For the return of Beyond Borges, Alejandra Pizarnik joins Alfonsina Storni and Silvina Ocampo as the third female to appear in the series and one of the most important and complex poets in Argentine writing.
In her 17 years of writing Pizarnik made a huge impact on Spanish language poetry, taking it down to its darkest depths and abandoning it there, leaving one of the most fascinating legacies in Argentine literature.
A Tormented Talent
Born in 1936, Pizarnik was a second generation immigrant of Jewish descent. She was raised in Avellaneda amidst a Jewish community and received education in both Spanish and Yiddish. In 1954 she began studying philosophy and letters at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) but later dropped out because she said it couldn’t give her what she sought.
Besides literature, she also studied painting under the surrealist painter Juan Batlle Planas but found herself either willingly or involuntarily tied to poetry.
“I would have preferred to sing the blues in some smoke-filled hangout than spend the nights of my life scrabbling through language like a madwoman” she once said. In a letter addressed to her good friend Rúben Vela, she described her poems as “brawling” inside herself and, though her relationship with her writing was a difficult one, she produced some of the most remarkable poetry of the 20th century.
A regular user of amphetamines and hallucinogenics (she reportedly once spent seven days holed up on hallucinogenics listening to Janis Joplin records) Pizarnik suffered throughout her life from periods of psychological instability and depression. These emotional states probably only served to make her writing more original and more interesting but undoubtedly caused her difficulties throughout her life.
Having never felt at home in Argentina, she travelled to Paris in 1960 where she lived for four years, endearing herself to the city’s creative circles and Argentine writers Arnaldo Calveyra and Julio Cortázar. Recognised as a great literary talent by many of those around her, she was also counted the influential Argentine poets Rúben Vela and Raúl Gustavo Aguirre, as well as Silvina Ocampo, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Olga Orozco and Mexico’s Octavio Paz among her friends.
Besides receiving Buenos Aires’ First Municipal Poetry Prize, she was able to return to Paris a second time as part of a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded in 1968. Shortly afterwards Pizarnik was institutionalised following a suicide attempt in 1970, and eventually ended her life aged 36 by taking a sedative overdose.
Body of Work
Pizarnik published seven books of poetry and one book of prose during the years 1955 to 1972.
Her first book of poems, ‘La tierra más ajena’, was published when she was just 19 and still a student of philosophy and literature. She followed it with ‘La última inocencia‘ in 1956 and ‘Las aventuras perdidas’ in 1958, both written before her trip to Paris in 1960.
Her 1962 collection ‘Árbol de Diana’, was written whilst she lived in Paris and is considered by many to be her best. Her most important work, however, would not arrive until 1968 when she was already grappling with her own mental illness.
‘Extracción de la piedra de locura’ and the long prose poem of the same name, are regarded as a pinnacle of the author’s expressive abilities. Both the poem and its containing collection demonstrate a darkness not seen before in Argentine writing and rarely found afterwards.
As the title suggests, the book contains the most elaborate of Pizarnik’s meditations on the subject of madness – a theme carried across her entire body of work along with themes of entrapment and her almost hypnotic attraction to death.
Her books, in fact, come wrought with intertextual borrowing and overlapping symbolism; often mentioning forbidden gardens, cracks and voices in walls and night time (symbolic of both madness and death).
Obsessed with the idea of madness, fear of madness and the containment of madness, Pizarnik’s specialty was to drag the reader down into a chaotic, nightmarish world where they would be subjected to the same doubts, despairs, schizophrenic voices, claustrophobia, and fears as her.
Linguistically, her use of repetition, contradiction and words with ambiguous or changeable meanings lent her poems obvious overtones of paranoia. Her poems often transitioned radically between the first person, and a second third-person voice, which may have been forcibly created, or may, more likely, have emerged as second nature given her emotional and mental state.
If the character of Juan Pablo Castel in Ernesto Sabato’s existentialist novel ‘El Túnel’ had been an impressive product of the author’s imagination, then the ‘I’ in Pizarnik’s poetry was too close for comfort. One critic described the relationship between the two as a “death grip” – something which Pizarnik sought to distinguish herself from towards the end of her writing career.
Pizarnik’s Personal Legacy
From 1968 onwards Pizarnik set out to untether herself from “poetic language” and write with different “voices”. Around this time she turned to the writing of Cortázar in an effort to free herself from what she described as “creative prisons”.
Interestingly, though the “I” in her poems was something Pizarnik deliberated a great deal over, many poets have returned to use the first person singular without any of the same concerns.
The vocabulary and sometimes playful structuring of Pizarnik’s poetry demonstrate her mistrust for language. Her writing often freely condemned its failures and inadequacies whilst also revealing feelings of being powerlessness towards it. Torn between her dissatisfaction with language and her dependence on it as a poet, she would occasionally write poems omitting all punctuation marks bar parenthesis, and included lines of only one word causing intentional ambiguity.
An inability to write prose fiction was one of Pizarnik’s biggest grievances with herself as a writer, and she considered her only prose book, ‘La condesa sangrieta’, to be one of her greatest achievements.
The book, published in 1971, is in fact more of an elegant essay about a 16th century Hungarian countess who allegedly tortured and killed as many as 600 girls before finally ending her life walled up alone. Pizarnik ends the book with the resonating line “the absolute freedom of a human being is terrible” – a concept which she personally grappled with often.
Her last work, ‘El infierno musical’ was also written in 1971, one year before her death. It included the poem ‘El deseo de la palabra’, often considered to be her poetic suicide note.
Although it would perhaps be wrong to read the poem in this light, it does appear there was a literary suicide some time before Pizarnik’s real suicide took place. The poet and her poetry are at times so intertwined and bound up in each other that it almost seems her destiny was written out for her, by her.
Estranged, helpless and anguished, Pizarnik’s haunting words have garnered a 40-year following, earning her a reputation as perhaps Argentina’s most important female poet.