EXTRACTING THE STONE OF MADNESS: POEMS 1962-1972
Alejandra Pizarnik (translation by Yvette Siegert)

New Directions, 2016

In compressed fragments, stark monostichs, and dense prose poems, the late Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s oeuvre presents a rich inner world built from a litany of symbols. Her domestic interiors and dreamscapes employ recurring nouns (shadows, song, birds, lilacs, dolls, a garden, a grey wolf, and others) as carefully-wrought teeth in the gears of her poems’ made world. In “Vertigo, or a Contemplation of Things that Come to an End,” she writes,

This lilac unleaves.
It falls from itself
and hides its ancient shadow.
I will die of such things.

The lilac and shadow stand in as a metaphors for the decomposing and ghosting self, becoming further complicated in relation to each other and the first-person speaker. Given Pizarnik’s death from intentional overdose at the age of thirty-six, the specter of suicide hangs over her explorations of silence, absence, and exile. Born outside of Buenos Aires to Eastern European Jewish parents, Pizarnik’s speakers refer to a disembodied “you” and “they” throughout her work. In the context of the domestic and psychological space, these figures inflict a specifically feminine sense of otherness:

The little paper doll: I cut her out of green and red and sky-blue paper, and she lay flat on the floor, extreme in her lack of volume or dimension. They set you in the middle of the road, little wanderer, and you are in the middle of a road where no one can identify you.

Of the seven books contained in this volume, three were posthumously published. The dedications on these books and many of the poems contained within them serve as concrete gestures outside the speaker’s contained introspection, each a farewell from a poet for whom

at the center of absence
my shadow is the center
of the center of the poem.

While Pizarnik’s diction is plainspoken throughout, her syntax swings from sparse fragmentation to dizzying digression. Yvette Siegert’s translation presents Pizarnik’s poems in authoritative clarity. In some instances, the translation renders words repeated in the Spanish as different words in English, perhaps an effort to elucidate multiple meanings in the Spanish. With Spanish and English versions of the poems printed on facing pages, this volume offers the reader the opportunity to chart Pizarnik’s riddling repetitions while layering their multiple meaning as she layers the many valences of the self, insisting

I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.