Essay

From Paris, with Love and Terror

Alejandra Pizarnik’s French poems reveal the artist’s restless obsessions.
Black and white image of Alejandra Pizarnik.

“Your secret popularity inhabits the balconies of the Latin Quarter,” the celebrated Argentine novelist and short-story writer Julio Cortázar wrote to the poet Alejandra Pizarnik in 1965. He was in Paris; she was in Buenos Aires. The 29-year-old Pizarnik had just published her fifth collection of poetry, Los trabajos y las noches (Works and Nights). “There’s a painter here who signs his work Piza; another signs his Arnik,” Cortázar continues. “Someone’s come out with a cocktail named the Alejandra.” He goes on to tell Pizarnik that her new book hurts him—and that it’s utterly her own. The poems make him “feel the same thing I feel standing in front of certain (very few) paintings or drawings by the Surrealists: that for a second I’m on the other side, that they have helped me cross over, that I’m you.”

Cortázar’s admiration wasn’t unique. Pizarnik’s poetry stirred and haunted her contemporaries, among them Silvina Ocampo, Simone de Beauvoir, and Octavio Paz. The French surrealist writer André Pieyre de Mandiargues once wrote to her, “I am in love with your poems: I’d like you to make lots of them and for them to spread love and terror everywhere.” Pizarnik’s obsessions—death, darkness, and desire—run throughout her work, sometimes starkly. “The desire to die is king,” she writes in her short poem “Revelations.”

In 1933, Pizarnik’s parents fled Poland in the wake of rising anti-Semitism across Eastern Europe. After a stopover in Paris, they crossed the Atlantic to Buenos Aires, where they settled and raised two daughters. Pizarnik grew up absorbing trauma. Her parents read in newspapers and in occasional family letters about tragedies that befell loved ones back home during World War II. “They were very hard, very difficult years,” Pizarnik’s older sister Myriam says in the documentary Alejandra (2013). “They took my grandfather to build roads. My grandmother and aunts were in concentration camps.” Though they lived in an enclave of Central European expatriates in Buenos Aires, anxiety was high in the Pizarnik family.

In his introduction to the newly published The Galloping Hour: French Poems (2018), translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander, Ferrari notes that the Pizarnik sisters attended a progressive Jewish school in Buenos Aires, where there was “the accepted Latin American notion of French—of France—as inseparable from high-culture, especially for those with fine-art or literary aspirations.” Never before translated into English, and unpublished during Pizarnik’s lifetime, The Galloping Hour gathers the nearly two dozen poems she produced in French. Although brief, the book gives readers a new appreciation of just how deeply she venerated French art and literature, and of how formative her Paris years were.

It was a veneration that began early. In high school, Pizarnik read in French, studied in French, and admired French poetry. She read Albert Camus and Marcel Proust in their native language. Esteemed Argentine schools were committed to a Francophile curricula, and even around the house, Pizarnik’s father played French music. This penchant was culturally inherited; the great wave of European immigration to Argentina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—the same wave that brought Pizarnik’s parents—dramatically increased the country’s population and gave it a European makeup.

When Pizarnik started college, her parents urged her to study medicine or law; she studied philosophy and literature instead, and her teachers included the revered fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. She didn’t pass any of her classes, though, and eventually dropped out. “I have to go to France. Remember it,” she wrote to herself in a spiral-bound notebook in 1959, when she was 23. “Remember that this is the only thing left to want, in this world wide and deep.” In 1960, she went. She stayed four years.

Paris had long been a destination for artists. As Ferrari writes, “A quick glance at the biographies of some of the great European, Latin and North American writers of the past century reveals, more often than not, a single beacon, a common destination—one unrivaled city sought after for its bohemian art cultural scene.” In the 1920s, Paris was that city, with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and scores of other artists making their home there. That tradition continued after World War II, when several Boom and post-Boom Latin American writers—Cortázar, Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Severo Sarduy among them—flocked to Paris. Many of these writers were drawn to French art because of their shared literary aesthetics. “By this time, a Surrealist poetic current had spread across the New World,” Ferrari writes. “In Argentina, it circulated among a second generation of avant-garde Francophile artists and poets.”

Pizarnik found her creative kin in Paris. She met the surrealists Georges Bataille, Jean Arp, and Max Ernst. She met Cortázar, Beauvoir, and John-Paul Sartre. She hit it off immediately with Marguerite Duras, who had just written the screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour. In many ways, Paris was good for Pizarnik, as the city threw her into close contact with some of the greatest writers and artists of her time. In other ways, Paris likely exacerbated her decline.

By the time she arrived, Pizarnik was already addicted to amphetamines. First synthesized in Germany in 1887, these stimulants were especially popular during World War II, when soldiers on both sides used them to ward off fatigue. In the 1950s and ’60s, pharmaceutical companies marketed the drugs to women as a weight-loss supplement. But the drugs also kept consumers up at night—not so much a side effect for Pizarnik as a coveted feature. “All night I run from someone,” she writes in one of her untitled French prose poems. “I lead the chase. I lead the fugue.”

Pizarnik’s poetry is stylistically inseparable from her drug use. Her verse evinces an almost hallucinogenic movement between gritty particulars and abstract grandiosity, as in her French prose poem “Sex, Night”:

            Desire needlessly spills on me a cursed liqueur. For my thirsting thirst, what can
the promise of eyes do? I speak of something not in this world. I speak of someone
whose purpose is elsewhere.
             And I was naked in memory of the white night. Drunk and I made love all
night, just like a sick dog.

Her work also suggests an appetite for beauty, even in the midst of despair:

I recall the wind, the lilacs, the gray, the perfume, the song
and the wind, but I don’t recall what the angel said.

And it suggests, perhaps most insistently, an anxious commitment to the night, as when she writes in another untitled poem:

All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night
you abandon
me slowly…All
night I write luminous messages, messages of rain, all night
some-
one checks for me and I check for someone.

While Pizarnik’s French poems can be more circular and indirect than those she wrote in Spanish—it’s unlikely that she wrote the French poems with publication in mind—they provide a record of her fascination with in-betweenness: the space between languages and places, between body and mind, and between desire and its consummation. Her French texts also exhibit many of her signature motifs: the body, silence, night, madness, mirrors, and death. French was Pizarnik’s third language (she also spoke Yiddish), and her French poetry generally isn’t as precise or as refined as her work in Spanish. This may be because she never revised her French poems. They exist almost as snapshots of her developing obsessions and of her struggle to capture them in verse. As she writes in yet another untitled French poem:

my language
or my lamp
my language is the priestess.

Shortly before she left for Paris, Pizarnik confided in her journal, “I would like to live in order to write. Not to think of anything else other than to write. I am not after love nor money. I don’t want to think nor decently build my life. I want peace: to read, to study, to earn some money so that I become independent from my family, and to write.” Though amphetamines didn’t give her peace, and although they took a devastating toll on her health, the drugs apparently did help Pizarnik write. They kept her awake and sharpened her focus. And she never had to worry about her supply; amphetamines were easily available at pharmacies everywhere in the ’60s, even without a prescription. While the rest of the world slept, Pizarnik wrote.

Like Franz Kafka, then, Pizarnik was one of literature’s quintessential night owls. Unlike Kafka, she didn’t follow a regular daytime napping schedule, and subsisting on amphetamines is a dangerous habit. Her Spanish poem “Eyes Wide Open” reads:

Someone sobs and measures
the lengths before dawn.
Someone punches her pillow
in search of an impossible
place of rest.

An untitled French prose poem is even more visceral:

We die of fatigue here.
We’d rather not move. We’re exhausted. Each bone and each limb
recalls its archaic sufferings. We suffer and crawl, dance, we drag
ourselves.

Despite her compromised physical condition, Pizarnik wrote prolifically, in both Spanish and French, during her Paris years. Ferrari argues that it was her most productive period. In 1962, she published her fourth book of poems, Árbol de Diana (Diana’s Tree), a collection that featured a preface by her friend (and future Nobel Prize winner) Paz. Ferrari writes, “This book of poems and prose poems in Spanish granted her an immediate entry into the pantheon of Latin American poetry. It was a turning point....The myth of Pizarnik the Pythia, the poet priestess, the visionary, was set forth.”

Yet Pizarnik’s life in Paris was closer to that of a transient than an oracle. She changed addresses at least five times during her first two years in the city. In Alejandra, Pizarnik’s friend Antonio Requeni recalls helping her move from one hotel on Boulevard Saint-Michel to another. “There was more medicine than suitcases,” he says. “She took them to wake up, to go to sleep, to feel well, to feel bad, for everything, that’s how she was.” As Ferrari writes of this period, “She gambled her health and well-being against her poetry.”

Part of that gamble was an attempt to find relief from her depression. “She couldn’t deal with day-to-day life, so she was like a helpless child,” Pizarnik’s sister says in Alejandra. “We had to help her with things that everyone else did for themselves.” During Pizarnik’s Paris sojourn, Cortázar was one of the volunteers who looked out for her. While preparing to publish his novel Hopscotch (1963), he gave Pizarnik the manuscript to type so she could make extra money. She quickly lost it and ignored his calls. (She later found the manuscript and returned it, untyped.) “This got worse with time because when you are very young it can be kind of charming,” Pizarnik’s sister has said, “but when you are over thirty and you don’t know how to fry an egg, you become like a splinter on the skin of the world.”

The title of Pizarnik’s 1968 collection, Extracción de la piedra de locura (Extracting the Stone of Madness), refers to a Hieronymus Bosch painting that depicts a medieval notion of mental illness as a tumor or a stone lodged in the patient’s skull. As Pizarnik writes in the book’s notes (translated by Yvette Siegert), “The cure for madness, therefore, required the excision of this imaginary stone, usually through trephination, a technique in which the surgeon drilled a hole into the skull until he reached the dura mater.” Bosch’s painting makes for a revealing, albeit nightmarish, corollary for Pizarnik’s mental state during these years. As she writes in the book’s eponymous prose poem, “You sob tragically and call upon your madness, and you would go so far as to have it removed—this thing, your last remaining privilege—as if it were a stone.” Of course the operation is futile; the only cure for madness, in Pizarnik’s formulation, is a vegetative state.

Pizarnik’s relationships with other female writers, such as Ocampo and Olga Orozco, played a pivotal, if complicated, role in her emotional life, perhaps even more so than her intimate relationships with men. In a poem to Ocampo, Pizarnik writes:

You open me like a flower
(a poor flower, of course, unfortunately)
who had given up waiting for the terrible
delicacy of spring. You open me, I open…

Pizarnik’s sexuality would have been easier to accommodate in the 21st century, but queer relationships were verboten in Argentina and France (and most everywhere else) at the time, which may have contributed to Pizarnik’s despondence. For her part, Ocampo was married to the writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, and it’s unclear whether she reciprocated Pizarnik’s feelings.

In 1964, a homesick Pizarnik returned to Buenos Aires. Her time in Paris rejuvenated her interest in writing in Spanish—after all, in Paris she found peers who didn’t make a qualitative distinction between the two languages. She stopped writing in French. But Pizarnik was in poor psychological and physical condition upon her return to Argentina. While writing the poems that comprise Works and Nights and Extracting the Stone of Madness, she also wrote her longest work of prose, La condesa sangrienta, (The Bloody Countess). The latter is a poetic essay about Elizabeth Báthory, the 16th century Hungarian Countess who allegedly tortured and killed 630 women. Although fascination with the grotesque characterizes much of Pizarnik’s work, the book describes methods of torture at length and wasn’t well-received. It’s never been translated into English. Many of Pizarnik’s family and peers—even Pizarnik herself—renounced it. “When I wrote those things I was crazy,” she confessed in a letter to her psychoanalyst. César Aira, the Argentine novelist who wrote a nonfiction study of Pizarnik’s work, has called The Bloody Countess his “first—and last, I hope—encounter with sadism, which I do not understand, which I will never understand.”

In the summer of 1966, General Juan Carlos Onganía led a coup to overthrow Argentina’s elected president, Arturo Illia, and started the military government known as the Revolución Argentina. On July 29 of that year, in an event later dubbed “The Night of the Long Batons,” this new military dictatorship destroyed laboratories and libraries, and discharged students and teachers from the University of Buenos Aires. In the months that followed, hundreds of professors resigned their positions and many more abandoned the country.

Though Pizarnik ignored politics, she couldn’t help but be swept up in her country’s turmoil. Many Argentine artists and intellectuals went into exile, including some of Pizarnik’s friends and peers. Paz resigned his position as Mexico’s ambassador to India after military police killed students in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City. Cortázar donated royalties from his books to the political prisoners of Latin America. But Pizarnik remained noncommittal. Her friend and fellow poet Fernando Noy says in Alejandra, “She never had political interests unless it was pure and savage anarchy that allows us to go to the very bottom.” In the spirit of a great nihilist and anarchist, both of which Pizarnik professed to be, she once wrote, “Rebellion consists of watching a rose until it pulverizes the eyes.”

Pizarnik’s father died around this same time. “Endless death, forgetfulness of language and loss of images. How I would like to be away from madness and death,” the 31-year-old Pizarnik wrote in her diary. “The death of my father made my death more real…I am slowly asphyxiating.” Desperate to help her daughter, Pizarnik’s mother bought her an apartment in Buenos Aires. Pizarnik’s work, which had shifted toward prose poetry, became ever more anguished. As Pizarnik writes in Extracting the Stone of Madness, “To write is to rummage through a tumult of burnt bodies, for the arm bone that corresponds to the leg bone. A miserable mixture. I restore, I reconstruct, so surrounded am I by death.”

Shortly after moving into her new apartment, Pizarnik won a Guggenheim Fellowship and left for New York. The city was “fierce and dead,” she wrote to her friend Ivonne Bordelois. “Every night I stay awake with the nightmarish idea that I won’t be able to leave the USA. Something stops me from leaving and I stay there forever.” Bordelois, in Boston studying for an important exam, worried that Pizarnik would burden her with an unannounced visit. Instead, Pizarnik returned to Paris, perhaps hoping to recapture some of the energy that inspired her earlier work. “Paris let her down,” Bordelois later said. “This marked the beginning of the end.”

Pizarnik’s second visit to Paris lasted only a few months before she returned again to Buenos Aires. She was in a desperate state. In a letter to Ocampo, she wrote:

On Saturday, in Bécquar, I rode on a motorcycle and crashed. Everything hurts (it would not hurt if you touched me—and this is not a flattering phrase). Since I did not want to alarm the people in the house, I said nothing. I lay in the sun. I fainted but luckily no one knew. I like to tell you about these things because only you listen to me…Oh Sylvette…you are my lost paradise. Found again and lost…I’m dying of fever and I’m cold. I would like you to be naked, by my side, reading your poems in a living voice…And now I’m crying. Sylvette, heal me, help me…do not make me die...Yours: Alejandra.

According to Ferrari, “When Pizarnik returned to Buenos Aires, she almost never wrote poems in French again.” (Nearly a dozen Spanish texts included in later books do contain passages that Pizarnik first wrote in French and later translated to Spanish.) In 1972, after a period of depression and institutionalization, Pizarnik overdosed on Seconal at age 36.

In almost two decades of writing, she produced seven poetry collections and a book of prose. She remains a cult figure, although her reputation has grown over the past five years as the American publisher New Directions introduced her work to English-speaking audiences. Along with other female Argentine writers such as Ocampo and Norah Lange, Pizarnik is now getting the attention that’s historically been reserved for her fellow countrymen Cortázar, Borges, and Manuel Puig. Writing in the Boston Review, the poet and translator Johannes Göransson argues that “perhaps the most compelling explanation of her long invisibility in the United States is that Pizarnik is the kind of poet—like Sylvia Plath, to whom she is often compared—who overwhelms, who puts us under her spell, who drives ‘the young’ to write flowery verse. It is these features of her work that make her so troubling for a U.S. poetry still so intent on control, mastery, economy, and the agency of the poet.”

In his 1965 letter, Cortázar describes Pizarnik’s poetry as the hub of an enormous wheel: “Other people fashion a complete wheel, and then you have to figure out how it got stuck in the ditch; you, on the other hand, let the wheel turn into something else.” But such transcendence comes at a cost, of course, and while Pizarnik stayed up all night to illuminate her terror, she evidently found little calm, and no escape except death. In an untitled French poem, she details just how far she went:

           I sing a song of mourning. Black
           birds over black shrouds. My brain cries.
           Demented wind. I leave
           the tense and strained hand, I don’t want to know anything but this
perpetual wailing, this clatter in the night, this delay, this infamy,
this pursuit, this inexistence.

As this slender new collection demonstrates, Pizarnik’s commitment to poetry started early and consumed her life. Whether in Spanish or in French, in Buenos Aires or in Paris, her voice remains that of the eternal émigré who searched for a home but failed to find it. Pizarnik wrote the way she lived: in a state of restless longing.

Originally Published: July 30th, 2018

Nathan Scott McNamara has written for the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Village Voice, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more.