Alejandra Pizarnik: poet of mists and shadows

Reading Alejandra Pizarnick (1936-1972) is like standing by the drystone wall leading towards Hardcastle Craggs from Hebden Bridge in the darkening evening, just before Crimsworth Terrace. And looking up the valley, a valley draped in mist, a subdued greyness like a gauze hanging there with the surreal shadows of the hills, just about visible. And then, looking at oneself, a dense pith of darkness, there and not there, again just barely visible. That is what her poetry is like, all mist and shadows, slippery yet sharp as a knife edge, grazing against the sky, sometimes brushing the sky and at other times kissing it.

She was born in Argentina and died there. She lived a very brief 36 years but also a commodious lifetime. She took her own life whilst on leave from a psychiatric hospital. I will return to her poetry from Ward 18 later. For now, it is her preoccupation with words, with shadows that preoccupy me too.

She wrote in “Only the Nights”

            I, the sad waiting for a word

            to name the thing I look for

            and what am I looking for?

            not the name of the deity

            not the name of the names

            but the precise and precious names

            of my hidden desires

And in “On this Night, In this World”, she wrote



            do not make love

            they make absence

            if I said water would I drink?

            if I said bread would I eat?

In “Of the Silence” she says, ‘Words close all doors’. It is remarkable that a poet, someone attuned to language, someone whose lifeblood are words, should be so suspicious of words, so doubtful of precision and exactitude in utterances, and ultimately rueful and melancholic of the possibility of communication in language. It is as if for her, words have broken down, having abandoned the ‘palace of language’ as she says. She is right to the degree that the moan that comes from the place of desire, and the triumph of lust and pleasure is also yet a moan, a surrogate for loss. This wordless noise has more communicative precision than any lexicon. The cry is an elemental utterance and in need of no translation. For Pizarnik then, words do not necessarily make room for discourse but instead, foreclose options, indeed shut off possibility.

Pizarnik is a writer of autumn, when everything is turning inwards, dying. She says little about the colours of autumn and equally, she does not obsess about the fallen leaves or denuded trees. She is all about the manner in which autumn arrives, by stealth in a garden, as she says ‘like the slow and careful arrival of autumn in the garden … You’ll come to me with a faint accent that evokes an open door, or the shadow of a finely named bird, or the residue of shadow in my memory, or the substance that lingers after they throw the young woman’s ashes to the wind, or the trace of lines on the page when you erase the drawing of a house or a tree or a sun or an animal’. It is all transience, all ephemera. Also, the intangible, insubstantial on the margins of the material and living. I suppose, if we knew what spirit was, what soul stands for, that would be it.

As for the transient, Pizarnik evokes the memory of childhood

            The hour when the grass grows

            in the memory of a horse.

            The wind issues innocent speeches

            in honour of the lilacs,

            and someone enters into death

            with open eyes,

            like Alice in the land of the seen before.

This is the restorative presence of absence. The empty space that both conjures up loss and immanence. Again, as she says, ‘You announce yourself like thirst’.

There is always the possibility that words might do more than merely expose the mutability of existence, that ‘the world might be unearthed by language’, and that ‘the light of language covers […] like music, like a picture ripped into shreds by the dogs of grief’. In the “House of the Mind”, Pizarnik extends her ambivalence about words

            the mind’s house

            rebuilt letter by letter

            word by word

            in my double paper figure

            crosses the sea of ink

            to give new form

               to a new feeling

            it opens its mouth

            green and rootless,

            the word without its body


The sense of detachment from her true self that is obvious in much of Pizarnik’s poetry as well as the deep and unsettled and unsettling despair and despondency reveals itself on Ward 18 in the period leading up to her death. She said

I don’t know what I’m doing in Ward 18, except honouring it with my prestigious presence […] it’s not that I want to flirt with death I only want to put an end to this agony that is getting ridiculous the more it’s prolonged […] In order to be reunited with the my of myself and be the only one and the same entity with it, I have to kill the my so that the self will die and, in this way, opposites cancelling out, the supplicant dialectic can end with the fusion of opposites.


when I think of occupational therapy I think of poking out my eyes in a house in ruin then eating them while thinking of all my years of continuous writing,

15 or 20 hours writing without a break, whetted by the demon of analogies, trying to configure my terrible wandering verbal matter,

   because – oh dear old Sigmund Freud – psychoanalytic science forgot it key somewhere:

   to open it opens

   but how to close the wounds?

The soul suffers without relief, without piety, and the evil doctors do not stanch the festering wound.

Mankind is wounded by an affliction that perhaps, or most likely, has caused him the life we are given.

Here is a poet in extremis. The movement of a delicate moth flying too close, far too close to the light, has led from blinding insight to excruciating anguish if not mortal terror

            I am frightened

            The thing I feared most has come over me.

            I am not in trouble:

            I am not able to bear it anymore.

            I did not abandon the void or the desert.

            I live in danger.

            your song doesn’t help me.

            each time it’s more pincers,

            more fears,

            and more black shadows.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

5 thoughts on “Alejandra Pizarnik: poet of mists and shadows

  1. A great poet, a lacerated soul. How beautiful and how bleak her words. How gifted but how anguished her soul. Yes, the fog covers all things, beautiful and terrible, but it seems that she became lost in the fog of anguish.

  2. A very gifted poet. And “deep” too…I will have to read her poems, but from the ones you sampled here, she seems to tease with words, invite you into her world, perhaps to experience her pain, wordless though they sometimes are.
    The poetry she wrote in Ward 18 and the subsequent suicide reminds me that a substantial amount of people who commit suicide only recently just accessed mental health care and as such follow up in the immediate period post discharge cannot be overemphasized.

    I arrived in the UK yesterday, got a job with the Hertfordshire Partnership NHS Trust at the Little Plumstead Hospital…

      1. Thank you very much sir. I will really look forward to meeting you sir! And have a lovely Christmas too sir.

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