Pizarnik herself might well have chosen a metaphor from surgery or unrequited love, something to capture what were for her the very high stakes of composition. She was known for working long and obsessively on a little chalkboard, typically on a single poem at a time, exhausting its possibilities before moving on, erasing a word one day, replacing it the next, rearranging the lines (about a dozen at most, presumably all that would fit on the slate) of her small, lapidary poems with an obsessive care that has been obscured by their obvious debts to surrealism and automatic writing. The influence of André Breton, Paul Éluard, Henri Michaux, and Yves Bonnefoy, whose work Pizarnik translated into Spanish, can be seen everywhere in her work, but her attention to prosody and her precision set her apart from these men with whom she is often lumped.
EN UN LUGAR PARA HUIRSE
Espacio. Gran espera.
Nadie viene. Esta sombra.
Darle lo que todos:
Espacio. Silencio ardiente.
¿Qué se dan entre sí las sombras?
IN A PLACE FOR ESCAPING THE SELF
Space. A long wait.
No one comes. This shadow.
Give it what everyone gives:
meanings that are somber,
not full of wonder.
Space. Blazing silence.
What is it that shadows give each other?
Even if you don’t understand Spanish, try reading it aloud. Likewise, vibrate along with the lines of “La verdad de esta vieja pared” (“The Truth About this Old Wall”), from the same period as “En un lugar para huirse,” with its puns and confusions of meaning and sound oscillating like a plucked string between two points of understanding, the note itself invisible somewhere in between.
LA VERDAD DE ESTA VIEJA PARED
que es frío es verde que también se mueve
llama jadea granza es halo es hielo
hilos vibran tiemblan
es verde estoy muriendo
es muro es mero muro es mudo mira muere
THE TRUTH ABOUT THIS OLD WALL
that it is cold it is green that also it moves
it calls out it pants it croaks it is halo it is hail
strings are vibrating, trembling
it is green I am dying
it is a wall a walled will with a why with an eye it will die
At her best, Pizarnik reveals an ecstasy in the instability of language and draws from it a mercurial, pathetic truth.
It is tempting to refer to the poems collected in Extracting the Stone of Madness as Pizarnik’s “mature” work, her finest poems written in the last decade of her life. But that judgment would do a disservice to her peculiar aesthetic. An ineradicable element of childishness persists in her later works and even those that are obsessed with death and dying, and not just in surreal, imagistic playfulness. Her constrained repertoire of images and themes are the dreamworld of a child and bristle with the urgency of adolescence: dolls and mothers, young girls and flowers, the failed dialogue of a screeching wind, mirrors, the magical strangeness of ordinary words, leaking walls, faces and names, the striking sensation of self-recognition, as if for the first time.