When away from Buenos Aires, I miss its sounds: the shrieks and yelps of kids on playgrounds, squawks and car horns, carts with giant wheels that scrape against the cobblestones, shouts, yips, chirps, steps. The dazzling, dizzying southern sun. The boisterous vegetation in the city’s parks—the gnarled roots of hundred-year-old rubber trees; the palo borracho with its creamy pink flowers and its spike-lined trunk.
The city smells of honeysuckle and urine, and of charring flesh on Sundays as families gather and grill. Men stare you down as you pass, proposing marriage or an assortment of sexual acts; the city’s buses, traveling in packs to stave off armed robbery, careen through ornamental crosswalks as mufferless motorcycles veer out of their way.
This constellation of incongruous and overwhelming forces is depicted differently over the course of Argentina’s rich artistic and literary tradition. An especially arresting perspective is taken by the poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972), whose mature works, published and unpublished, are being nimbly translated into English by Yvette Siegert in a beautiful volume entitled Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, soon to be published by New Directions. In many of these poems we find ourselves cloistered against the frenzy of the outside world, as in this piece from 1965’s Works and Nights, called “Single Room”:
If you dare to frighten
the truth out of this old wall—
and its fissures, its gashes
that form faces and sphinxes
and hands and clepsydras—
surely a presence
for your thirst will emerge,
and no doubt this absence
that drinks you dry will leave you.
Siegert attains the forcefulness of the original Spanish, rendering perfectly, too, Pizarnik’s signature clash between two tempos: outside the dashes (themselves helpfully inserted by Siegert) there is a plodding sadness, while on the inside a frenzied force leaves the reader breathless, mentally pummeled by each successive item. In English, the penultimate item on the list, “hands,” acts as a bridge between the somewhat spectral “faces and sphinxes” and the ancient timepieces that end the sequence, “hands” both as body parts and as components of watches and clocks; “clepsydras” then casts back—again, in English—to “faces,” as well. (This is not the only instance of resonance gained in translation. The intriguingly aphoristic “Paths of the Mirror,” from 1968’s Extracting the Stone of Madness reads: “Dazzle of the new day, the yellow birds in the morning.” The line reads gorgeously in Siegert’s rendering, as the homonym “mourning” contributes usefully to the alternation in the poem between melancholy and sporadic hope.) “Clepsydras” itself serves as memento mori, the almost inevitable association of the passage of time with our looming mortality confirmed in the double meaning of the word’s Polish equivalent, “klepsydra”: both a timepiece and an obituary. (Although Polish was among the native languages of Pizarnik’s immigrant parents, it is unlikely that Pizarnik herself, whose principal languages were Spanish and French, would have been aware of this denotative confluence.)
The “fissures” and “gashes” (also well served by Siegert’s dashes) that mar or at least mark “this old wall” comprise, in combination with the wall itself, the cornerstone of Pizarnik’s poetic oeuvre. The play between presence and absence becomes the ontological chiaroscuro in which this cornerstone gets rendered.
It is an architecture of abjection, of desperation, and intermittently, as well as ultimately, of absolute despair.
Buenos Aires, with its myriad shapes and colors and incredible textures, has been the great love of my life thus far. With its walks on sidewalks that shapeshift every block or so, now tiny beige and black tiles arranged at a diagonal, now corrugated concrete, shattered into pieces here and there to expose earth and brand new weeds. With its vines that intertwine with weathered air-conditioning units hovering over incongruous buildings actively in progress and partially effaced by glittering clouds of welders’ sparks and bowed and precarious planks.
In no other place I know of is our universe’s ceaseless cycle of renewal and collapse on plainer or opener display. This plenitude is potent, even intoxicating. But when Pizarnik retreats from the ruckus and the chaos of her native Buenos Aires, erecting stanzas like walls, I know why. Sometimes even for me it gets to be too much. Sometimes, I take my walks wearing earplugs as well as sunglasses; sometimes I barely even leave the house.
The reader senses Pizarnik striving for a kind of poetic carapace that will fully encase her, both protecting and separating her from the messy and overwhelming world without. From 1971’s A Musical Hell, a poem entitled “Cornerstone” dives into this inner world:
I wanted my doll fingers to go inside the keys. I didn’t want to pass lightly over the keyboard like a spider. What I wanted was to sink into it, to fasten and nail myself there, then harden into stone. I wanted to go into the keyboard in order to go inside the music and find my own country.
Pizarnik’s poems, particularly those written in prose, are like clenched fists. This is even truer of the Spanish original in this case, in which “What I wanted was to sink into it, to fasten and nail myself there, then harden into stone” is “Yo quería hundirme, clavarme, fijarme, petrificarme.” The relentless repetition of the quasi-violent self-reflexive verbs really reads like a beating.
Pizarnik “wanted” to hole up inside her poems to be within music to have a homeland (“Yo quería entrar en el teclado para entrar adentro de la música para tener una patria.”). That was what she wanted. But that wasn’t what she got.
“Normality is a tightrope-walker above the abyss of abnormality,” writes Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz in his first novel, which he published in Poland just before accidentally immigrating to Argentina on the eve of World War II. Only a few years later, Pizarnik’s poems began walking the fine line between self and language, a slack dialectic insofar as neither side of it is sure.
On the one hand, there is the unpredictability of an unruly self, a self that turns out to be unfathomable, even to itself. Take the posthumously published “On This Night, In This World”:
the thing about the soul is it doesn’t see itself
the thing about the mind is it doesn’t see itself
the thing about the spirit is it doesn’t see itself
where does this conspiracy of invisibilities come from?
not one word is visible
And from the same poem, and on the other hand, there is the fundamental unreliability of language, words mere smoke and mirrors:
do not make love
they make absence
if i said water would i drink?
if i said bread would i eat?
As Tzvetan Todorov writes in “Language and its Doubles,” “it is impossible to conceive of the origin of language without postulating the absence of objects at the outset.” If the thing we wanted to name, in other words, were present, there would be no need to name it. There would be no need to request or refuse it because we could directly interact with it in whatever way we chose. At the same time, as Michał Paweł Markowski writes in Desire for Presence, “all forms of representation do make present in some way the thing they represent—for without that connection, they would simply be suspended in a sort of semantic vacuum.” Language, then, is the playground par excellence of presence and absence. And presence and absence, the predatory sun and shifty shadow that appear throughout her oeuvre, are the contrasting keys of Pizarnik’s bicephalous worldview, while the cracked wall that casts shadows but also admits the sun is Pizarnik’s whole world. Take “Naming You,” a poem from Works and Nights again (1965), included here in its entirety:
Not the poem about your absence,
just a drawing, a crevice in the wall,
something in the wind, a bitter taste.
The “poem about your absence” is rejected and reduced first to a form of graphein that is prior to writing, second to the crack in the wall itself, and finally, in a flurry of sensory synesthesia, to a sound and a scent and a taste. Thus the eponymous project of the poem fails, as the poem undoes itself line by line. From Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968), “Vertigo, or a Contemplation of Things that Come to an End” intrudes even further into the real world:
This lilac unleaves.
It falls from itself
and hides its ancient shadow.
I will die of such things.
This notion of self-splitting, frequently with lethal consequences, appears time and again in Pizarnik’s poetry. It turns up in her diary, as well: “if I could divorce myself,” she writes from Paris on March 8, 1961, “I wouldn’t hesitate to do so, and I’d leave.” Although the self is the only refuge from the violent world, the self itself is terrifying, oppressive—also to be fled. Pizarnik predicts throughout her diary that she will eventually commit suicide, as she does in the last line of “Vertigo,” and as she did, in fact, on September 25, 1972.
Poems like “Vertigo” are like well-tended fires, all intensity at their core with off-handed aporetics and casual duress like oxygen produced by fanning flames. Her prose poems, again, are tighter. The duplicity and proliferation of selves becomes a maddening labyrinth of mirrors, as in the book’s eponymous poem “Extracting the Stone of Madness”:
You wish to be someone else. Your other self wishes she were someone else. What is happening in that green grove? It so happens that it isn’t even green; there isn’t even a grove.
There is no stable self, but nor is there anything outside the self. The grass is never greener because there is no grass—there is only solitary confinement, and it is evidently a life sentence that cannot possibly be commuted. “Solitude is not being able to articulate the solitude,” she notes in “The Word for Desire,” from the same collection. The Shadow Texts, meanwhile, first published posthumously, ventures even further into the carnivalesque:
Shadow is disconcerted. She tells herself that really she works too much ever since Shadow died. Everything is a pretext for being a pretext, Shadow thought shadily.
Pizarnik is both repulsed and allured by an absolute solipsism that is simultaneously adulterated by the paradoxical conviction that no element of the self can be believed in. As she writes in her diary on April 11, 1961, “What fascinates me about masturbation is the wide range of possible transformations it offers. That ability to be subject and object at the same time… the abolition of time, of space…” And so she writes obsessively about why she writes; she writes obsessively about not being able to write. Again, from Extracting the Stone of Madness:
And the grey pier and the red houses And it is not yet solitude And the eyes see a black square with a circle of lilac music at its core And the garden of earthly delights exists only outside the gardens And solitude is not being able to say it And the grey pier and the red houses.
Another instance of synesthesia, and a jumble of conflicting desires; the dogged return to the self only to find that the path is treacherous, and the destination mere mirage. From Uncollected Poems, “The Dark One”:
And why did she speak as if silence were a great wall and words were the colors destined to cover it?
Silence is not a great wall to be covered with colors, although the speaker speaks as if it were, nor are colors words. The wall is words, a relentlessly self-renewing, self-effacing palimpsest that renders silence impossible. The wall connects the self to the world; the wall also separates the self from the world. The wall is also cracked, and these cracks threaten the integrity of the wall, but the speaker can’t stop picking at them, thereby extending and expanding them in spite of her aversion to whatever lies outside her cell. But her aversion to what lies within her cell is equal to if not greater than this first aversion, which means the problem is insoluble, and thus the perpetual escalation of onanism into self-harm, a crescendo into suicide.
There is street art and graffiti galore in Buenos Aires, the fine plumage of a peacock on the garage door of a Coghlan house, a sweetly hideous two-story walrus with a lobster’s tail, all shades of gray, in Villa Crespo, and alongside it a series of slogans, dedicated declarations of love, desperate entreaties addressed to lost loves, stray words and letters and indistinguishable shapes. In San Telmo and La Boca, enormous allegories of capitalism and its perils; the life-sized outlines of people disappeared during Argentina’s last dictatorship; local athletes; geometric patterns; a lion in a suit and tie. Names, initials, symbols. Peeling political banners that offer glimpses underneath of other ads and other colors; the three stripes of the cumbia concert posters; the sheets of plain white paper cut into thin strips at the bottom so passers-by can take the phone numbers of English teachers, music teachers, match-makers, fortune-tellers, prostitutes, cleaning services, drivers, booksellers. These most openly provisional segments of the fabric of the city are among my favorites. I often find it hard to resist trailing my fingers along the shadow-dappled, multi-colored walls as I walk past. Often, that is, I don’t resist. And then I think of the gashes and fissures in the cell walls of Pizarnik’s poems—of that porous, blemished fortress of the self and of the fight it nonetheless put up, a poetic tour de force.
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright and National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships for translation, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, The New Republic, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University. She lives in Buenos Aires and is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review.