:: Article

She Was Never Here

By Elisa Taber.

Alejandra Pizarnik, The Galloping Hour, translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander (New Directions, 2018)

“I want to go / nowhere if not / down into the depths,” were the words found printed on a blackboard in Alejandra Pizarnik’s bedroom on Buenos Aires’ Montevideo Street the night she overdosed on fifty pills of Seconal. The Argentine poet died enchanted by her conception of poetry as shamanic cure. At thirty-six she had fully realized the Alejandrian character birthed when she changed her name from Flora. Only her first collection of poems, La tierra más ajena, later disowned and claimed premature, is signed Flora Alejandra Pizarnik. She did not become herself but multiple selves by dropping her first name. In all her books, except the first, the figure of the double marks both the neverending search for the individual and the inescable lure of an innate pschizofrenic tendency. The transformation allowed her to enter herself through the “original wound” and attempt but fail to extract the “stone of madness.” Locating what obstructed her from living enabled her to die.

The Galloping Hour, a collection of exophonic poems compiled and translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander, was written on insomniac nights not unlike the one that led to her ultimate demise but in a foreign language, French, in one of the many bedrooms she occupied during her four-year stay in Paris. The reader does not witness Alejandra approach but encircle the stone, it glows the way the things that threaten to destroy you emanate so much light that they blind. The wind, the back of a curtain, a galloping horse, a crystal chord, the rain, tobacco smoke, a circle, a lamp… are only named; description is restricted to how the inanimate looks from afar or feels in the dark and how the animate sounds as it approaches, but they render an ominous atmosphere so vividly imaginable that the reader can inhabit it.

Images of crumpled paper covered in stricken-through lines and painted over fragments of text, photographs of the manuscript bought by and housed in the Princeton University library, accompany this collection of autobiographical aphoristic poems. These illustrations manifest the unfulfillable desire of the editor and translators to evidence the selection, transcription, and translation process each artifact underwent. My own repetition of the words printed on her blackboard is an attempt to salvage an intact posthumous text from the wreck that is the oeuvre of a poet who not only died before her time, but also overedited and disowned much of her work.

Returning the poem to an artifactual state implies the identification of the artisan, the hand that writes and rewrites. The author provokes and resists the reader’s search for an intractable truth. Her multiple biographies and anthologies do not trace a chronology, but reorder anecdotes recounted by those that knew her and poems from her six collections that render her unmistakably identifiable as a born writer and the character she birthed. Many choose to die, but what differentiates Alejandra is the way she saw and preserved herself, always the same and somehow hidden, like Supervielle’s “girl of altamar.” It is what she kept for herself that belongs to her and is desired by all that read her.

The French poems, like all the others in her oeuvre, are somatic and atmospheric—the Argentine poet Ivonne Bordelois says that Alejandra “fought with the body” to make language mean—they hinge on the omission of a traumatic event, disclosure of a fatal desire and prediction of a future tragedy. The reader feels her struggle and fear but cannot identify the threat, it originates and remains within the author. Most are aphoristic lyric poems without punctuation and those that are longer or written in prose still lack any semblance to narrative. The task of the aphorist, which Pizarnik learned from Antonio Porchia, is not only to encrypt truth in those words in that order but to charge the silence around them with the urge to expound. The reader’s mind wanders but does not grasp a meaning that can be rephrased. Still, a pattern is recognizable.

An identifiable method, on the micro level of word-choice and the macro level of argumentative structure, both of the individual poems and the entire collection, permeates The Galloping Hour. In terms of word-choice, her language is both cryptically minimal and grotesquely baroque. The severe editorial process that admits the inclusion of a catalog of symbols is evidenced in “Ah Yes, it’s the Lilac!”

Ah yes, it’s the lilac! And it’s for that
I’ve become lost.

The symbol interrupts the logic of the poem and renders the few plain words that summon it obsolete. There are others like “the lilac,”—the air, wind, garden, forest, shore, dead bird, beast, girl, mirror, wall, wound, eye… Alejandra’s semiotic vocabulary tests the limits of language but contests silence by naming the things she imagines.

In terms of the argumentative structure of each poem, a fatalistic conclusion follows an irreproachable statement. The undeniable truth, which I rephrase to include all of the poet’s variants, is that we cannot see ourselves. The desire for self-recognition—beyond the identification of a reflection, shadow, photograph or body parts—is described in the untitled 37th poem from Diana’s Tree. These lines from an earlier collection evidence that schizophrenia is always the key to her conception of madness, death, solitude, eroticism, and the problem of evil.

beyond any prohibited zone
there is a mirror for our sad transparency

The defeatist inference is that if an aim, self-recognition, is unattainable, the struggle should be circumvented, obliterate the self by committing suicide. This conclusion never rings as true as the previous statement, in “Death She Is Here” the death of the “I” is both made proximate and interceded and by her shadow.

death she is here
behind the shadow of her shadow

Yet, the fatal conclusion is inevitable because when the “I” sees her shadow or reflection she glimpses what lies beyond, her desire to die.

In terms of the argumentative structure of the collection, the translators divided Pizarnik’s exophonic poems into sections—“French Poems,” those written in Paris, and “Other French Poems,” those written in Buenos Aires—in addition to selecting and ordering that selection in such a way that they tell two narratives. The first traces how Alejandra’s search for herself as an other warps into her being consumed by her lover. She inhabits an other because she is unable to escape the body; her soul can only witness as image or whole fragmented into parts, limbs. The second starts with the submission to incarceration within the inhabited body, metaphorized as a kind of sleep paralysis, and ends with the transformation of the wound into an opening through which the character witnesses what in the world will outlive her: the natural elements sensed and the medium that renders them knowable, language.

In the first poem, “And What to Think of Silence,” she admits, “It’s of myself I speak.” However, the people that surround Alejandra severely alter who she thinks she is and how she writes. The deceased authors she admired—Rimbaud and later Lautreamont—did not only influence the form and content of her poems but the very language she wrote in, as evidenced in the exophonic exercise that produced the french poems. Her contemporaries, Octavio Paz and Julio Cortazár in Paris, and Olga Orozco and Enrique Molina in Buenos Aires, led her to inhabit the portrait they painted of her, the face of an estranged beast superimposed over that of a naïve adolescent. However, the contradiction they witnessed was sincere.

Pizarnik had a seemingly happy childhood and youth but inherited her parents’ past and her literary predecessors’ fate. Flora was the daughter of Jewish immigrants that could not flee their fear of Nazi persecution. Alejandra was the poéte maudit incarnate that could not outlive the optimism of youth. However, she was, above all else, what she did: write. In “All Day Long” she adds to the admission that she writes about herself, “I don’t abandon this place of recognition, only leave when you arrive.” We do not witness the merging of beast and child in her self-portrait but the appearance of a ghost.

The inability to see herself as an other led Alejandra Pizarnik to write and endowed her poems with an aura that rendered them identifiably her own. Glimpsing between the lines stitched tightly together, I see the light of a lamp that illuminates the stark darkness of her room, then her sleeping figure as portrayed in countless photographs and descriptions, and finally, what she dreams. It is a space and time that predates language in so far as it is inhabited by a subject and furnished by objects that can be sensed, even in dreams, but not known.

Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the Nivaklé narratives of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy. Elisa was born in Asunción, raised in La Paz, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Jakarta, and currently lives in Montreal.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 18th, 2018.