You are alone with the night and notebook, memories from the day freshly baking in the meat of your flesh. The woman in you hearing voices otherwise stifled by expectations. You turn up the volume of your own silence and your ears start ringing – a syrupy high-pitched trill, a sweet prelude to the discordant orchestra of an empty night full of internal voices. Your pen is ready to catch what spills out of you without too much pain. Or maybe with just enough pain.
You channel, or so you hope, a strength passed down to you by a lineage of bodies who knew suffering and surviving all too well. You keep your wrist in a dance, fingers grasping, reminding yourself to breathe between the movements and stillness of writing.
These internal voices take over and you hear nothing else.
The absent figures are sighing, and the night is thick. The night is the color of the eyelids of the dead.
All night long I make the night. All night long I write. Word by word I am writing the night.
The works of Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, even in translation, transforms the reading experience into a visceral visitation of memories, capturing in them the hopes and struggles of finding one’s own language.
‘Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972,’ recently published by New Directions, collects a decade of the poet’s works, translated by the loving hand of Yvette Siegert. The title comes from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, Cutting the Stone, also known as Extracting the Stone of Madness or The Cure of Folly. In the painting, a man with a funnel on his head performs trephination on a seated man.
Historical understandings of mental illness (or migraines and head injuries) had people believe that madness or seizures were caused by a stone lodged in a person’s head. Thus the procedure came about where a hole would be drilled on the patient’s skull to let the evil out or to relieve pressure on the brain. Bosch illustrated this ‘stone of madness’ as a bulb of flower, sprouting from the hole in the man’s head. This calls to mind Pizarnik’s own references to flowers throughout her poetry – specifically of lilacs – perhaps an indication of her own battle in finding something beautiful, or true, out of something many perceive as monstrous.
Fugue in Lilac
You had to write without a for what, without a for whom.
The body remembers love like the lighting of a lamp.
If silence is temptation and promise.
“Yes, death carves bones as long as silence is golden and words are made of silver. Yes, the bitch about life is that it’s not what we think it is, but it’s also not the opposite of that.”
– The Possessed Among the Lilacs
On my completion of reading this collection, I searched for audio readings of Pizarnik’s poems. I could find only few in English so I listened to most in a language I’ve never spoken or read in. The music in them was exhilarating, painful, and somewhat cathartic.
“I wanted to create a fine instrument in English through which Alejandra’s own voice, and the music of her Spanish, could emerge and converge.”
– Yvette Siegert.
Siegert writes beautifully about her process of translating Alejandra Pizarnik, a task that took her at least ten years to complete, driven by a desire to honor the poet, to grieve her. Pizarnik’s too-early death by a Seconal overdose at 36 seems not as thoroughly documented in English as it is in the poet’s native tongue (I’m guessing). Fragments from her diary and letters reveal anxieties, worries, and a resilient commitment to the craft of poetry.
Pizarnik, though, was noted for having a somewhat tensed relationship to writing, “seeming sometimes more interested in silence than in language,” yet she captured, for me, the depths many aspire to plumb. She is unassuming in her verse, the sounds of Siegert’s English trembling off the pages with a music one can lose themselves in when reading out loud.
For the poet, prose and poetry overlap to resemble each other in an uncanny, otherworldly atmosphere full of dolls, gardens, ladies in red, and fairy-tales-gone-wrong. The kind of wildlife that grows in the quietness of stifled screams. The personal becomes the core of all things, as it often is, and Pizarnik acknowledges the division of selves that occur in the search for a language big enough to do what she needed it to. The effect is like a mirror facing another, its subject matter caught in between – the mise en abyme of the internal landscape, reflections unfolding into the infinite. Overwhelmed, the subject matter easily loses sight of itself.
“The powers of language are the solitary ladies who sing, desolate, with this voice of mine that I hear from a distance. And far away, in the black sand, lies a girl heavy with ancestral music. Where is actual death? I have wanted clarity in light of my lack of light. Bouquets die in the memory. The girl lying in the sand nestles into me with her wolf mask. The one who couldn’t stand it anymore and begged for flames and for whom we set on fire.”
– Fragments for Subduing the Silence
Pizarnik captures the gradations of solitude, the turbulent weathers within a selfhood. The painful attempts at holding back oblivion by articulating the shadows in hopes of anchoring them, somehow. Perhaps to make them less threatening.
“Among other reasons, I write so that what I fear won’t happen. So that what harms me won’t be. To push away evil. It’s been said that the poet is the great therapist and in this sense the poetic task would imply exorcising, conjuring, and repairing. Writing a poem is repairing the basic wound, the tear, because we are all wounded. One of the sentences that I am most obsessed by is said by little Alice in Wonderland, ‘I only came to see the garden.’ For Alice and for me, the garden would be the center of the world.”
– from Memoria Illuminada Alejandra Pizarnik (Ernesto Artido and Virna Molina, 2011)
Cover art: An illustration I made as accompaniment for this,
using a portrait of Alejandra Pizarnik as reference.