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The Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik conjured her own world from the dark: “The night closes in like water over a stone,” “The night is shaped like a howling wolf,” “The night in your mask carries bolts of lightning,” “On this night in this world / where anything is possible / except for / a poem.” Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 (New Directions, $18.95), the first comprehensive English-language collection of Pizarnik’s work, is a book to be read by the light of a single swinging bulb.

Watercolor illustration of lilac (detail) by Georg Dionysius Ehret © The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Watercolor illustration of lilac (detail) by Georg Dionysius Ehret © The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Pizarnik was born to Russian Jewish refugees in Buenos Aires in 1936, and she died there, of a deliberate overdose of Seconal, in 1972. Her brief life was dedicated to study and shame: Universidad de Buenos Aires, the Sorbonne, journalism, chapbooks. She was a depressive insomniac who spoke Spanish with a Yiddish accent and a stutter. Paris was a bright spot: she spent four years there in the Sixties, translating Aimé Césaire (who championed Négritude) and Henri Michaux (who championed mescaline), and carousing with feminists and Octavio Paz. On a cursory read her work can seem to evanesce, in that purple-prose-poetry haze that attends the work of even the most talented devotees of Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Verlaine — along with anyone enamored of the wayward rage of Artaud and the cruel morbidities of Lautréamont. But to bear down on Pizarnik’s scant lines is to find their essential rigor: nothing is brittle, nothing breaks. The continental perfumes have all been diffused to bare the corpus delicti.

Stones, bones, coffins, and effigies: throughout her poems images recur until they acquire the status of relics. She’ll mention “an animal” but refuse to specify which. The only flower that exists for her is the lilac. A score of poems combine three pronouns: an “I” she claims confessionally, a “you” of changeable gender but unchangeable yearning, and a “she” who tries, and fails, to bridge the distances between. The beauty of some poems depends on their verbs, which shock the repeated nouns out of their blankness: air is “tattooed” by an absence, hands “want to dusk me, they plan to death me.” (“Me quieren anochecer, me van a morir.”) The beauty of others depends on their titles, which have to be reread for a belated, or posthumous, surprise:

The absent figures are sighing, and the night is thick. The night is the color of the eyelids of the dead.

All night long I make the night. All night long I write. Word by word I am writing the night.

The poem is called “Deaf Lantern,” which suggests that a lantern — or even a poet — might perform an intended role so naturally that no one ever notices what it — or she — is incapable of.

Pizarnik’s autobiographical impulses all relate to frustration: her “she” contends with prison, exile, sciamachy, “time like a glove upon a drum.” Being blocked seems to have been a mode of life, which she endured by converting it into a mode of writing. Nouns, as possessions, had to be weighty, burdening; verbs, requiring action or engagement, had to cause vertigo; adjectives (“deaf,” “blind,” “black,” “forgotten”) would obliterate the senses; metaphors would be “a trap, or simply another scene in a play”:

Winter the hound was gnawing at my smile. On the bridge. I was naked and wore a hat with flowers, and dragged my dead body, also naked and wearing a hat of dry leaves.

I have had many loves, I said, but of all these, the greatest was my love of mirrors.

After three years of writing these columns, that’s how I’ll close my last — with a poem entitled “A Dream in Which Silence Is Golden.”

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