nothing in sum. Absolutely nothing. Nothing that doesn’t diverge from the everyday track. Life doesn’t flow endlessly or uniformly: I don’t sleep, I don’t work, I don’t go for walks, I don’t leaf through some new book at random, I write badly or well—badly, I’m sure—driven and faltering. From time to time I lie down on a sofa so I don’t look at the sky: indigo or ashen. And why shouldn’t the unthinkable—I mean the poem—suddenly emerge? I work night after night. What falls outside my work are golden dispensations, the only ones of any worth. Pen in hand, pen on paper, I write so I don’t commit suicide. And our dream of the absolute? Diluted in the daily toil. Or perhaps, through the work, we make that dissolution more refined.
Time passes on. Or, more accurately, we pass on. In the distance, closer every moment, the idea of a sinister task I have to complete: editing my old poems. Focusing my attention on them is the equivalent of returning to a wrong turn when I’m already walking in another direction, no better but certainly different. I try to concentrate on a shapeless book. I don’t know if this book of mine actually belongs to me. Forced to read its pages, it seems I’m reading something I wrote without realizing I was another. Could I write the same way now? I’m disappointed, always, when I read one of my old pages. The feeling I experience can’t be precisely defined. Fifteen years writing! A pen in my hand since I was fifteen years old. Devotion, passion, fidelity, dedication, certainty that this is the path to salvation (from what?). The years weigh on my shoulders. I couldn’t write that way now. Did that poetry contain today’s silent, awestruck desperation? It hardly matters. All I want is to be reunited with the ones I was before; the rest I leave to chance.
So many images of death and birth have disappeared. These writings have a curious fate: born from disgrace, they serve, now, as a way to entertain (or not) and to move (or not) other people. Perhaps, after reading them, someone I know will love me a little more. And that would be enough, which is to say a lot.
—Translated from the Spanish by Cole Heinowitz
Alejandra Pizarnik (1936–1972) was a leading voice in twentieth-century Latin American poetry. Six books of her poetry have been translated into English: Diana’s Tree, The Most Foreign Country, The Last Innocence / The Lost Adventures, A Musical Hell, Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972, and The Galloping Hour: French Poems. She died in Buenos Aires, of an apparent drug overdose, at the age of thirty-six.
Cole Heinowitz is a poet, translator, and scholar based in New York. Her books of poetry include The Rubicon, Stunning in Muscle Hospital, and Daily Chimera. She is the translator of Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic and Beauty Is Our Spiritual Guernica and the cotranslator of The Selected Late Letters of Antonin Artaud. She is the director of the literature program at Bard College.
From A Tradition in Rupture: Selected Critical Writings, by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Cole Heinowitz, published in December 2019 by Ugly Duckling Presse.
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