Editor’s Note: We are pleased to publish one of the finalist essays from our first literary essay contest: “Alejandra Pizarnik: The Absolute Hidden in the Night,” by the young Spanish author Pablo Fernández Curbelo, translated to English by Michelle Mirabella.
During a party, a friend walked to the back of the living room, came across a book tucked among a handful of things, opened it at random, and read: “We seek the absolute everywhere and only ever find things” [tr. Margaret Mahony Stoljar]. In that moment he experienced the type of euphoria we feel when reading a sentence that hits our very core. What is this gem?, he cried. The book in question was the voluminous Diarios by the Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, and the words, a quote she pulled from Novalis. That moment holds meaning for the magic that chance sometimes brings: within the thousand pages of Pizarnik’s diaries, my friend had stumbled upon the words that wholly summarize or epitomize Pizarnik’s poetry, the backbone of her poetic body: her tragic search for the absolute.
Alejandra Pizarnik was born in Avellaneda, Argentina, in April of 1939, and spent the first part of her life in the home of her middle-class family and, later, in Paris, where she wrote her most well-known poetry collections. Her succinct and deeply intense poems, with dizzying pacing, made her into one of the most renowned and enigmatic poets to date. Her poems hold echoes of universal themes that Pizarnik made her own: her status as an exile, as a fallen angel, the duplicity of self, fear, the mysteries of desire, her obsession with language, the impossibility of language to accurately express reality, and most of all, how she was drawn to death. In September of 1972 death finally drew her in when, after ingesting fifty capsules of Seconal, she died of an overdose. Her suicide gave her a darkly magnetic air cementing her into, for better or worse, the legendary Spanish-speaking poète maudit she continues to be today.
As in the work of many other poets, there is a deep-seated thirst for the absolute that underlies Pizarnik’s work. For example, on October 18, 1962, disconsolate over the passing days, she wrote in her diary: “quisieras –una sola vez– cometer un acto puro, realizar el absoluto que te prometiste” [you would like—just once—to act purely, to realize the absolute that you promised yourself]. She wrote these words during her time in Paris the same year she published Diana’s Tree, her most celebrated poetry collection, with an introduction by Octavio Paz. Patricio Ferrari writes on Diana’s Tree in The Paris Review that it “granted her immediate entry into the pantheon of Latin American poetry. It was a turning point also in form and style.” But, to what extent does the thirst for the absolute permeate Alejandra Pizarnik’s poetry? And why does it become such a deeply tragic and vital search?
As Cristina Piña and Patricia Venti show in Alejandra Pizarnik: Biografía de un mito (2022), the most recent biography on the poet, Pizarnik makes the hallmark of her poetry and life the “contradicción básica” [fundamental contradiction], the friction or miserable paradox suffered by every poet: on the one hand, expecting nothing from life or the impossibility of participating in the real world that belongs to everyone else and, on the other, the search for salvation in poetry. As Novalis admits, in everyday life “[we] only ever find things” [tr. Margaret Mahony Stoljar], which is why Pizarnik, who calls herself “young traveler” [tr. Yvette Siegert] in Diana’s Tree, decides to set out on her journey to the absolute through her poems, climbing aboard the unsteady vessel of language.
During the summer of 1950, Pizarnik wrote in her diaries: “Conocer que la esperanza es una mentira, que lo absoluto es la única aspiración legítima y que es inalcanzable” [To know that hope is a lie, that the absolute is the only legitimate thing to aspire toward and that it is unattainable]. Even then, Pizarnik was aware of the underlying, structural aspect of the absolute or, as psychoanalysis shows us, of all desire as well: that it is unattainable. Nothing is capable of fully satisfying the desire or quenching the thirst for the absolute. This premonition—that there is no language capable of leading us to true meaning or salvation—will take root in all Pizarnik’s poems, growing stronger and increasingly persuasive in Alejandra’s imaginary throughout her life, slowly nudging her to her own death. Nearly a decade after the previously mentioned entry in her diary, in 1959, Pizarnik writes disenchanted: “basta de absolutos, basta de la nada” [enough of absolutes, enough of nothingness]; and, in June of 1963: “Cuando hablo siento que me traiciono, también cuando escribo […] todo esto deriva de mis deseos demasiado fuertes, estridentes, ‘absolutos’” [When I speak I feel that I betray myself, when I write as well […] all this comes from my desires that are overwhelmingly strong, strident, “absolute”].
“SHE WRITES AT NIGHT, NOCTURNAL AND DARK; HER WRITING STRETCHES LANGUAGE, AN EVER-TERRIBLE ATTEMPT TO CARRY WORDS TO THE BRINK OF THEIR MEANING, TO PULL ON THE SIGNIFIERS LIKE A RUBBER BAND THAT MUST ONE DAY BREAK”
Needless to say, during her life Pizarnik sculpted her own fictional character depicting Alejandra, her own myth that she built herself, becoming the character in her poems. In this way, Pizarnik’s journey as a poet in search of the absolute is also captured in her work. Thus, her poems always invoke a symbolic place beyond—a river, a night, an “on the other side” [tr. Yvette Siegert], a “lilac garden on the other side of the river” [tr. Yvette Siegert] as we read in the poem “Rescue”; this is a distant, imaginary place, now lost, where life still is or would be possible (presumably, said spatial obsession is due to Alejandra’s enthusiasm for painting and the plastic arts).
Oftentimes, this dreamlike place brimming with the absolute belongs to the night, with its enchantments and darkness and shadowy corners, but full of hope, where salvation still seems possible. In Diana’s Tree, Pizarnik refers to “a hole in the night” [tr. Yvette Siegert] or to the “palace of the night” [tr. Yvette Siegert]; and in Works and Nights, a collection of poems published in 1965 also during her time in Paris, she writes: “on the other edge of the night / love is possible / take me there / take me to the sweet essences / that die each day in your memory” [tr. Yvette Siegert]. In the same poetry collection, Pizarnik later writes that she refers to “a place of absence / a thread of miserable union” [tr. Yvette Siegert].
Like Pizarnik, many poets have made reference to how the night is bewitching, to its darkness and shadows. Night as the realm of unbridled subjectivity and passionate forces that stand in contrast to the logical thought of daytime. Novalis, to return to the German poet with whom we began, and in the words of Víctor Vich in El absoluto literario de la poesía de Alejandra Pizarnik, conceived the night as “reina protectora donde los ojos pueden ver más lejos y donde es posible percibir la unidad del todo” [a protective queen, a place where eyes can see farther and where it is possible to perceive the unity of everything]. In this way, in knowing herself to be a fallen angel of the night, terrifying as a dark traveler with unbounded ambition (to attain wholeness), Pizarnik relegates, as Piña and Venti write in their biography, the day and the sun to the “espacio de los otros” [space of the others], to quotidian life, terrible and simple, to the earthly world of monotony and work. We recall her famous poem “The Cage”: “Outside the sun shines. / I dress in ashes” [tr. Cecilia Rossi].
This dwelling of the absolute, in which love and redemption are possible and oftentimes captured as a shore or the night, echoes paradise lost. Said loss is inexorably linked to childhood, to the vestiges of youth extinguished, left behind, now abandoned; childhood as the kingdom of passions and innocent glances, of teasing smiles, of pure love, or of truly genuine feelings. In a diary entry in March of 1964, Alejandra Pizarnik writes an annotation: “Fournier, el amor será un absoluto o nada” [Fournier, love will be an absolute or nothing]. With that, she is presumably referring to Alain-Fournier’s novel El gran Meaulnes, in which the protagonist, Augustin Meaulne, is searching for his lost love. In the novel, Fournier builds an allegory of adolescent love full of surrealist brush strokes, of love that’s limpid, pure, and one-sided, only possible in youth and always tragically perishable. We also think of the title of Alejandra’s first book of poems, The Last Innocence (1956), that she published when she was an adolescent with financial support from her father. Do both childhood and night perhaps represent the same place in Pizarnik’s poetry, namely, the extinguished dwelling of the absolute?
In her poem “Time,” Alejandra writes: “I know nothing of childhood / but a luminous fear / and a hand dragging me / to my other shore” [tr. Cecilia Rossi]. And then: “My childhood and its scent / of a bird caressed,” [tr. Cecilia Rossi] which is to say, of freedom fleetingly palpable, held, attained. The bond that childhood and night have with the absolute is therefore definitive: in her biography, Piña and Venti refer to their conception of childhood as an “ámbito de inocencia sagrada y de plenitud, donde se daba una especie de fusión con el absoluto” [realm of sacred innocence and wholeness, where there existed a kind of fusion with the absolute].
However, over time, the tremulous premonition that language is not enough to grant us access to these dreamlike places, to the mysterious edifications of the absolute, becomes increasingly certain and infallible. Over the course of her life and during her time in Argentina and Paris, Pizarnik shuts herself away in various rooms she rented for writing, rooms from which she hardly emerged except to engage with some well-known friends or to get drunk. She writes at night, nocturnal and dark; her writing stretches language, an ever-terrible attempt to carry words to the brink of their meaning, to pull on the signifiers like a rubber band that must one day break. “All night long I make the night. All night long I write. Word by word I am writing the night” [tr. Yvette Siegert], we read in a poem from Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972.
This search for the precise word haunts her for life. In August of 1962, in romantic distress, she writes in her diary: “Una se prepara años para poder decir con belleza las pocas palabras que quiere decir desde que saltó a este mundo” [One prepares for years to be able to gracefully say the few words one has been wanting to say ever since leaping into this world]. Reading this entry, we are witness both to Pizarnik’s impression of “leaping” into the world (Heidegger would say “being thrown”), of her arduous life’s enterprise in search of the precise word and, finally, of her fundamental and bitter finding: she is only able to say “pocas palabras” [a few words]. Her disenchantment with language, from which she drinks and nourishes herself, where she erects the castle of words in which she seeks refuge, will move in crescendo over time, filling her final books of poems with numerous references to the impossibility of symbolization and ending with her early suicide.
By definition, language maintains a deadly relationship with the parlêtre—that is, with the “speaker” of whom Lacan spoke—given that the speaker is incapable of accurately uttering the name of what is real. We think of the great absolutes that, as we have seen, Pizarnik seeks to attain and of the impossibility of saying them with words, of avoiding falling into merely stating the “things” about which Novalis writes. Pizarnik gives us an example: “La tremenda intensidad de un instante amoroso es indecible” [the tremendous intensity of a romantic moment is ineffable], she writes in June of 1963, the weakness of her words making her increasingly disconsolate. At one time she sought exile in language and found nothing in language but “un muro, algo que me expulsa y me deja fuera” [a wall, something that casts me out and leaves me outside].
This fundamental disenchantment is laid out prodigiously on the table when, in the poem “On this Night, in this World,” Pizarnik asks herself: “no / words / do not make love / they make absence / if i said water would i drink? / if i said bread would i eat?” [tr. Yvette Siegert]. In the end she changes the direction of the questions and writes, as if settling a score or in lament: “where does this conspiracy of invisibilities come from? / not one word is visible” [tr. Yvette Siegert].
Over time, the impossibility of embarking on a journey to that lilac garden, to that paradise tragically lost, to the other shore, or to the sweet night using language as a vessel becomes as solid as a wall. Tragically, disconsolate over the emptiness of signs and fearful of falling prey to madness, Pizarnik thinks of death, which, as a lure of the absolute, arouses in her a deep fascination. Death represents the final bend in the road to wholeness (as she wrote while young: “de una manera visionaria sé que moriré de poesía” [through foresight I know that I will die from poetry]).
In Works and Nights, a poetry collection that was a stylistic inflection point in her work, Pizarnik publishes a blatant plea for help in a poem that synthesizes, with staggering brevity and establishing a dialectical game using an epigraph from Quevedo (“…in kisses, not in reasons” [tr. Yvette Siegert]), her two vital struggles. She maintains said struggles on both sides of her poetry, permeated by her ferocious desire for the absolute. In the poem, Pizarnik exposes that partition, lethal and terrible: the battle writers fight, on one side, against words and, on the other, against life. The poem encapsulates this tension between the body that feels and the misery of words. Heartbreakingly, she speaks to us: “Hide me from this battle with words / and put out the furies of my elemental body” [tr. Yvette Siegert].
Translated by Michelle Mirabella
Sources for translated quotes:
Diana’s Tree, by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018)
Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert (New Directions, 2016)
Novalis: Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by Margaret Mahony Stoljar (State University of New York, 1997)
The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures, by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Cecilia Rossi (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019)