The Mask of Language: Poems of Alejandra Pizarnik
“Will there be time to make myself a mask when I emerge from the shadows?” is a question Alejandra Pizarnik asks herself in “The Green Table,” a poem of fragments, queries, and laments in which the writer establishes one of her recurrent images and means of being in the world: occluded, veiled, adorned in “masks of night from a lost place.”1 Her other dominant trope: silence (the mask of language, perhaps). “I stored up the purest words / for making new silences,”2 she notes in another green poem. In the great twentieth-century Argentine modernist’s oeuvre, the body is mute and the mind is battling. Or the mind’s medium—language—is. This tension, between mind and body, language and silence, framed and propelled the writer’s poetics forward—as well as backward, toward the archaic temples she often invoked, sliding agilely between the classical and modernist tropes of lyric poetry that she would employ and abandon with equal rigor and ardor.
Indeed, ceremonies, rituals, masks, and above all invocations of language and silence (are they the same thing) fill Pizarnik’s poems, lyric or essayistic. This flood is often presented as a kind of offering and directed toward a you—perhaps a beloved, perhaps a figure of distance and need, perhaps the writer herself. The ardent address and strange glamor of Pizarnik—flagrant, florid—is urgency itself; the addressee is absence or language (or their marriage: silence). In between is a kind of hunger, for writing, for belonging, for love—or its stamping out. Yet if masks and silence populate Pizarnik’s poems, their landscape is exile. Some “lost place” in which alienation—from place and self, from any kind of temporal order—is rule and ruin. Her first book of poetry, published in 1955 in Argentina, the place of her birth, would be called, notably, La tierra más ajena (The Most Foreign Country).
Born in 1936 in Avellaneda, a port city of Buenos Aires, Pizarnik was raised in the Jewish community established there. Her parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who had fled the horror fields of Europe; Pizarnik’s early education in Argentina would be in both Spanish and Yiddish. After studying philosophy, literature, and painting at the University of Buenos Aires, she moved, in 1960, to Paris for several years. There she entered a circle of Latin American writers including Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz; studied at the Sorbonne; and translated works from the French by Antonin Artaud, Yves Bonnefoy, Aimé Cesaire, and Henri Michaux, among others. After receiving Buenos Aires’s First Municipal Poetry Prize, she returned to Paris on a 1968 Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1972, back in Buenos Aires, and following a period of depression and institutionalization, Pizarnik overdosed at the age of thirty-six. In almost two decades of writing, she had produced seven poetry collections and a book of prose, their influence and legacy singular and continuing.
The portfolio of poems that follow—filled with the masks and silences and myriad voices of Pizarnik’s fervent language—are from the last decade of the poet’s life, translated into English by Yvette Siegert and collected in Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972, recently published by New Directions. They include poems from Pizarnik’s collections Los trabajos y las noches (Works and Nights, 1965)—was there ever a better title?—Extracción de la piedra de locura (Extracting the Stone of Madness, 1968), and El infierno musical (A Musical Hell, 1971), as well as poems only published posthumously.
In a conversation about translating a series of Pizarnik’s late, uncollected poems on silence, Siegert noted to me her “deliberate wish to avoid making this handful of pieces sound ‘polished.’” She went on: “I tried to hold onto their awkward music and to show how Pizarnik gave that awkwardness itself a different kind of beauty. The originals have an unpolished and ‘uncut’ tone: Pizarnik is playing like crazy with ways to incorporate favorite passages by her various literary influences (Michaux, Lewis Carroll, the Comte de Lautréamont) into these fragmentary prose poems, and these pieces echo other, more ‘finished’ poems that were gathered into her other, published collections. I was attempting to maintain some of the strangeness I heard in the language, which is and isn’t Pizarnik’s own. In that sense, for our purposes, we could think of the poems as masks for the languages, voices, and silences they contain.”3
1 Alejandra Pizarnik, “The Green Table,” in Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972, trans. Yvette Siegert (New York: New Directions, 2016).
2 Pizarnik, “Green Paradise,” in ibid.
3 From an e-mail conversation with the author, December 2, 2015.