The Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik is not well-known outside of Latin America. In her own short lifetime, she associated with the writers of the Latin American “boom” movement of the 1960s, and achieved modest fame (Octavio Paz, as well as Julio Cortazar, sang her praises), but she never really made it in the English-speaking world. Now New Directions is set to release a collection of Pizarnik’s middle and later poems—Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert–making her work accessible to an English-speaking audience at last.
Pizarnik lived a very short life. She committed suicide when she was only thirty-six, leaving behind a huge collection of poems documenting her inner life. Her work is dense and repetitive; it’s concerned with death, with childhood, and above all with her own identity as a poet. Why am I writing? Pizarnik seemed to be asking herself, again and again. What’s the use of poetry? And, again and again, she comes to the same answer (as articulated in the following lines from “Cold in Hand Blues”):
I’m going to hide behind language
And why is that
For Pizarnik, the purpose of language is not to communicate, but to create a private world—a shelter from the outside. At her best, Pizarnik dives into that private world and sets off on a bold expedition inward. From “Primitive Eyes:”
I’m familiar with the full range of fear. I know what it’s like to start singing and to set off slowly through the narrow mountain pass that leads back to the stranger in me, to my own emigrant.
The language—mountain pass, emigrant—suggests the early European explorers who visited Argentina and rings with energy and purpose. And Pizarnik is a heroic voyager slaying demons and recovering lost languages. In weaker moments, though, Pizarnik gets bogged down by her own language. She tends toward a very intricate symbolism; she is fond of nuns, castles, and lilacs, as well as shipwrecks and ladies in red dresses. Pizarnik’s symbolism can often feel needlessly obscure, as, for example, in “Night Singer:”
Inside her song there is a blue dress, there is a white horse, there is a green heart tattoed with echoes of her own dead heart. Exposed to all that is lost, she sings with a stray girl who is also herself, her amulet.
If there is a problem with the collection, it resides in Siegert’s very literal translation, which strips many of the poems of their lyricism and leaves them strangely bare of music. In the Spanish original, even Pizarnik’s most elaborate symbolism has a melodious quality that makes up for its lack of clarity. In Siegert’s very literal translation, however, that music often goes missing, and Pizarnik’s symbolism, reduced to its plainest meanings, can become oppressive.
After wandering in Pizarnik’s labyrinths, Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry felt almost shockingly clean and clear. Dabral, an Indian who writes in Hindi, is also preoccupied with his own inner landscape. But unlike Pizarnik, Dabral is not taking shelter from the outside world. He has a gift for sharing his inner life, using a spare, concrete language that lends itself beautifully to translation. The new collection, This Number Does Not Exist (there are a number of translators) uses a plain, workaday English to bring Dabral’s world to us.
Dabral has a way of describing quiet moments and their unexpected emotional weight. Take, for example, “The Quiet House,” which describes an afternoon spent at home:
. . . an ache spreads through my body
As I recall the house of my childhood
In whose courtyard, lying on my stomach,
I would take the sun.
I ask nothing of the world,
And can live as squirrels do,
As grass does, or a ball,
Not at all worried
That at any moment someone can shake this house
And bring it down.
The themes are so simple they verge on being impersonal: childhood, sunshine, concerns about the future. Nothing here is developed enough to give it an individual character. It is up to the reader to supply the details. This poem, like many of Dabral’s works, escapes from impersonality only when the readers dip into their own memories and enrich the poem with their own associations.
Dabral returns again and again to childhood, to the difference between city and countryside, to a nagging sense of loss. He’s very good at evoking the crowded chaos of the city, the calm of the country, and the sense of dislocation of people who are confronted with a rapidly changing world, as in “This Number Does Not Exist:”
Not too long ago at this number I used to reach people
Who said: of course we recognize you
There is space for you in this universe
But now this number does not exist it is some old number . . .
. . . Now other numbers are available more than ever with and without wires
But a different kind of conversation on them . . .
Dabral may well be talking about a fast-changing India, but, again, the poem is written so simply, and with so few distinguishing features, that it could just as well be about lost love, lost friends, lost childhood. Only the base emotion is clear: this is a poem about loss. Dabral has left the reader free to project whatever events he likes onto that loss.
A few poems in This Number Does Not Exist are fiercely specific—notably “The Missing,” which deals with India’s street children. “The Missing” is the strongest, most gut-wrenching poem in the collection. It grabs you and doesn’t let you escape from the very specific pain it describes. But it also left me grateful for Dabral’s lightness of touch in the rest of the book, which leaves the reader free to experience this moving poetry on their own terms.