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,
and more black shadows.
Photos by Jan Oyebode