The Most Foreign Country
In early 2017 Ugly Duckling Presse will release for the first time in English Alejandra Pizarnik’s debut collection, The Most Foreign Country, translated by Yvette Siegert. First published in 1955 when Pizarnik was 19, she was later to renounce the book, which remained all but buried, even in Argentina, until it was reprinted in Poesia completa, published in 2000, 28 years after her death. This first book begins precociously self-aware with an epigraph by Rimbaud on adolescence: “Ah! the infinite egotism of adolescence, the studious optimism: how the world was full of flowers that summer! Airs and forms dying…” and moves into 24 associative poems that demonstrate the influence Pizarnik’s early work takes from automatic writing. After these poems a suite of six fairly conventional love poems under the section title A Sign Upon Your Shadow conclude the book, beginning a practice Pizarnik was to continue in her later work of ending a volume of poetry with a new title and a handful of poems taking up a new trajectory. While the two sections of the book are substantially different in style and content encouraging us to read the project as two books put together—the first fully realized, the second a new beginning—it also makes sense as a complete work. Considered as a whole, The Most Foreign Country articulates a movement from adolescence into adulthood.
Along with the manuscript’s repudiation and neglect, this description might lead one to suspect it should only interest aficionados of wunderkind and juvenilia and the most serious of Pizarnik groupies, rapidly expanding thanks to Siegert’s translations and the efforts of UDP, which published Diana’s Tree in 2014, and New Directions Press which recently released a decade of Pizarnik’s later work under the title Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962-1972. While wunderkind aficionados and groupies are likely to be drawn to The Most Foreign Country, the volume has much to recommend to others: Pizarnik’s investigation of adolescence is sharp and self-aware, relevant not only to a specific time of life but to the tensions and freedoms inherent to liminality—as well as to the forms and orders that foreclose its possibilities.
As is fitting for adolescence, the first 24 poems in The Most Foreign Country employ whimsical imagery such as “stars,” “horses,” “roses,” “a blues brooding boredom,” and “the wish to grab hold of everything.” These images persist while at the same time faltering around their sharp edges: there are stars, yes, but “time strangulated my star”; horses fold into “the regiment will come”; the wish to grab hold of everything” is coupled with “the feel of heels and teeth.” Often disjointed and highly associative, these poems have the exuberance and experimental spirit of late adolescence, not yet tamped down into the cultural form of the adult. The love poems that follow in The Sign Upon Your Shadow are closer to adulthood: they are smoother and more unified, and with lines such as “my temples teem with YOUR name a million / times / if only your eyes could come!” they are symptomatic of the conventions that educate girls into women, reflecting the process of forming identity in response to an idealized romantic partner. On the cusp of adulthood, these last six poems practice romantic feminine subjectivity rather than inhabiting it, which leads this reader to appreciate lingering in the end-tones of the book as if drinking a final sweet nectar, relishing, even, the melodramatic note that adulthood will surely try its best to indoctrinate out. The concluding poem, “Distance,” reads:
My being brimming with white boats.
My being bursting with sensations.
All of me beneath the memories of
I want to destroy the tickling of your
I want to reject the restlessness of
Why does your phantasmagoric vision drink
from the chalices
of these hours?
Even in the later work Pizarnik’s poems never fully inhabit a stable subject position. While this fact may have come from a psychic orientation that made her life unbearably difficult, it also led to a strong body of work subversive in its rejection of normalization. And so we shouldn’t be surprised to know that she was drawn to deviant writers and figures, returning again and again to Rimbaud and Lautréamont; translating Breton and Eluard’s Immaculate Conception; and writing a cross-genre book on the 16th-century Hungarian aristocrat Erzsébet Báthory, rumored to have tortured and killed hundreds of young women.
Pizarnik’s various ways of rejecting convention no doubt attracts contemporary English-language readers to the work, which displays a frank dislocation of subject position while, at the same time, creating poems that are fiercely voiced. English-language poetry’s late 20th-century “either/or” game of a strongly voiced unified subject or the washed-out ambient noise of multiplicity is recent enough to find many readers still hungry for writing that pulls off a slippery self while also having the traction of a life lived. Pizarnik’s later poems in Extracting the Stone of Madness achieve this by creating a stunning array of doubles who stand in for the speaker and operate within surrealist-inflected interior landscapes. The poems are populated by figures such as the “ragged angel,” “she who died of her green dress,” “my shipwrecked selves,” “dead little girls,”—so many little girls—“the solitary ladies who cry,” “the doll in the cage,”—so many dolls—“a girl drawn in pink chalk,” “shadow,” “someone who cries,” “little castaway,” “a statue uninhabited by her self.” In addition to these doubles who are constantly proliferating, shifting, and unwilling to be held down are vehicles of multiplication: mirrors and masks—green masks, paper masks, wolf masks, the mask in your hand.
Pizarnik herself was to draw parallels between her interior struggles and the doubles of her poetry. In a diary entry from 1963 she writes her own version of Rimbaud’s Je est un autre: “To say ‘I’ is to be evacuated, to make a pronoun out of something outside myself.” And, in a move that is likely less appealing to the contemporary reader wary of the tortured female artist narrative, Pizarnik equated herself with her doubles, often referring to herself as “the lost little girl” and “the little castaway.” However, as Cesar Aria proposes in a lecture published in the excellent Music and Literature issue featuring Pizarnik’s work, these metaphors are not only reductive but were useful only as a tool that allowed Pizarnik to write work that transcended such “museficaiton.” Her work, Aria insists, transcends by its living fluidity and pursuit of poetic quality. I can’t help but agree: while Pizarnik may have been a “lost little girl,” the work she left behind, and the accounts we have of her process, tell us that she was also a serious and rigorous reader and writer, famously crafting her mature poems by (for example) writing lines on the chalkboard hanging in her minimalist room, erasing and replacing words until the poem had reached its perfect form.
This image and narrative of an engrossed language-worker productively contrasts with sentimental and problematic assumptions about the adolescent techniques the “little castaway” and “dead little girl” might deploy: in a flurry, all at once, without editing. And rather than replacing the “little castaway” with the hermetic perfectionist, there is in Pizarnik an example of the way both impulses might simultaneously exist in a single author—a “yes/and” approach that feels particularly apt when considering work by writers who do not fit into the expectations dominate culture maintains as to who should get to be an artist, how an artist should compose, how emotional (or not) those compositions should be, how self-referential (or not) those compositions should be, and what kind of intelligence (or not) those compositions should express.
In addition to whatever interest can be found in tracing an author’s biography through her metaphors (if you are a reader who delights in doing so), or in thinking about the extent to which the poet might fabricate a figurative body (or bodies) with which to somatically experience and create in a figurative medium (as I delight in doing), there is also something intriguing in the miniaturization of Pizarnik’s doubles and the amplified voice that emanates from them. Further, while her poetic prose sprawls far beyond the limits of the prose poem’s modest box, most of her lineated poems are physically small: from her 1965 book Works and Nights the poem “Clock” reads in its entirety: “A tiny lady, so tiny, / who lives in the heart of a bird / goes out at dawn to utter her only syllable: / NO.”
Perhaps because Pizarnik’s mature work remains so invested in imagery of the miniature, of the child and of adolescence, the largest contrast readers will notice in The Most Foreign Country is not one of theme, but rather of mode. The Most Foreign Country organizes not around the metaphorical doubles for which Pizarnik has become known, but around the metonymic parts and fragments of the surrealist. The body here is rendered not as doll or girl but as teeth, hair, eyes, pupils, retinas. And as Pizarnik repeats these parts they begin to feel elemental, as does the interior-exterior landscape of weather—the wind, rain, sun, and stars that are much more primal than the forests and gardens lining many of her later poems. For example, compare the opening poem of her 1962 Diana’s Tree, said to be the first of her books to articulate her major mode, with the opening poem of The Most Foreign Country. The Diana’s Tree poem—titled simply “1”—reads in its entirety:
I have made the leap from myself to the dawn.
I have placed my body alongside the light
and sung of the sadness of the born.
And, “Days Against Illusion,” the first poem of The Most Foreign Country reads in its entirety:
Not wanting targets that roll
around on tilting surfaces.
Not wanting voices that steal
the grainy arching airs.
Not wanting to live for a million breaths
the trivial crusades with the sky.
Not wanting to alter my lines
without waxing the current blade.
Not wanting to resist the magnet
in the end of the espadrille unthreads.
Not wanting to touch abstractions
to reach my final chestnut hair.
Not wanting to conquer the loosened tails
the trees positioning their leaves.
Not wanting to attract without chaos
the moveable words.
Notice that while “1” discusses dislocation—the leap from the self into dawn, abandoning the body for light—it does so in a contained, located way by using the first person pronoun and narrating the event in a clear arc. And so even though it narrates dislocation and the dissolution of self, the poem upon initial reading does not dislocate me or create the sensation of dissolution. It is only until I think further about the poem that I understand the game Pizarnik plays. If the speaker has leapt from herself and dissolved into the light what, then, is signified by the first-person pronoun that narrates the poem? What is this “I,” then? Here the “I” becomes the poem’s “body double,” remaining after the self of the poem has left the page, and perhaps, the poem argues, this pronoun, vacated, is what “the self” really is after all. This subtle slipperiness is what makes the poems of Diana’s Tree so wonderful—and so very easy to miss.
“Days Against Illusion,” on the other hand, begins The Most Foreign Country with a poem that boldly performs dislocation, basing its statements of agency on acts of negation that point in different directions. The poem vectors from a rejection of “targets that roll / around on tilting surfaces,” which is a rejection of instability, to the last line, which courts chaos as a desirable part of the “movable words” of poetry. If the poem holds together it is through structure and repetition: each sentence is a couplet beginning with a statement of negation, “Not wanting,” followed by a particular, fine-grained detail. But even this structure is unstable: the use of negation creates a mental jigsaw puzzle wherein the reader must first imagine what is not desired in order to decode the desire that stays always off-page. With this negation Pizarnik creates a performative version of resistance, of what she will come in 10 years time to figure as the fanciful “tiny lady, so tiny, / who lives in the heart of a bird / goes out at dawn to utter her only syllable:/ NO.”