Poetry News

Alejandra Pizarnik's Extracting the Stone of Madness Reviewed at LARB

By Harriet Staff


At LARB, Lowry Pressly reviews Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik (New Directions, 2016), noting that it was during the years of "inner turmoil, personal drama and black humor" that the poems for this collection were drawn. Translated by Yvette Siegert, it is the first full-length collection of Pizarnik’s poems to appear in English. From the review:

...[O]ne gets the sense that as she walked in circles over the same worn paths of image, phrase, and silence again and again, what Pizarnik feared most was finding herself once again in a squalid room far from home, or in an Argentine hospital, shivering. This is not to say, however, that poetry was a practice of psychological self-care for her, or that losing oneself necessarily means a retreat from others. She wanted to be published, she wanted to be recognized as a peer of the men she admired, and when she saw her finished poems she saw that they were marvelous, if still only approximations. The danger here is that surely she would have found it unconscionably sentimental to paper over the irony and contradiction at the heart of her endeavor. There is no promise of transcendence in getting lost here, no escape.

Even so, Pizarnik’s relationship to poetry becomes most vital when she pursues the idea of losing herself in the poetic act. In this light, the method of composition for which she was known in Paris — constantly working and reworking on the chalkboard up until the moment when the poem revealed itself as hopelessly complete — becomes endearingly pathetic and serves as an important rejoinder to the poets (and their schools) with whom Pizarnik is typically lumped. Her work at once affirms the surrealist emphasis on process but rejects their reification of this process in the instantly finished poem; next to her poems, much surrealist production appears as mere procedure or technique. Pizarnik also makes the surrealist belief in the superior reality of the unconscious seem naïve and misguided insofar as it ignored the equally strange depths of the conscious, rational mind — the horrible “I.” And yet, by privileging the exceptional human value of the poetic process, her work also rebukes the modernist poets she admired who valued the artifact above all else: the objective, the independent, the eternal — and therefore the inhuman — poem.

Pizarnik’s poems offer, as she once put it, the “precise expression of a profuse state of confusion.” Her particular style of confession does not reveal secrets but instead brings to life the tension between the necessity and the inability of adequately expressing interior states. In their failure these poems allow us to share in the exquisite ineffability of a single life “on this night, in this world,” a cold fact of life among others:


y qué es lo que vas a decir
voy a decir solamente algo
y qué es lo que vas a hacer
voy a ocultarme en el lenguaje
y por qué
tengo miedo

and what is it you’re going to say
i’m just going to say something
and what’s this you’re going to do
i’m going to hide behind language
and why is that
i’m afraid

Read it all at Los Angeles Review of Books.