It’s possible to read Alejandra Pizarnik’s debut collection of poetry as a kind of midlife crisis. Published in 1955, when the poet was only 19 years old, La tierra más ajena, translated masterfully by Yvette Siegert into The Most Foreign Country, with its tiny cataclysms and brooding flashes of brilliance, proved to be only the first twinkling of the artistic genius that tirelessly possessed and, ultimately, consumed the young poet. Over the unfortunately short second half of her life, Pizarnik began and abandoned coursework at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, relocated to Paris and studied at the Sorbonne, published criticism and translations, won a Guggenheim fellowship, received a Fulbright scholarship, and authored another seven books of poetry. Then, on a Monday in September 1972, under the equilibrating sign of Libra, Pizarnik overdosed on barbiturates and ended her life at the age of 36.
Pizarnik’s early demise, together with her prodigious output and madcap biography, have created an air of extratextual intrigue almost on the scale of industry. And now, 60 years after La tierra más ajena first appeared, it’s impossible to read Pizarnik’s poetry without acknowledging the spellbinding ambience ascribed to her body of work. Absurdly prolific Argentine writer César Aira describes an “aura of legendary prestige,” and Patricio Ferrari, editor of New Directions’ recent collection of Pizarnik’s French-language poems, The Galloping Hour, suggests the distinctively brief poems “radiated an aura of nocturnal intimacy.” At least Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas offers an explanation for the cult of Alejandra’s current popularity:
Her myth grows among the young because they are discovering, all by themselves (for publishers today are not exactly making it easy to do so), that there was a time in literature when writers were figures shrouded in mystery: eccentric, inexplicable characters; people from another world. (Vila-Matas, Music & Literature No. 6)
This other world (that most foreign country) that Pizarnik inhabits, that evolves throughout her oeuvre, emerges indelibly marked by the near unending list of influential figures typically attributed to her orbit, including French symbolists Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Antonin Artaud, as well as writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras and Martiniquais writer Aimé Césaire, but also 19th century German poet Friedrich Hölderlin and controversial Spanish poet Rosa Chacel, together, of course, with contemporary Latin American expats Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz. Working among such bustling brilliance, as the waning days of monolithic Modernism began to fragment–but before postmodernist obsession with identity play and deconstruction had really become the literary mode du jour–Pizarnik produced lyrics that clutch to the psychosomatic, the archetypal and impressionistic, the absurd and surreal. The Most Foreign Country functions as an incubation chamber for themes and ideas that resurface in her subsequent publications.
The slim volume’s 28 short poems, most of which are fourteen lines or fewer–no longer than a sonnet–burst with bold colors and disorienting imagery. They are mad disjointed, lovely little things, and Pizarnik’s propulsive line breaks make it difficult to quote a given passage out of context. Here’s “Engaging With the Red Shadow,” in full:
her solitude is mewling
zeros upon zeros
that flow with ingenuous values
a retina before the unknown
the sounding breezes
gather back to prick
her being with smiling
and open teeth
to laugh in the night full of sun
from vigorous participles
From the opening line’s whimpering isolation to the nullifying abstraction of a stack of aughts, the poem grows more visceral with the appearance of a bared eyeball and audacious incisors, only to end with a seemingly nonsensical description of grammar. And yet, it’s true that participles form when a verb is stripped of its active properties, changed into something else, a person or place, an adjective or adverb (“the sounding breezes”). So there’s an obvious commentary on action, or the lack thereof, with the residual buzz of “vigorous” vibrating on the eardrums. And tracking the actual verbs reveals an intensifying progression, from “is” and “flow,” to “gather,” “prick,” and “laugh,” all of which, again, the final line serves to undercut. What any of this has to do with a “Red Shadow” is unclear, but this may be part of the point: the speaker invites readers into her private symbology and, of course, it doesn’t completely cohere, not to an outsider. Yet we’re made party to these internal configurations, we become a shade more intimate with this speaking mind’s strange machinations.
That the sun figures prominently in the closing lines of this poem fits Pizarnik’s running themes of light and darkness, which often work in tandem rather than against each other, and are accentuated by a decidedly astronomical fixation. In “Nemo” it’s “the yellow sun that passes through skin, marking its darkened fingerprints.” “Drawing” concludes with an art object undergoing a foreboding renewal: “the vase is reborn / Beneath the shadow of the catacomb.” “Reminiscences” doubles and triples down on the motif: “a disconcerting mist fills up / my sunny corner / the shadow of the sun crushes / the sphinx of my star.” Utterly enchanting, often bewildering, Pizarnik’s verses are guided by a kind of astrologic, one that lavishes in the occult perturbations of night, as in “Memories of A Palm Reader”:
two hands holding flowers resume the
clumsy sculpture of exotic forms that
gleam as they sell to the witches the
exalted sign of life for the price of death
reading in the lines the thousands of
times you triumph or moan or cry or laugh or
take to the road with a steady pace that
struggles in the night repelling the
despicable coffins brandished by disaster
The disembodied artistry of the opening lines quickly yields to an odd commercial exchange with witches–for real wiccans or metaphorical figures, who can say–and a near hysterical cataloging of emotive outbursts (“moan or cry or laugh”). That again a symbol of death (“despicable coffins”) should feature so prominently alongside the language of art-making and commerce–and that “disaster” derives literally from the Italian for “ill-fated star”–fits perfectly with the book’s extended theme. It’s remarkable that Pizarnik revists the same ideas, often verbatim, without exhausting her options or risking pat repetition. But the collection isn’t without its hiccups.
Less a product of its time than of its author’s literal age (edad over época), The Most Foreign Country isn’t totally immune to stereotypical teenage angst: there’s a poem “From My Diary,” and “A Poem for My Paper” (which includes the regrettable trifecta of “joyful interior heartbeat”), but neither of these approach the easily lampooned moodiness of “Wandering Through the Gloom” (but from which translator Siegert salvages the beautiful double consonance of “my pupils protruding a precise impasse”).
Yet every apparent misstep or incongruously clumsy turn of phrase must remind readers they’re encountering a translation, which itself comprises a new act of interpretive creation. And while the editors of this edition don’t include the Spanish language original lyrics (which may provide a key to deciphering some of the more obtuse imagery and tricky word choices), it’s vital to read Pizarnik–and her work–through a variety of lenses: as an Argentine and Porteño, as a mid-century Parisian expat, as the daughter of Russian Jewish emigrants, as a woman writing dangerous, weird poetry in the middle of the 20th century. And for this, The Most Foreign Country performs beautifully. It allows 21st century readers to witness the genesis of this nascent gem: the alluring and tragic personae of the incomparable Alejandra Pizarnik.
Diego Báez is a CantoMundo fellow. In 2018, he completed a residency at Sundress Academy for the Arts, where he finished the manuscript for his first full-length collection of poetry. His poems, stories, and reviews and appeared in Granta, The Acentos Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.