Alejandra Pizarnik: The Cursed Poet
The rebellious Argentine poet who changed the history of contemporary Hispanic American literature
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On Sept. 25, 1972, the Argentine poet, essayist and translator Flora Alejandra Pizarnik died of an overdose in Buenos Aires. Her tragic death — it is never easy to explain a suicide at the age of 36 — did not prevent her from leaving a legacy of books, poems and essays that today make one of the most outstanding voices of contemporary Latin American literature, “especially for what her innovative and avant-garde poetry meant in the context of the 60s and 70s, so critical and so complex in the world in general, and in Latin America in particular,” said the director of Casa América Madrid, Enrique Ojeda, in a recent tribute to Pizarnik on the 50th anniversary of her death.
Born into a Jewish family that emigrated to Argentina to escape anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, Pizarnik studied philosophy and literature at the University of Buenos Aires, although she eventually dropped out to devote herself to painting and poetry. Later, between 1960 and 1964, she lived in Paris, where she rubbed shoulders with other greats of the Latin American boom, such as Octavio Paz, Julio Cortázar, and Silvina Ocampo, and devoted herself to writing poems and reviews in various newspapers, as well as translating the work of Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Aimé Césaire and Yves Bonnefoy, among others.
Despite economic hardship and a weakened state of mental health, Pizarnik remained in Paris for four years.
“Pain, nocturnal pilgrimages and poverty, those were the roots of lasting art, according to Pizarnik,” as published by The Paris Review in 2018.
This was Pizarnik’s most productive period, the year of Diana’s Tree, her fourth collection of poems, accompanied by a celebratory prologue by her friend and future Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz. Published in December 1962 in Buenos Aires, this book of poems and prose in Spanish allowed her to immediately enter the pantheon of Latin American poetry.
“It was a turning point also in form and style,” observed The Paris Review. “The brevity of the texts suggested the impersonal, the anonymous, but it strangely radiated an aura of nocturnal intimacy.”
Poems of madness and death
Pizarnik missed her family and friends in Buenos Aires, however, and eventually came back. In Buenos Aires, she published three of her major volumes, Los trabajos y las noches, Extracción de la piedra de locura (Extracting the Stone of Madness), and El infierno musical (A Musical Hell) — most of them translated into English — as well as her prose work La condesa sangrienta, a reflection on a 16th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly ordered the torture and death of more than 600 young women.
“Her poetry is full of silences, of symbols, of madness, of the shadow of death, of delirium. An infinite dialogue between her and all that is her,” Ojeda added at the tribute event in Madrid.
Marked by a difficult childhood — she grew up in the shadow of her older sister, fostered by her mother, and the family’s foreign condition — most of her poems deal with cruelty, childhood, estrangement and death. Her work earned recognition when she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim (1969) and Fullbright (1971) fellowships. However, Pizarnik did not complete them due to the depressive crisis she went through before committing suicide. The poet died of an overdose, after ingesting 50 pills of a psychotropic known commercially as Seconal, while spending a weekend away from the psychiatric clinic where she was interned.
Despite having been baptized by critics as the “cursed poet,” journalist Cristina Piña, co-author of Alejandra Pizarnik. Biography of a Myth (Lumen, 2022), believes that her figure and work actually signify the union between writing and life.
“The Pizarnik myth has grown over the years and there are many people who have not read her and know nothing more than what is said about the legend of Alejandra: that of the poet who committed suicide, totally devoted to her writing,” added the Argentine journalist, who published a first biography of Pizarnik 30 years ago, coinciding with the efforts of Argentina, a country already back to democracy, to recover the women writers of the Latin American boom.