Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik — dead most likely of a Seconal overdose in 1972, a suicide at age thirty-six — entices the reader to try to puzzle out her life through her poems and would be remiss not attempting to do so, given the death-obsessed, death-affirming themes throughout her career. In fact, the final poem in a collection that reads like an ongoing epitaph composed halfway in the grave was found in the poet’s workroom, etched in chalk, when her body was discovered. So it’s difficult, if not impossible, to uncouple her life and her work. That we would wish to do so testifies to a desire to believe her poems impervious to mere biography, even mortality. Regardless, does the work here suggest achievement, a lasting monument impervious to the chalk eraser of time? Counterintuitively, yes — and I am not completely sure why. I’ll return to my speculation for this critical befuddlement later. However, I can promise I won’t arrive at any decisive theory or excuse for it, much less justify my blatant contradiction and hypocrisy about charting the artist’s life as it intertwines disturbingly with the work.

A translator and critic as well as poet, Pizarnik lived between Buenos Aries and Paris, befriending Octavio Paz and Julio Cortazar and identifying with, while not necessarily emulating, the so-called poètes maudites of 19th-century France, among them, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nerval, and especially Lautréamont (the last lines of her suicide note poem reads: “oh life/oh language/oh Isadore,” Isadore Ducasse being the birth name of Lautréamont). For her, much more so than these eminent antecedents, a sense of apartness grows into a suffocating sense of irreversible damnation, a sentence on which she deliberates over and over.

Pizarnik, it might be argued, maintains a style that is static — reiterating the same few themes, motifs, and images without development or transition. These are, in my particular order, death and the desire for it, alienation, frustration, shadows, night, the failure of the poem (and poetry), and love as a transient, ultimately vanishing sentiment. All of these tropes are conveyed unremittingly, caustically, and one could add, redundantly. She eschews any phantasmagoric elements and veers sharply from the polychromatic palette associated with the era of her writing career, the period known as El Boom, into pitch-black darkness. Pizarnik’s obsessive set of concerns never flourishes in the sense that she neither amplifies nor alters her death-directed attitude and images; an essentially focused and pared down assembly of nouns and subjects advertise the dead end of all personal enterprises and affects. As such, Pizarnik ultimately demonstrates the dubious virtue of extremity without excess, sending us transcriptions of onslaught, pressure, and the ultimate insufficiency of her life and language to reveal their debasement and abjectness.

For Pizarnik poems collect psychic wounds; indeed they operate as compressed linguistic records of those wounds, but are also metaphorically wounds themselves, disfigured and incomplete because of the inadequacy of language ever to forge meaning fully. This linguistic skepticism, aligned with an insistently self-damning instinct, perhaps uplifts the poems from their suffocation in the void by bracingly bringing together poetic scrutiny and psychological abjectness. As the first poem of the collection, called “Poem,” announces: “You choose the site of the wound/where we speak our silence.”

Declaring one’s identity for Pizarnik is difficult if not impossible. She is relentless in her focus but contradictory in her assessment of what her poetry is actually doing. Her intention seems torn between a steadfast commitment to exhibiting the traumatic condition of her irrevocably damned sense of self (while sensing, fragilely, that this poetic register of despair is a force for consolation) and vitality just in the striving to articulate itself. As she describes in “Cornerstone”: “I can’t just speak and say nothing. That’s how we lose ourselves,/The poem and I, in the hopeless attempt to write the things that burn.” On the evidence of this work, Pizarnik’s survival tactic, or at least her effort to stave off the inevitable, was to translate extremity into distilled, stark forms that clarified her approach and predicament. In this she resembles English playwright Sarah Kane (herself a suicide at twenty-eight), especially in 4.48 Psychosis, a dramatic set-piece that plays as both an incredibly engaging yet troubling performance and a kind of suicide note in multiple voices.

In “Continuity,” this consummate poet of aloneness writes:

Cure me of this void, I said. (The light loved itself in this
darkness of mine. I knew that there was absence when I found myself
saying, It is I.) Cure me, I said.

Despite the plea above — “Cure me, I said.” — there is never any true tension between the will to live and the will to die, nothing but relentless atomization of a disturbed state of being in which inconsolable dread announces a nearness to death: the imminent demise of the poet herself. Frustration, failure, and futility dog her: “All these fragments rend me/Impure dialogue/A desperate expulsion from verbal matter” (“A Musical Hell”). Another poem advertises: “Yo prepare mi muerte./I am preparing my death.” This makes for funereal reading but, then again, most graveyards do showcase some brilliant and moving language. Translator Yvette Siegert has succeeded in faithfully rendering the minimalism of the Spanish in wrenching, stripped English; she and Pizarnik give proof that unadorned poetry, particularly of a confessional bent, can generate more heat and light than the more histrionic — and often pretentious — examples of that genre.

I think this is what Roberto Bolaño is getting at when he mentions the following about Pizarnik and other twentieth-century international women artists in his essay “The Private Life of a Novelist”:

If I had to choose a literary kitchen to move into for a week, I would choose one that belonged to a woman writer, so long as the writer wasn’t Chilean. I would live very happily in Silvina Ocampo’s kitchen, or Alexandra Pizarnik’s, or in the kitchen of the novelist and Mexican poet Carmen Boullosa, or of Simone de Beauvoir. Among other things, because they are cleaner.

Bolaño seems to be suggesting a preference for the pared down formal qualities of these diverse authors but also their unflagging honesty in conveying the truthfulness of their artistic and personal selves, no matter how they might be judged for the rawness of the register (and no doubt the freezer in Pizarnik’s kitchen would be the coldest of any of these referenced writers). This helps me to understand the odd allure of Alejandra Pizarnik’s work for me and my respect for it and its creator: it’s not vicarious morbidity, but the ability to be approximate, even companionate, to a vision of such desolation. In her final/suicide poem she notes how “I want to go/nowhere if not/down into the depths.” Pizarnik sounded her depths, not always fearlessly but always forcefully, and she leads us down with her as she makes her way into a permanent season in hell.

Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 (2016) is published by New Directions and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

Jon Curley is the author of four volumes of poetry, most recently Scorch Marks. Remnant Halo is due out in spring 2021 from Marsh Hawk Press. He teaches in the Humanities Department at New Jersey Institute...