Trac(k)ing gender and sexuality in the writing of Alejandra Pizarnik.
Dejame morir en la cuspide de la ola. (Elena Poniatowska, "La ruptura," De noche vienes 14)
What kind of beast would turn its life into words?/What atonement is this all about? (Adrienne Rich, qtd. Montefiore 162)
Cada palabra dice lo que dice y ademas mas y otra cosa. (Alejandra Pizarnik, "La palabra que sana", Poesia completa 283).
Alejandra Pizanaik (Argentina, 1936-72) fashioned a complex textual self during her lifetime, expressed in a variety of genres and voices. (1) The sense of the radical separateness, even estrangement, between and among these voices has been a function of canonical and historical (and gendered) habits of reading--reified not least by the poet herself--which ultimately served as both duenna and closet, buttressing the notion of a schism between the public and private realms and maintaining the misconception of two radically discrete voices: the somber, hieratic, disciplined, asexual lyric voice (for years the overdeterminedly "Pizarnikian" voice par excellence) versus the trangressive, humoristic, hypersexualized (mainly) prose voice. While a number of critics have attended to the issues of gender and sexuality in Pizarnik's work over the past ten to fifteen years, most of them have focusedx on the overtly eroticized La condesa sangrienta perhaps because, at first glance at least, it seems that "Pizarnik's poetry is hardly characterized by an interest in anything that could be called romantic or sentimental motifs, and even the erotic is really not of much prominence" (Foster, "The Representation" 319). David William Foster was one of the earliest U.S. critics to engage seriously Pizarnik's work; he has written especially provocatively on La condesa sangrienta (Foster, Violence 98-114). In any essay on the body in her poetry, he claims that "her poems reveal only scant same-sex markers," reminding the reader that "Pizarnik wrote at a time when lesbian identity as such could not be forthrightly articulated" (Foster, "The Representation" 341,323).
Only years after Pizarnik's death, with the publication of previously suppressed texts--what I call "unauthorized" works, both poems and prose ("complete" versions of both these genres were published in Spain in 2001 and 2002, respectively)--as well as some of her private writing, such as letters (published in 1998) and diaries (published in 2003), have scholars and other readers been able to receive--and restore--a more accurate sense of the nuance and complexity which had been "there," in Pizarnik's poetry, all along.
In her book El testigo lucido: la obra de sombra de Alejandra Pizarnik (2003), Maria Negroni describes a process of fixation, disavowal and return, with regard to Alejandra Pizarnik, very similar to my own. Ultimately, Negroni arrived at a characterization which constitutes a holistic approach that respects the sense of disquiet, deferral and desire in Pizarnik's writing:
Pense que los textos "malditos" se erguian, frente al resto de la obra, como un testigo lucido (la expresion es de Aldo Pellegrini) pero no se le oponian ... el efecto era de extranamiento radical y me parecio entender que el objetivo de la trangresion no era simplemente profanar, parodiar, agobiar la intertextualidad, sino ... escenificar el proyecto siempre irrealizable de la significacion. (12, my emphasis)
I began reading Pizarnik twenty years ago. Like Negroni, initially I worked on her poetry. Later, I read La condesa sangrienta for and "as" a lesbian. Most recently, I undertook a reevaluation of her poetry, looking for "autobiographical signs" of lesbian sexuality in poems Pizarnik had published during her life as well as several texts published posthumously (Chavez-Silverman 1991, 1994, 1995).
I am (still) interested in gesturing toward lesbianism (bisexuality, more accurately), but want to remain mindful of the taxonomic thrust--indeed, even the possibility of homophobia--underwriting some heteronormative and even lesbigay readings of homosexuality, points that Annamarie Jagose, Paul Allatson, and Valerie Rohy have also made. Indeed, Rohy reminds us that "both straight culture's and queer critics' readings of homosexuality are susceptible to a strategic pose of knowingness whose homophobia consists in its refusal of difference, of uncertainty, of surprise" (150). Nonetheless, Pizarnik impels readers to assume the risks (outlined above), and to press for recognition of the figure of the lesbian in her writing, particularly since much orthodox criticism (in Argentina and elsewhere) has so assiduously maintained the closet erected by Pizarnik's work (of what was published at a particular time). In the present essay, then, I do not necessarly privilege lesbianism in my reading of signs of gendered and sexual alterity in Pizarnik's writing. And yet, I am fascinated with Valerie Rohy's concepualization of (lesbianism as) "impossibility":
What would it mean to build a theory ... on "impossibility"? [The question] asks that we recognize as the task of oppositional criticism the interrogation not only of meanings handed down by cultural authority but also the socially constructed category of meaning itself. It implies an effort to conceptualize ... a methodology based not on the truth of language and desire but on their uncertainty. (150)
Uncannily, the idea of refusal/unacceptability inherent in the concept of "impossibility" was also present in Pizarnik's La condesa sangrienta itself: "una fascinacion ... por la idea de un absoluto desgarramiento, por la evocacion de un silencio constelado de gritos en donde todo es la imagen de una belleza inaceptable (PrC 296; my emphasis). Such statements elide with dictionary definitions of "unacceptable" as a synonym for "impossible".
Throughout her entire oeuvre, Pizarnik produces a textual self predicated on alterity. The signs with which she constructs this self are often overdeterminedly gendered, sometimes sexualized but always linked to notions of power and powerlessness, authority versus de-authorization, etc. These signs (metaphors, symbols, emblems, obsessions) resemble mirror images, at the two poles of a spectrum running from negative to positive. The negative charge, so to speak, is represented by concrete, often miniaturized images such as dolls, little girls, mechanized figures (such as "la automata" and "la sonambula"), Alicia (after Alice in Wonderland), birds, wounded animals. On a more abstract level, this charge can be perceived in a sense of immobility, impotence, lack/absence, thirst, asexuality and the very fragmentary, elliptical nature of much of the lyric poetry--what I call the authorized voice--itself. On the other hand, the positive charge is embodied concretely by the she-wolf, the ladies in red, the Bloody Countess, Hilda la poligrafa, etc., and abstractly by images of power, corrosive humor, perversity, excess, sexuality and the monstrous. This charge predominates in the longer "poemas en prosa" (especially of Extraccion de la piedra de locura and El infierno musical), but also in what I call the "minotaur voice"--prose and some poetry suppressed by Pizarnik during her lifetime or occasionally published in small magazines and reviews (but not collected in book form), especially in the scathingly humorous, deconstructive, self-immolating Los perturbados entre lilas and La bucanera de Pernambuco o Hilda la poligrafa. Pizarnik herself, until the last couple of years of her life, adhered to an austere hierarchy, strategically distinguishing between "el personaje alejandrino"--whose confines she also poked fun at privately (Aira 8)--and the voice of humor, sexual excess, horror and desperation which, increasingly, spoke her toward the end of her life (traces of which, nevertheless, were present from early on).
Pizarnik provides a stark and elegant dyad to describe these two voices/selves--discrete yet inextrixcably linked--in the vignette "El espejo de la melancolia" in La condesa sangrienta: "Este [el yo que sufre por esa inercia] quisiera liberar al prisionero [el yo inerte], pero cualquier tentative fracasa como hubiera fracasado Teseo si, ademas de ser el mismo, hubiera sido, tambien el Minotauro; matarlo, entonces, habria exigido matarse" (PrC 290). La condesa sangrienta (1965; 1971) functions as a kind of bridge or fulcrum. Stylistically it shares the lapidary, highly aestheticized and static qualities of Pizarnik's earlier poetry. Thematically, however, it represents the Rabelaisian and monstrous sexual excess of the positive charge, emblematized in its protagonist, the Hungarian Countess Erszebet Bathory. In this essay, I closely examine the presence and function of these "bipolar" images in Pizarnik's work, focusing on the poetry, comparing and juxtaposing certain textual and chronological instances with images and phrases from her diaries and correspondence. I do not deal with La condesa sangrienta, although I want to underscore that it represents arguably the best-known image of what I am calling the positive gendered and sexualized charge; nor do I look at the later "minotaur texts" (Losperturbados and Hilda), which have been discussed in detail by Maria Negroni.
Before proceeding to a detailed reading of these more overdeterminedly gendered signs, at opposite poles of the negative-positive spectrum, the notion of silence requires elaboration. Almost all of Pizarnik's critics have commented on the overwhelming importance of silence in her work, although few have made a rigorous study of its signifying realms, or what Paolo Valesio has called "silentiary regions." Like the images, both abstract and concrete, with which Pizarnik articulates her gendered, sexualized self, the abstract notion of silence is actualized in relation to a positive-negative spectrum. I have closely examined Pizarniik's rhetorical use of silence elsewhere ("Poetry of Octavio Paz"); here I am interested in looking at Pizarnik's use of silence in order to explore its relation to gender and sexuality.
In "A Remark on Silence and Listening," Valesio describes two main modes: silence as interruption or rupture and silence as plenitude (29). Both of these modes are amply represented in Pizarnik's writing. In "Muteness Envy"--a wide-ranging essay which touches on texts as disparate as John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and Jane Campion's controversial film "The Piano" (1993)--Barbara Johnson explores the overdetermined link between silence and the feminine. Johnson observes the textual ideal of "the superiority of silence over poetry" (129) in canonical poets such as Keats, Mallarme, Archibald MacLeish and others, and characterizes this ideal as a "muteness envy" often gendered as female in male poets (131-32). Since Pizarnik deliberately positions herself as ah outsider with regard to an Argentine or even Hispanic literary tradition and as heiress to a Eurocentric canonicity, it is not surprising that one of her two (contradictory) attitudes toward silence (Valesio's "silence as plenitude") echoes Johnson's reading of silence as textual ideal in canonical European poets such as Keats and Mallarme. Interestingly, unlike many of the male poets she admired, Pizarnik does not gender silence as explicitly feminine (by representing the aesthetic apex in terms of images of vessels, containers, a mute female statue, etc., for example). However, as we shall see, she often connects silence as plenitude to the body, love, and sexual pleasure.
The Poesia completa (2) published in Spain in 2001 is certainly more "completa" than any of the previously published versions (whether called "complete" or not). It makes available ah important selection of poems previously either unpublished or uncollected in volumes. Among these, there is a strange text (untitled and undated, which editor Ana Becciu dates between 1956-60)--strange in the sense that it is elliptical and condensed, closer to the poetas Pizarnik published toward the middle of her career, in Arbol de Diana and Los trabajos y las noches, than to the predominant style of her first two books-- centered on the mode or motif of silence as plenitude, silence as poetic ideal:
[...] ojos no palabras ojos no promesas trabajo con mis ojos en construir en reparar en reconstruir algo parecido a una mirada humana a un poema de hombre a un canto lejano del bosque (PC 308)
Silence is privileged here in the refusal of the verbal, in the prioritizing of the sense of sight--the very organs themselves--recruited almost synaesthetically to do the work of the poet. Pizarnik has claimed this "work" as hers in many poems, bravely shouldering--sometimes embracing--a destined sense of "oficio" which she here relegates not to the art of creating or making (poiesis) but rather, curiously, to the nonverbal sense of seeing, as is apparent in the line "Yo restauro, yo reconstruyo" from the long poem "Extraccion de la piedra de locura." (PC 251) The work the eyes do is provisional, not a verbal creation but rather a repair job, a construction or reconstruction. Paradoxically, however, this work can also be read as restorative, healing (let us not forget that one of Pizarnik's emblematic images--in all her writing, from early on until the end of her life, is "la herida"); it approaches the human gaze and resembles a human poem and a faraway song in an enchanted forest. This second reading--more than the provisionality or even the disembodied quality of the silent work itself, I would argue--locates this poem at the positive end of the silentiary spectrum.
I cannot resist reading the unpublished poem, "A un poema acerca del agua, de Silvina Ocampo" intratextually. In fact, this sort of reading imposes itself because Pizarnik--as is especially apparent after the recent publication of her "complete" poetry, her prose, correspondence and diaries--presents a noteworthy case of self-as-palimpsest. Maria Negroni, too, comments on Pizarnik's intertextuality, her borrowing from canonical texts to "legitimate" her own writing, as well as on: "el recurso narcisista de la intratextualidad: reciclar, absorber todo, sin vacilar (Julia Kristeva vio, en la actividad de poetizar, un 'canibalismo melancolico')" (17 emphasis added).
These drives appear in the above-mentioned undated poem, which is dedicated to Silvina Ocampo "y a la condesa de Tripoli," and has an epigraph by Octavio Paz (embedded, in the italicized phrase, in the last line of the poem itself), and is included by editor Bacciu in a section of unpublished and uncollected texts written between 1962-72.
Tu modo de silenciarte en el poema. Me abris como a una flor (sin duda una flor pobre, lamentable) que ya no esperaba la terrible delicadeza de la primavera. Me abris, me abro, me vuelvo de agua en tu poema de agua que emana toda la noche profecias. (PC 356)
The speaker's direct address of the textual you (Silvina Ocampo) is quite unusual in Pizarnik's work; far more common is the much commented-upon textual desdoblamiento, or doubling, in which the you is an/other version of the speaker's I. Here, the speaker attributes to the you a paradoxical ability to "become silent" in the poem. This is Pizarnik's yearned-for silence as plenitude; the textual muteness achieved by the you in her own poem causes--or is related to--the speaker's "opening."
The strategic and somewhat pathetic topos modestiae in the third line (parenthetically enclosed) notwithstanding, the positive value ascribed to this opening is undeniable. It can be detected in the simile of the flower (again, a somewhat unusual image in Pizarnik, except for the omnipresent, stereotypical and post-Romantic "lila"), and in the use of the colloquial Argentine second person singular familiar (vos)--which immediately conveys a sense of privacy and intimacy, particularly since Pizarnik generally did not favor its use, even in her private writing. Lines 4-5 complete and qualify the action of being opened; this is ah unexpected blossoming--a somewhat conventional metaphor for the action of love, taking place in that most conventional season of renewal, "la primavera." However, any tendency toward sentimentality is tempered by the oxymoron "terrible delicadeza," which suggests the speaker's unwillingness, or at least hesitation, in submitting to the transformative and balsamic elixirs of love, referred to metaphorically (after again underscoring the action of being opened, and opening herself, in line 5) in the sensually repeated images of water (line 6) and its property: "emana[r]," in the poem's beautiful--and borrowed--final line.
Reading the unpublished poem dedicated to Silvina Ocampo intratextually with "Amantes" (from Los trabajos y las noches ) reveals much about the connection, for Pizarnik, among silence (as ideal), gender, and sexuality. An intratextual reading also opens the signifying possibilities in both texts to a sensual, queer presence, particularly when complemented by a particular instance in the correspondence:
una flor no lejos de la noche mi cuerpo mudo se abre a la delicada urgencia del rocio (PC 159)
The titles of both poems, juxtaposed, form ah interesting--and tense--counterpoint. The published poem bears the title "Amantes," yet there is no lover, or addressee, present in the text. On the other hand, the unpublished poem, although it is dedicated to Silvina Ocampo, is "about" and "to" Ocampo's poem. It speaks, at least initially, to the Ocampo in her poem, although by the second line it appears to (also) speak to Ocampo directly, and the sense of a coupl(ing) is readily available ("me abris"; "Me abris, me abro"; "me vuelvo de agua en tu poema de agua"). "Amantes" is stylistically in line with Pizarnik's well-known voice from this "middle" phase (the period in which she wrote and published Arbol de Diana and Los trabajos y las noches); it is markedly more fragmentary and static than the unpublished poem. Whereas "Amantes" uses all lower-case letters, no punctuation and one verb in five lines, "A un poema" follows a somewhat more traditional format in terms of capitalization and punctuation, and has seven verbs in as many lines. What the unpublished text proffers in abundance (the fluidity of mutual jouissance, figured in imagery traditionally gendered as feminine--flower, water--the insistence on a communion-like silence and openness), the ironically-titled "Amantes" withholds.
Or does it? Or does it, instead, dissimulate? The flower is present, but stripped of its perhaps overly sentimental association with the spring. The flower's link with the speaker's body is considerably weaker in "Amantes" as well. Instead, here, it is spatially and syntactically contiguous to "la noche" (an image Pizarnik associates time and again to the body and sexuality in her work, ie. "la noche de los cuerpos" [PC 171]), which functions as a fulcrum between the flower and the speaker's body. This construction suggests, but does not concretize, the congruency between flower and body; it only hints, elliptically, at the realm of sexuality. Silence--specifically "muteness"--is attributed here to the speaker herself, to her body. The quality of silence is what allows for her openness (just one impersonally constructed "se abre," as against the reiterated and mutual action of opening in the unpublished poem) to sexual arousal.
I must remark on the gorgeous starkness of "Amantes'" final line, calling attention to the attenuation of the oxymoron, with "delicadeza" now in adjectival form, modifying "urgencia" (which as a noun, at the center of the final line, is emphasized), rather than functioning as a noun in the less compact unpublished poem, where "delicadeza" was modified by "terrible" to describe the more abstract "primavera." The stripped-down quality of "Amantes," the tension between what the title says and the contents only hints at, conveys a more heightened erotic charge than does the more wordy, literal (unpublished) poem. Or is it that I receive this charge precisely in the exchange, the back and forth shuttle of intratextuality, in being able to access the necessary supplementarity of "A un poema," a supplementarity which was only a blind spot before the 2001 publication of Poesia completa?
My reading of an undercurrent of eroticism and passion subtending these two poems is supported by Pizarnik's letters to Silvina Ocampo. According to Ivonne Bordelois, in the relationship between the older Ocampo and Pizarnik, "el erotismo y la infancia van jugando alternativamente sus espejos." (C 190) Bordelois also observes that "de todas las cartas de este epistolario, estas son las unicas donde la amistad rapidamente asciende a pasion y se enciende en ella." (190) The clearest example of passionately erotic desire, tinged with abjection, occurs in a letter from Pizarnik to Ocampo, dated 31/1/72 (some eight months before her death), in Buenos Aires:
Quisiera que estuvieras desnuda, a mi lado, leyendo tus poemas en voz viva. Sylvette mon amour ... yo se lo que es esta carta ... Sylvette, no es una calentura ... haceme un lugarcito en vos, no te molestare. Pero te quiero, no te imaginas como me estremezco al recordar tus manos (que jamas volvere a tocar si no te complace puesto que ya ves que lo sexual es un "tercero" por anadidura. Te beso como yo se ... o no te beso sino que te saludo, segun tus gustos, como quieras. Me someto. (Correspondencia 211, underlining in original)
The irreconcilable tension between love and sexual desire--represented as a yearning and yet sometimiento in this letter--is a leitmotiv throughout Pizarnik's diaries and correspondence. The two poems I have just read, along with this letter, constitute a kind of intratextual stitching, an arpillera of sorts (yet with some threads missing or unravelled--the poem and letters unpublished during Pizarnik's lifetime), upon the wound of this unspannable chasm. I have spent considerable time reading and contrasting these three textual instances in detail not because I am interested in "proving" anything, in terms of the biographical subject Alejandra Pizarnik's queerness/bisexuality, but rather because, as Sylvia Molloy has pointed out in another context: "I am interested in the way that desire sees itself, the detours to which it resorts in order to name itself ... the codes it uses in order to be recognized even as it masks itself." (241)
On July 28, 1962, Pizarnik writes: "Solo el sexo merece seriedad y consideracion porque el sexo es silencio." (Diarios 241) Interestingly, this attitude is completely inverted toward the end of her life, in the minotaur texts she was working on (Negroni's "textos de sombra"), whose subject is, obsessively, sex and where the treatment is a scathing, corrosive, scatological humor. This inversion or reversal, however, was not without a sense of ambivalence, even anguish. However, the hieratic attitude toward silence and sex manifested here (and which I have been exploring in several poems, published and unpublished), can be seen in various other instances in the Diaries, although it is even more frequently undermined and denied, as we shall see later. From November 18, 1963, we read: "Su silencio. Ahora se por que estoy enamorada. Su silencio es la presencia de las cosas en vez de su representacion imaginaria." (D 345) Here, silence is linked expressly with love, rather than sex. Interestingly, for the intratextual reading I am proposing, it is also connected to the notion of "presence"; the construction here repeats verbatim "la presencia de las cosas" from the unpublished fragment "Aproximaciones."(PC 309) In the entry for March 12, 1966, we read: "Se que no hay necesidad de escribir. Quiero decir que mucho mas eficaz seria, para mi, hacer el amor dia y noche. El silencio de los cuerpos" (D 396). Here, as in "Amantes" and in the unpublished poem to Silvina Ocampo, Pizarnik connects silence to the body and to sex. Silence/lovemaking is, furthermore, hierarchized as superior to words ("mucho mas eficaz"); in effect, eroticized silence should replace writing, thus substituting, erasing the poet's work.
Pizarnik's positive attitude toward silence (silence as textual ideal, or plenitude) dovetails with the ideal of (extra) textual muteness found in the male Symbolists, Modernists and (post) surrealists (such as Octavio Paz) she admired. Unlike silence in the works of these male poets, however, Pizarnik's is not represented as feminine per se; it is often associated, rather, with love, the body, or sexual pleasure. Let me now tuna to the other attitude toward silence in Pizarnik's, what Valesio calls silence as rupture. According to Alicia Ostriker, for poets, silence or muteness is a "harsh figure for a sense of inadequate existence." (66) She goes on to specify that for women poets especially, "the inability to speak signals ... a state of passivity, marginality, self-hate." (67) Clearly, the muteness/silence to which Ostriker is alluding, here, corresponds to the second attitude toward silence.
One of the strongest connections in this silentiary region is with Antonin Artaud. In the December 25, 1959 diary entry, Pizarnik claims to understand--and share--the alienation of the one-time (later exiled) Surrealist: "Si hay alguien que puede ... comprender a Artaud, soy yo. Todo su combate con su silencio, con su abismo absoluto, con su vacio, con su cuerpo enajenado, ?como no asociarlo con el mio?" (Diarios 159. Here we detect her conviction that Artaud constituted a kind of Doppelganger, in terms of their common experience (agonistic) of silence--represented here (as Pizarnik often does in all her writing) as a void, an emptiness--and with the ("alienated") body. This desired/asserted doubling with Artaud on the one hand positions Pizarnik's as heiress to the post-Romantic tradition of the poetes maudits and Surrealists to which Artaud belonged. And yet, on the other, this doubling paradoxically also installs a sense of fracture in the continuity of this lineage, both because Artaud was an "expelled" Surrealist (connected with literal madness) and because Pizarnik herself undermines and qualifies her connection with him, thus: "Pero hay una diferencia: Artaud luchaba cuerpo a cuerpo con su silencio. Yo no: yo lo sobrellevo docilmente, salvo algunos accesos de colera y de impotencia" (D159, emphasis added, see also Chavez-Silverman "Discourse of Madness"). So, although Artaud was in a sense de-authorized by his expulsion from the Surrealist movement, Pizarnik's Artaud manifests a larger-than-life sense of agency in his heroic struggle with silence. Her representation of herself, on the other hand, in direct contrast to Artaud's supposed valor, is abject, feminized: she is "docile" in the way she bears or puts up with silence, except for the occasional temper tantrum or the oxymoronic "fit" of impotence.
In the prose poem "Descripcion," from 1964, silence is more an active, menacing presence than a yawning void: "Caer hasta tocar el fondo ultimo, desolado, hecho de un viejo silenciar y de figuras que dicen y repiten algo que me alude." (Prosa completa 28.) Here, silence is an action, a verb, something that happens to the speaker. It is equal to a liminal end-zone ("fondo ultimo") which, paradoxically, also contains silence's logical opposite: "figures" which speak and allude to the yo. This dualistic construction is typical of Pizarnik's, in terms of the larger positive-negative or bipolar spectrum which characterizes her textualization of the sign of silence itself. At each pole the sign (in this case, silence as rupture) often subdivides into positively or negatively charged valencies. The third paragraph of this prose poem reads:
Por eso hay en mis noches voces en mis huesos, y tambien--y es esto lo que me hace dolerme--visiones de palabras escritas pero que se mueven, combaten, danzan, manan sangre, luego las miro andar con muletas, en harapos, corte de los milagros de a hasta z, alfabeto de miserias, alfabeto de crueldades ... La que debio cantar se arquea de silencio, mientras en sus dedos se susurra, en su corazon se murmura, en su piel un lamento no cesa ... (Prosa completa 28)
It is interesting to read "Descripcion" intertextually with Octavio Paz's early poem, "Las palabras." The word silence never appears in Paz's poem, which is constituted, rather, by a torrent of words. "Las palabras" is a fifteen-line, lava flow of fifteen second-person familiar commands to the reader/"poeta": "Dales la vuelta,/cogelas del rabo (chillen, putas)" (La centena 11). I won't belabor the exegesis of this over-the-top Modernist classic, except to remark on its overdeterminedly (hetero)gendered qualities, which are inverted and diffused in Pizarnik's "Descripcion." In Paz's poem, silence is a threatening presence behind the exhausted words--the tools of the poet's trade--which the masculine poet-addressee ("gallo galante") is exhorted to reinvigorate--also staving off silence in the process--by bending them to his creative will(power), through a series of violent, degrading, hypersexualized--and admittedly at times comic--actions, such as: "azotalas," "pinchalas," "capalas," etc.
In Pizarnik's "Descripcion" there is also a torrent of words. But rather than reading a stream of verbal commands, directed by a (god)father-like speaker to an acolyte-poet/oyente, in this case we overhear "voices" which inhabit the speaker's bones at night, like a haunting; we see "visions of written words" (emphasis in original). Rather than being under the poet-speaker's command (which in Pizarnik's is tyically represented by static imagery), the words seem almost to pre-exist her ("hay"). They proliferate, at first violent and out of control ("se mueven, combaten, danzan, manan sangre"), then they become wounded, abject ("con muletas, en harapos"). It is as if the speaker were a mute witness to these "palabras escritas," which she watches, first transfixed in apprehension before this "alfabeto de crueldades", and then with a curious tenderness toward the "alfabeto de miserias." The subtlety of this speaker's position--a feminized passivity and powerlessness which yet vacillates between awe and empathy toward the words--is completely lacking in Paz's more straightforward, masculinist voice. Finally, Pizarnik represents herself in this poem with one of her well-known, third-person aphoristic epithets, "la que debio cantar," which underscores both the poet's natural task (cantar) as well as her inability to perform it. The abject, impotent self-characterization concludes: rather than singing, the speaker "retches" with silence. Unable to produce and control words, the speaker's body is invaded, possessed by sounds (whispers in her fingers, murmurs in the heart, ceaseless laments on her skin). This sense of being taken over, "inhabited," either by a menacing silence or by out of control voices/sounds, is well-known to readers of Pizarnik's poetry. Often silence as rupture is represented, precisely, as a proliferation of voices not created/controlled by the speaker. Here, however, what demands attention is the inability to articulate--the muteness--related to feelings of choking, asfixia, most likely directly connected to Pizarnik's's asthma, as becomes clear from the December 1, 1963 diary entry: "Si llego a distender mi garganta ... cambiara mi relacion--ahora tan complicada--con el lenguaje ... la misma sensacion de que una mano de hierro me oprime por esa zona" (D 346).
Pizarnik's published three books of poetry before Arbol de Diana (1962) (although she repudiated La tierra mas ajena, the volume she self-published at 19), and three after, but many critics consider Arbol de Diana to be her finest work (Aira 8). In the third poem of this text, Pizarnik's comes close to defining her self as silence: "solo la sed/el silencio/ningun encuentro." (PC 105) These lapidary lines, the archetypal femininity of lack and muteness, particularly inscribed in the self-characterizing epithets in lines five and six--"la silenciosa en el desierto" and "la viajera con el vaso vacio"--have become overdetermined as Pizarnik's "true" voice. This "personaje alejandrino," strategically fashioned and manipulated by the poet herself, completely overshadowed (in her published poetry) during her lifetime the minotaur/humorous voice, which predominated toward the end of her life but which was also present--if relegated--especially in unpublished and private writings from early on. In Pizarnik's final letter to her close friend Ivonne Bordelois, dated July 5, 1972 --in which, in intriguing relation to the topic at hand, she pleads: "por favor no nos pidamos explicaciones acerca del silencio," and adds, "(? existe el silencio?)"--she tells Bordelois she is going to send her her latest book, El infierno musical, along with some recent [unpublished] poems, "cuyo emblema es la negacion de los rasgos alejandrinos. En ellos, toda yo soy otra" (Correspondencia 305; 306, emphasis added).
"Formas," from Los trabajos y las noches (1965), provides a sort of transitional or pivotal text:
no se si pajaro o jaula mano asesina o joven muerta entre cirios o amazona jadeando en la gran garganta oscura o silenciosa pero tal vez oral como una fuente tal vez juglar o princesa en la torre mas alta (PC 199)
The poem contains a curiously bisemic image of silence; it also presents ah emblematic set of images located at the positive and negative poles of the spectrum of gender and sexuality. The title itself is significant. The idea of "forms" gestures toward identitarian provisionality and disguise or inauthenticity; these ideas are culturally gendered as feminine and are abundant in Pizarnik's's writing.
Indecision, the inability (or refusal) to choose (often signified, as it is here, by the conjunction "o") is a Pizarnikian commonplace. Here, she destabilizes the poem's ostensibly self-defining intention by opening with "no se si." The first-person singular of "saber" is the only marker of an I. However, the sense of a lyrical autobiography, or self-portrait, is unmistakable, particularly if we read this poem intratextually (virtually every image present here is repeated throughout Pizarnik's poetry and private writing). The poem sets up two distinct (and opposing) semantic and structural fields which mainly function horizontally; the meanings alternate between positive and negative poles, each one discretely contained in a single line. This pattern is only broken in the poem's first line, which constitutes a kind of double transgression of the text's grammar: first, in the inclusion of the first person verb and second, because this line contains two images, which figure both the negative and positive poles. Additionally, "pajaro" and "jaula" are more problematic than the images in the test of the poem; their polysemy, taking Pizarnik's oeuvre as a whole, makes it difficult to determine at which end of the spectrum they fall (my own exegetical indecision about this first line is comfortingly reflected in the speaker's "no se si"). Birds, although they traditionally connote freedom, the soul, etc., generally symbolize the abject self for Pizarnik. The cage's traditional symbolic link with containment, on the other hand, is often qualified (or directly inverted) in Pizarnik's.
There are four images at the positive end of the spectrum (leaving out bird and cage), "mano asesina," "amazona," "oral," and "juglar," and three at the negative pole--"joven muerta," "silenciosa," and "princesa." These gendered images also overlap with the spectrum of silence: directly at the center of the text (lines four and five) are two images related to voice and muteness. "Silenciosa" is somewhat ambiguous, but can be read as signifying silence as rupture (as does the dead girl among funereal tapers), since the image is juxtaposed with and contained by affirming images of orality. Indeed, the dead girl, the princess and the silent one belong to the group of hyper-feminine, self-representational epithets Pizarnik fetichized in her authorized writing. On the other hand, the positive images by no means unequivocally connote a confident, or life-affirming subjectivity, although poignantly, three images seem to gesture toward this possibility.
The murderous hand metonymizes the monstrous, excessive, violent self (the minotaur voice) that mainly "emerges" in unauthorized poems and prose, posthumously published, or in La condesa sangrienta. However, an attentive reading can find many glimpses of this voice, even in the published lyric poetry. The Amazon is a positive image, life-affirming here in its insistence on her primal orality, even as the line is surrounded, encapsulated by death on one side and silence on the other. The Amazon's classical link with female same-sex culture and her "panting," here, in an overdeterminedly feminine (indeed, vaginal, amniotic) "throat," should, perhaps, not go unremarked. The last three lines reference the medieval oral tradition in poetry (especially Spanish) with which Pizarnik was intimately familiar. The orality of a fountain is positive (in a life-giving sense), as is the image of the minstrel or troubadour (the only clearly masculine image in the poem). Finally, I cannot help but be reminded, by the princess image in the last line, of Countess Bathory, immured in her tower at Csejthe at the end of her life. However, whereas Erszebet Bathory is perhaps the most familiar embodiment, to Pizarnik's readers, of monstrous (sexual) excess at the positive end of her gendered and sexualized spectrum, I read the princess image, rather, as unequivocally negative: hyperfeminized, enclosed in her fairy tale lack of agency as she is here, "en la torre mas alta."
I will now look at some of the signs, both abstract and concrete, that inhabit the negative realm of the gender/sexuality spectrum. All the gendered and sexualized signs I examine support--create--the notion of radical alterity for Pizarnik's textual self. As one might expect, the author herself was supremely canny, exquisitely aware---even at a very young age--both of this feeling of alterity itself and of its constructed (textual) nature, as we can see in this early entry from her diaries, dated July 28, 1955:
No hay que decir, salvo que adelante en mi diagnostico. Ya aprendi cabalmente que soy distinta de la mayoria de la gente ... me pregunto si a todos los neuroticos les ocurre lo mismo. De pronto me admiro de todo lo que hice. De mis papeles. Algun dia van a estar en el museo (de algun Instituto Psiquiatrico). A su lado habra un cartel: Poemas de una enferma de diecinueve anos. (Diarios 42-43)
This disarming combination of difference/pathos, self-aggrandizement and self-deprecating humor will remain characteristic of Pizarnik's voice, particularly in her private writing, throughout her short life.
In the diaries we receive, mainly, a more abstract sense of the negative alterity which is mapped out in the poetry by the more widely studied concrete images. It seems to me that Pizarnik's contest--poetry versus prose--can be read with an eye to gender, particularly in light of Naomi Schor's feminist argument about the overdetermined femininity (and negativity) of the detail. While Pizarnik does not use the word "detair', I hope to show that she indeed discredited poetry (especially though not exclusively her own) as against prose, in a (gendered, self-abnegating) move conceptually analogous to the denigration of the detail, the particular, the small, the ornamental against the general. A subtle rhetorics of gender and genre can be observed as early as 1959, in this diary entre of December 28th:
El peligro de mi poesia es una tendencia a la disecacion de las palabras: las fijo en el poema como con tomillos ... y ello se debe, en parte, a mi temor de caer en un llanto tragico ... ademas, mi desconfianza en mi capacidad de levantar una arquitectura poetica. De alli la brevedad de mis poemas. (Diarios 159, emphasis added)
There is no direct reference to prose yet. However, Pizarnik's seemingly prescient ability to "head off at the pass" later detractors, who would disparage the fixity and limited repertoire of her imagery, is truly remarkable. She acknowledges this frozen ("dehydrated") quality in her poems, linking it to her already-established spatial, painterly method of composition. She explains that this style serves, on the one hand, to check a "fall" into an excess of sentiment(ality) and on the other, paradoxically, constitutes a compensatory response to a perceived lack: her insecurity about being able to undertake the grand(iose) aesthetic gesture. The binary gender dynamic, wherein the small and modest (feminine) mode is cultivated against the large, confident (masculine) mode is clear here, in the twenty three year old poet, as is, however, her ambivalence about conforming neatly to gender stereotypes about literary production.
Several other diary entries consistently--obsessively--juxtapose prose and poetry in hierarchical terms which are gendered and hauntingly poignant. On September 28, 1962, in Paris, Pizarnik writes: "Escribir un solo libro en prosa en vez de poemas o fragmentos. Un libro o una morada en donde guarecerme" (Diarios 275, italics in original). Here, she clearly prioritizes--as both aesthetic and ontological project--the singular, phallic object as against the small, dispersed poems she was producing. Because she establishes the impossible text (a work of prose) as a home or dwelling within which she could take shelter, it follows logically that she feels homeless, exiled in her own genre, poetry.
On May 1, 1966, while working on an essay about Octavio Paz's Cuadrivio, Pizarnik contemplates prose, poetry, and her place in the canon:
Deseo hondo, inenarrable (!) de escribir en prosa un pequeno libro. Hablo de una prosa sumamente bella, de un libro muy bien escrito ... es extrano: en espanol no existe nadie que me pueda servir de modelo. El mismo Octavio es demasiado inflexible, demasiado acerado, o, simplemente, demasiado viril ... yo no deseo escribir un libro argentino sino un pequeno librito parecido a Aurelia, de Nerval. (Diarios 412)
In this complicated rhetorical stratagem, Pizarnik again privileges the impossible ("deseo," "inenarrable") prose work. She qualifies it, in the second sentence, in a naive, almost school-girlish tone, only to reverse herself and for all practical purposes declare herself beyond models, at least in Spanish. At the same time as she explains why several canonical Latin American male Modernist and Boom authors are unsuitable models (her dismissal of Paz--and the gendered critique of his "virility" is noteworthy--is followed by an admiring yet ultimately dismissive consideration of Cortazar, Borges and Rulfo), she insinuates herself into precisely this canon. And yet, ostensibly in order not to appear presumptuous, perhaps, with a cunning, double edged topos modestiae she pledges her (non-Argentine) allegiance to Nerval, in her desire to write (but) a small ("pequeno librito"), "simple" prose book, like his Aurelia.
In addition to the abstractly negative configuration of alterity that predominates, the diaries include instances of concrete images which signify in this negative realm. For example, on December 15, 1960, in Paris, Pizarnik describes a rather Breton-like crush she has on a woman identified only as M. The "azar objetivo" is not on her side, it seems, and she begins to paranoidly speculate: "tal vez ella si me vio y que creera ahora de este pequeno monstruo que la persigue; creera que soy una lesbiana infecta." (emphasis added) This thought leads her to "Odio. Odio. Yo odio y quisiera que todos muriesen, salvo la vieja repugnante mendiga de ayer que dormia en el metro abrazada a una gran muneca. (Asi voy a terminar yo pero sera la muneca la que dormira conmigo en sus brazos)" (Diarios 176, emphasis added). Her "hatred" and desire for everyone to "die" except for the old beggar woman can be understood in terms of her abject identification with the mendiga--subconsciously attenuating, perhaps, her anxiety about being perceived as a lesbian--immediately after the (imagined) romantic rejection or impossibility with M.
This anxious disavowal of lesbianism appears repeatedly throughout the diaries. On October 27, 1959, Pizarnik describes her "tendencia a conversar de temas obscenos, tratandolos con humor" (this quote, significantly, establishes her awareness of the minotanr voice early on). She then speculates that she takes to these topics "para demostrar que soy abolutamente heterosexual, dado que mi vestimenta bohemia y mi voz ronca pueden hacer pensar en la homosexualidad." (D 154, emphasis added) Andrea Ostrov (daughter of Leon Ostrov, Pizarnik's first psychiatrist) remembers that Pizarnik did in fact wear clothes (skin-tight, bright red plaid pants, for example) and adoptan attitude, voice, and swagger that gave her a very "butch" affect (personal conversation, February 16, 2006).
On May 14, 1967, Pizarnik exhibits profound scepticism and distrust of Enrique Pichon Riviere, her second psychiatrist: "Desconfianza en el doctor ER.... [no] me ayuda como analista: alguna que otra vez manifesto una repulsion puritana por la homosexualidad. ?Sabe curarla? ?Y por que no hace algo?" (D425) This quote, unlike the diary entry from 1959, shows a much less direct rejection of her bisexuality. Although she wonders about the possibility of a "cure," she is bitterly critical of her psychiatrist's homophobia. Finally, on May 12, 1970, just after her 344 birthday and little more than two years before her death, Pizarnik describes a "dialogue" with Pichon Riviere in which the psychiatrist recommends she check herself into a psychiatric facility "para ver en que termina la homosexualidad." She reports: "Fingi no entender. Tuve mucho miedo. Trate de que se desdijera. Imposible. De pronto recorde a Djuna Barnes, a Robin Vote." (D494) Her identification with British lesbian author Djuna Barnes (and Nightwood's protagonist, Robin Vote), makes Pizarnik "afraid" of her doctor's recommendation, makes it "impossible," however, for her to be able to "not understand" the implications of his advice, "impossible" for her to convince him to "retract" his words.
Pizarnik's parenthetical projection into the infantilized same-sex dyad -her self embraced by the lifesized doll--(another textual strategy with which to negotiate her fear of/attraction toward lesbianism) overlaps intratextually with a number of poems, and leads us directly into the consideration of other concrete examples of negative gendered or sexualized alterity in the poetry.
Approximately three years after the diary entry cited above, in an unpublished prose text written in Spain and titled "El Escorial" (which editor Ana Nuno dates in 1963), the same binary image ("mendiga-muneca') appears. Despite feeling herself (uncharacteristically) attractive to the heterosexual male gaze--"adorada por cuanto ojo macho ha dado Hispania fecunda"--Pizarnik writes: "No obstante debajo o detras o del otro lado se es mendiga, se duerme debajo de un puente totalmente ebria y abrazada a una muneca." (PrC18, emphasis added) Pizarnik's text overlaps, in a stunningly precise intertextual coincidence, with Cortazar's story "Lejana," from Bestiario (1951). In this story, protagonist Alina Reyes, a bored, bourgeoise, young engaged woman in Buenos Aires begins to dream and eventually be taken over by an abused beggarwoman in snowy Budapest, "un ser insolito con vivencias radicalmente opuestas a las suyas que terminara aliendandola totalmente." (Lavaud 67, emphasis added) The plot details ate relatively unimportant (in terms of suggesting points of contact between Cortazar's text and Pizarnik's); I am interested in signalling the radical sense of estrangement the story narrates, evident even in the title itself. When Alina Reyes first begins to feel herself overlapping from within with the "lejana," she repeats the word "hate," first linking if with the image of the distant beggarworman, and later, with a bridge in Budapest upon which, at the end of the story, she will first fuse and then transmigrate--or transmogrify--into the mendiga, permanently. (Cortazar 8; 14-15) It is possible Pizarnik picked up on the radical alienation figured in "Lejana"; in any case, she used the image of the mendiga (or the dyad, "mendiga-muneca") repeatedly, to represent her own alterity, particularly--though not exclusively--in moments of being drawn to and then disavowing the mirror-like doubling implicit in a lesbian attraction. Let us keep in mind her linking the idea of "odio" to the image of the "mendiga" in the diaries, cited above (D 176), as well as the "mendiga"-"puente" connection in "El Escorial." (PrC 18) While I can't be sure if Pizarnik had read "Lejana" by the time of this diary entry (1960), or even by the time she wrote "El Escorial" (1963), it is likely that she had; she was quite familiar with--and admiring of--Cortazar's work.
Besides the "mendiga" and the "muneca," other concrete, gendered images of negative alterity appear throughout Pizarnik's poetry. In the earlier works these signs are often hyper-feminized or miniaturized, whereas a more complex, transformative ars combinatoria begins to take place in the later poetry (in the last two books, Extraccion de la piedra de locura and El infierno musical), where the negative signs are put into play with signs from the positive end of the spectrum. In poem number 17 from Arbol de Diana (PC 119), the speaker identifies herself with two of the epithets most familiar to Pizarnik's readers. She describes herself first with the adjective "sonambula," and then with the third-person phrase "la hermosa automata." The images are hyper-feminine and the poem itself is emblematically brief (a fragmentation that, as we have seen in the diaries, Pizarnik associates with an inferior, implicitly feminized form of writing). Yet there is an intriguing tension between a sense of stasis (in the feminine images themselves) and movement (in the poem's form and in the actions performed by or ascribed to the personae). Although still short, the poem is in fact one of the longest in Arbol de Diana; like poems number 29 and 31, it is closer to prose than to the more lapidary, lyric texts that characterize the rest of the volume. If there is some sense, as I mentioned, of movement and agency in the poem, particularly in the actions of the automata ("se canta, se encanta, se cuenta casos y cosas"), this possibility is immediately put into check by the "nido de hilos rigidos" that hamper the speaker in her first-person incarnation.
In "Reloj," also from Los trabajos y las noches (PC 183), two more feminine epithets appear: "dama pequenisima" and "moradora en el corazon de un pajaro." As we shall see later, the "dama" appears at the positive end of the spectrum as well; here, however, she is actualized in miniature form, both in terms of her qualification by the superlative degree of the adjective and because she "dwells"--note the archaic, fairly tale quality of the verb--within the heart of a bird (a symbol which, as we have seen, frequently serves as a negativized stand-in for the abject self). It is interesting that the final, monosyllabic line of this tiny poem is "NO." (PC 183, capitals in original) This might give the impression of some sort of movement or agency. However, that this would be a misconception is suggested in the diaries. We read about the allure and the sense of self-defeating agony implicit, for Pizarnik, in refusal, in "saying no." In the entry for August 11, 1962, she writes: "20 h. Le dije a P. que no. Separada ... te separas del amor por ganas del no amor ... Sonaste siempre con prescindir del amor, con separarte, no brutalmente sino diciendo 'no, gracias'. Ya lo dijiste. ?Estas contenta?" (D 260)
Moving now into gendered/sexualized images of alterity at the positive end of the spectrum, toward the end of a lengthy diary entry from March 12, 1965, Pizarnik describes her attraction toward the figure of the medieval Hungarian Countess Erszebet Bathory, about whom she was working, at the time, on the "essay" La condesa sangrienta, which would be published later that year in Mexico:
Ensayo sobre la condesa Bathory. Diferencias entre las orgias de C.B. y el placer ... el primero. Ante todo: su infinita, inenarrable tristeza (voir melancolia) ... La soledad. La pura bestialidad. Se puede ser una bella condesa y a la vez una loba insaciable ... En lo que respecta a mi imaginacion, su unica caracteristica ... es su desenfreno ... Todo esto se reduce al problema de la soledad. (D 397, emphasis added)
What is striking in this passage is Pizarnik's intensely empathetic reading of the Bloody Countess. This empathy shows up most clearly in La condesa sangrienta in the vignette "El espejo de la melancolia." In this diary entry (as in "El espejo de la melancolia"), the structure of Pizarnik's identification is dualistic: first, with the Countess's purported melancholy--and above all solitude--and second, with her "pure bestiality" (in stark contrast with her solitary stasis and her beauty). The positive charge of the identification is centered on the notion of bestial and excessive hunger, attributed both to the countess--who is described with one of Pizarnik's favorite epithets at this end of the spectrum, "loba" (this time qualified as insatiable)--and to the author's imagination, whose wildness/wantonness is described as "its only characteristic."
Although I am not dealing wth the later prose minotaur texts which are, along with La condesa sangrienta, the most emblematic of the positive charge, Pizarnik was aware of the absolute alterity, the definitive fracture, wrought--within her self, and between her and the outside world--by these texts. On May 24, 1966, a month after her 30th birthday, she writes: "Mis contenidos imaginarios son tan fragmentarios, tan divorciados de lo real, que temo, en suma, dar a luz nada mas que monstruos. Yo 'civilizo' mis poemas al detenerlos y congelarlos." (D 416) Here, approximately a year after she published La condesa sangrienta (which, as I have said, I consider a kind of pivotal or fulcrum text), the image of motherhood gone wrong--of giving birth to monsters--projects Pizarnik's forward (not without anxiety: "temo") toward the kind of writing--the minotaur texts--she will be fatally drawn to at the end of her life. She relates the possibility of these monster offspring to the "divorce" between her imagination and "1o real"; the palliative, compensatory action is to keep writing and publishing the controlled, short, "frozen" lyric poems, redolent of the negative charge, in order to soothe ("civilize") the savage beast. On June 2, 1970 Pizarnik writes:
Adverti que el texto de humor me hace mal, me descentra, me dispersa, me arrebata fuera de mi--a diferencia, par ex., de los instantes frente al pizarron [where she composed many of her poems], en que me reuno (o al menos me parece).
Sin embargo, ninguno de los poemas por rescribir me enfervoriza. El texto de humor, por el contrario, es la tentacion perpetua. (Diarios 495) Here, already deeply involved in writing the texts that would comprise La bucanera de Pernambuco o Hilda la poligrafa, Pizarnik acknowledges the damage this writing does to her. It is interesting the damage emanates not from something she does, but rather, as if it were from outside, being done to her. The injury is described in terms of the humorous text taking the subject outside of her self ("me arrebata fuera de mi")--a state which, in the non-literal sense, Pizarnik, like the Surrealists before her, used to prize. In contrast to this decentered state of alterity are the moments before the chalkboard, where she experiences a feeling of wholeness ("self-gathering"). However, although she recognizes the self-affirming potential of these moments--of writing with her authorized voice--they are not compelling to her. It is, more and more insistently, the (self) destructive minotaur texts that beckon.
The poem "Violario" (PrC 33) dates from 1965, but was published just over a year before Pizarnik's death, in Revista de occidente, in Madrid. In this prose poem, the I actively solicits the reader's complicitous, homophobic gaze (upon an aging, predatory lesbian) through a series of disavowing moves, using the devices of humor and "terror." The speaker is probably a young adult, but describes herself as having "[una] estampa adolescente" (which is the way Pizarnik preferred to see/present herself). The poem, which has the narrative qualities of a vignette, combines death, sex and aestheticism, as did La condesa sangrienta (published the same year "Violario" was written). The poem, however, uses a wicked humor, both to undermine the seriousness of death and to make fun of lesbianism. The poem open in medias res, with the speaker speculating offhandedly that her "parecido mental" with Little Red Riding Hood is what attracts predatory, aging lesbian she-wolves ("de cara de lobo") to her. She singles out one in particular, who she remembers tried to "rape" her at a wake. The rest of the poem consists in the speaker's cruel mockery of the "vetusta femme de lettres," exploiting the disconnect between what appears to be an innocent, shared embrace between two mourners and the "truth" of the situation, which is never realistically described. The reader must instead surmise what is going on by correctly interpreting the speaker's disavowing reactions, which become more unambiguously homophobic as the text proceeds.
First, we see her disconcerted reaction to the older woman's embrace, "[yo] temblaba de risa y de terror"; next the laughter disappears and the speaker's fear remains, as they both tremble in the prolonged embrace "por distintos estremecimientos" (again, the representation of the woman's lesbian desire is suppressed; we must infer it by contrast to the speaker's growing horror). The inapropriateness of the woman's advances--of her desire--is highlighted as we see that she attempts to secure the speaker's complacency or cooperation: "segui mirando las flores, segui mirando lasflores" the woman orders the speaker, who reacts in precisely the opposite manner to what the woman had hoped. The penultimate paragraph is an outburst of over-the-top, antilesbian outrage. Rather than holding still, gazing at the flowers (providing a funeral-appropriate cover for the woman's amorous advances) and allowing the woman to constitute her as object of desire, the speaker declares herself scandalized by the woman's "ardor a lo Renee Vivien, con ese brio a lo Nathalie Clifford Barney, con esa safica uncion al decir flores" (emphasis added). The specific cause of the speaker's scandalized reaction--the woman's lesbian desire--withheld or coded earlier in poem, is clearly revealed toward the end.
It is worth underscoring the disavowal of lesbian sexuality enacted in two important "lesbian" texts published during Pizarnik's lifetime, "Violario" and La condesa sangrienta. The mechanisms of the disavowal are very different: La condesa sangrienta makes visible the perverse countess's sadistic excesses, whereas "Violario" reduces lesbian desire to a pathetic joke. Both texts, however--which script the lesbian as monster--are markedly different from the poem dedicated to Silvina Ocampo, for example, which--importantly--was not published while Pizarnik was alive. Linda Williams's formulation about the monster in classic horror may be apropos here: "when the monster is constructed as feminine, the horror film thus expresses female desire only to show how monstrous it is" (cited in Clover 92; emphasis added). Taking this a step further: what happens to the degree of "monstrosity" made visible when the textual monster is not only female but a lesbian, created by an author who is also a woman and a (conflicted) bisexual?
"Extraccion de la piedra de locura," written in 1964 and published in the eponymous volume, in 1968, is a long prose poem and for me, one of Pizarnik's most important. I make no move toward a totalizing exegetical gesture here; my intention, rather, is to highlight fragments of it for the uncompromising ars combinatoria she effects between and among signs at both ends of the spectrum of gendered and sexualized alterity. The speaker introduces herself as a voice. First, she appears "undead," speaking from the tomb; then, another voice "speaks" her. This voice is related to the "bestia" image which recurs throughout Pizarnik's work (in the early poem "La unica herida," for example [PC 78]) and to the multiple iterations of alterity-by-desdoblamiento throughout her work: "Hablo como en mi se habla. No mi voz obstinada en parecer una voz humana sino la otra que atestigua que no he cesado de morar en el bosque." (PC 247) The tone is rational, dispassionate, but the content belies this appearance: it reveals the simulative quality of her human voice as against the genuineness or discursive "truth" of this (other) voice, which testifies that the speaker is still a forest-dwelling, wild creature.
Continuing with the inside-outside duality (which Pizarnik used extensively, throughout her work), she declares herself "possessed" by a fatal premonition of a black, asphyxiating wind. In this confining, silencing space, the speaker searches for a way out, first in her memories. When they fail to provide her with an "escudo, o ... arma de defensa, o aun de ataque", she acknowledges her abjection, her victimhood--"?A que hora empezo la desgracia?"--and then in what seems, at first, a paradoxical move, asks for silence. However, whereas the first silence, metaphorically represented in the "viento negro que impide respirar," corresponds to silence as rupture, the second is located at the positive valency (Valesio's silence as plenitude); it is equated with "la pequena choza que encuentran en el bosque los ninos perdidos." Here, we observe how the positive and negative signs begin to work together. The cottage, forest and children reference the miniaturizing, infantilizing fairy tale quality we have seen at the negative end of the spectrum. The image of the cottage, in particular, also serves asa visual and metaphoric space of (comforting) containment for a speaking subject that represents herself, increasingly, as fractured, fragmented. Directly after the sentence cited, above, we read: "Y que se yo que ha de ser de mi si nada rima con nada." (PC 248) This poignant, colloquially-inflected phrase--nothing more quintessentially Argentine than the expression "que se yo", in spite of herself!--links the desired silence/cottage to the necessary (and impossible) bond between the self and the text (as Pizarnik often did), even as it inscribes the text's unravelling. It is clear that she is referring, nostalgically, to her (lyric) poetry, about which she stated many times that it was what "contained" her.
The next section comprises a luxuriantly aestheticized, eroticized contemplation of a framed scene of beauty and pleasure; it appears to be a painting depicting a cherubic, Florentine youth, who "invites" the speaker into the picture. In distress, she declares herself "fuera del marco pero el modo de ofrendarse es el mismo." (PC 249) "Outside the frame," she is scattered, fragmented, and as self-abnegating as a religious offering (an image which occurs repeatedly in Pizarnik's work). This section is followed by an enumeration of scattered images which possess and inhabit the self, but they infantilize and terrify, rather than containing or articulating her: "capitanes y ataudes de colores deliciosos y ahora tengo miedo a causa de todas las cosas que guardo ... cuantas cosas en movimiento, cuantas pequenas figuras azules y doradas gesticulan y danzan (pero decir no dicen)." (emphasis added) Immediately after this list, which has begun the work of referencing the compendium of "typicar" Pizarnikian images at the negative end of the spectrum (childhood colors and storybook or toy imagery, playful movements which uncannily produce apprehension rather than delight, etc.), comes one of the most eerie, moving and beautiful fragments in Pizarnik's body of work:
Sonrie y yo soy una minuscula marioneta rosa con un paraguas celeste yo entro por su sonrisa yo hago mi casita en su lengua yo habito en la palma de su mano cierra sus dedos un polvo dorado un poco de sangre adios oh adios. (PC 250)
The rhythm of this prose fragment is vastly different from that of earlier texts in which some of these discrete images (or similar ones) appeared, signifying the hyperfeminization, powerlessness, and infantilization of the speaker. Here, these meanings are available, but they are mediated by the sensual, almost libidinal, punctuationless flow of the words, markedly different from the lapidary forms and the feeling of fixity common to the earlier poetry in which they appear. And yet, the imagery does overdetermine a childish and feminized lack of agency as the miniaturized speaker (a tiny pink puppet with a sky-blue parasol) seems to float, or flow (much like the shrunken Alice in Wonderland) into the very body of the Florentine ephebe (from the paragraphs just above this one), through his mouth, trying to found her "morada" first on his tongue--tantalizing site of the signifying language which eludes her--and then in the palm of his hand, where giant-like, he crushes her as if she were but a beautiful golden butterfly.
In the rest of the poem (another three full pages of dense, rhythmic prose), concrete images of miniaturization, infantilization and abjection ("princesita ciega," "joven muerta," "dibujo borrado," "pequena mendiga" etc.) alternate with images of wildness ("mujer-loba," "guarida") framed--or better, put into nearly amniotic semiosis--by a discourse whose structure and abstract imagery undermines the fixity of the negative images by embodying and enacting the positive charge, by resembling almost a subconscious flow, a movement beyond the binary and toward the edge of jouissance. "?que quieres?" the speaker asks herself. And the very language of the response incarnates the response, "Un transcurrir de fiesta delirante, un lenguaje sin limites, un naufragio en tus propias aguas, oh avara," even as, one sentence later, she denies it: "Figuras de cera los otros y sobre todo yo." (PC 251)
Toward the end of the poem, the language approaches the unbridled, more directly sexual language of the diaries and the minotaur texts: "El sexo a flor de corazon, la via del extasis entre las piernas." But I say "approaches" deliberately, because in "Extraccion de la piedra de locura", this sexual, embodied language is not deconstructively unmoored, let loose upon itself as it is in the minotaur texts, but rather brought back around, held in check by negative imagery (of closure, containment, refusal), which frames it. Directly before the quote, above, she writes: "el haberme acallado en honor de los demas." And directly after: "Puertas del corazon, perro apaleado, veo un templo, tiemblo, ?que pasa? No pasa." This is what she envisioned, what she wanted to write, to be in her writing: "Yo presentia una escritura total. El animal palpitaba en mis brazos con rumores de organos vivos, calor, corazon, respiracion, todo musical y silencioso al mismo tiempo." (emphasis added) This, instead, is what constantly eroded that vision, that writing: "?Que significa traducirse en palabras?" (PC 253)
The diary entry for January 5, 1964, lays bare the stakes of this vital (fatal?) contienda between the authorized voice and the "textos de sombra":
Esteticismo que finalizara en el silencio. Salvo que acepte los poemas veloces, internos, venidos de lejos sin tratar de detenerlos, sin matarlos, sin cosificarlos ... No tener para quien escribir desemboca en dos formas poeticas: la del exorcismo, inteligible o no, y la detenida, asfixiante, esteticista que consiste en un pequeno poema mil veces corregido ... Mi forma autentica es el automatismo afectivo. Solo me podra ayudar lo que escriba rapidamente puesto que mi conflicto es la inmovilidad, el muro. Y no se abate un muro construyendo a su lado otro muro. Quiero abrirme. (Diarios 355)
Writing this struggle, between containment (the lyric poetry, the authorized voice) and dispersal (the private, unpublished writing, the minotaur voice), constitutes, for this reader, Pizarnik's greatest angustia and her greatest apertura.
Aira, Cesar. "Las metamorfosis de Alejandra Pizarnik". ABC cultural, pags. 7-8, 6 de enero, 2001.
Allatson, Paul. '"My Bones Shine in the Dark': AIDS and the De-scription of Chicano Queer in the Work of Gil Cuadros." Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies (Fall 2006): forthcoming.
Cortazar, Julio. La autopista del sur y otros cuentos. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Chavez-Silverman, Susana. "The Autobiographical as Horror in the Poetry of Alejandra Pizarnik." Critical Studies on the Feminist Subject. Ed. Giovanna Covi. Trento: Universita di Trento, Italy: 1997. 265-77.
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--. "The Look that Kills: The 'Unacceptable Beauty' of Alejandra Pizarnik's La condesa sangrienta" ?Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings. Ed. Emilie Bergmann and Paul Julian Smith. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1995. 281-305.
--. "The Poetry of Octavio Paz and Alejandra Pizarnik: A Dialogue with Silence" Jewish Culture and the Hispanic World: Essays in Memory of Joseph H. Silverman. Ed. Samuel G. Armistead and Mishael M Caspi. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 2001. 129-44.
--. "Signos de lo femenino en la poesia de Alejandra Pizarnik." El puente de las palabras. Ed. Ines Azar. Washington, D.C.: OAS, 1994. 155-72.
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--. Violence in Argentine Literature; Cultural Responses to Tyranny. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1995. The chapter entitled "Of Power and Virgins: Alejandra Pizarnik's La condesa sangrienta" was reprinted in Structures of Power," Essays on Twentieth-Century Spanish-American Fiction. Ed. Terry J. Peavler and Peter Standish. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. 145-58.
Jagose, Annamarie. Inconsequence: Lesbian Representation and the Logic of Sexual Sequence. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002.
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(1) Este ensayo esta dedicado a los amigos argentinos, que me han ayudado a profundizar y agudizar mi lectura: de la Argentina (especialmente Buenos Aires), de Alejandra Pizarnik, de mi misma. Para Ivonne Bordelois, Andrea "Chabelita" Gutierrez, Laura Klein, Gustavo Llarull, Maria Gabriela Mizraje, Fernando Noy, Andrea "Silvana" Ostrov, Cristina Pina, Hilda Rais, Victor Richini, Ana Maria Shua, Saul Sosnowski, Monica Tracey, Paulina Vinderman. I would also like to thank Pierre T. Rainville for pointing out to me the sense of the speaker in Pizanaik's "Descripcion" being a fearful and then tender witness to the words, and Paul Allatson for suggesting the tuna of phrase, "self-as-palimpsest," for Pizarnik's life/work. To both of them, as well as to David W. Foster, for their generous suggestions for revising this essay, 1 owe a heartfelt debt of gratitude.
(2) Cited subsequently as PC.
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