CUTBANK REVIEWS: "Diana's Tree" by Alejandra Pizarnik

Diana's Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik
Review by Carole Mertz

Octavio Paz wrote a fascinating introduction to this collection, recently preserved in Ugly Duckling Press’s Lost Literature Series. Paz delights us with his description of the alchemy of the Diana tree, a bioluminescent tree of various properties.

There are thirty-eight poems in this collection, all of them numbered and none titled. In spite of Paz’s glittering introduction, Pizarnik’s poems carry us into shadows, silence, and night. Her lyrical abstractions give us wide berth as we traverse this darkness. And though we may resist the implications her images relay, we nevertheless recognize at once a powerful poetic voice.

On my first reading of the poems in this collection, these thoughts and phrases came to mind: the shadowy element of ethereal beings; the mystical; the mirrored; gauze-like, yet stark; the other; the unconscious or the subconscious at work.

We find here the surrealism of a painting translated into poetry and we are drawn in by Pizarnik’s dedicated, intense voice.

In No. 14 she writes, “Someone asleep in me / eats and drinks from me.” Is this a representation of something maternal? Or does it speak of depletion, and a kind of death wish? Considering how this Russian/Slovak/Argentinian artist’s very creative life (as poet, translator, dramatist, essayist, and painter) played itself out to a suicidal end, it is easy to lean toward the latter interpretation.

Reading No. 14 in its entirety, a bifurcated mind comes to light, one that desires fulfillment in its expression but somehow does not, or cannot, receive full permission to achieve it. Instead, the mirrored other intrudes:

The poem I don’t say,
the one I don’t deserve.
The fear of being two
the way a mirror is:
someone asleep in me
eats and drinks from me.

 The mirrored other appears also in the final poem: “This repentant song, standing guard behind my poems: it belies me, it has silenced me.”

In an interview conducted by Martha Isabel Moia, and printed in Issue No. 6 of Music and Literature, Pizarnik confides that she sees in mirrors “the other that I am. (The truth is that I’ve got a certain fear of mirrors.) Occasionally we come together. Almost always when I write.”*

In another reference to mirrors, in “Night, the Poem” (a work not included in this collection), Pizarnik pens the following intense, disturbed and self-revelatory lines: “What is this job of writing? To steer by mirror-light in darkness. To imagine a place known only to me.” This poem opens with, “If you find your true voice, bring it to the land of the dead. There is kindness in the ashes. And terror in non-identity.”

Translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, Diana’s Tree delivers a treasure of surrealist language, likely all the more beautiful in the original. As a bel-esprit, Pizarnik acknowledged the literary and artistic figures surrounding her in Paris where these poems were created (from 1962 onward). She dedicates the poems variously to Paul Klee, Goya, Wols, Esther Singer (sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer), and Aurora and Julio Cortazar, among others. Her penultimate poem in the collection reads, “Beyond the reach of every forbidden region / lies a mirror for our sorrowful transparency.” Did she know she would court the forbidden region prematurely?

In her interview with Moia, Pizarnik asserted that a poem’s chief work is “to heal the fundamental wound,” and to “rescue the abomination of human misery by embodying it.” Such is the alchemy of her major work.

In No. 31 we read: “…while outside others feed on clocks / and on flowers sown by your wits. But with eyes / closed, and with an excess of suffering, we coax the mirrors until forgotten words ring out like spells.” (One can envision Salvador Dali’s clocks in this imagery.) How we might wish that Pizarnik’s poetry had provided for her own rescue. In the spirit of preservation, I silently begged some unknown agent to render posthumous awards to Pizarnik, as I read her, lest we forget the beauty of her work.

About the Author:
Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972) was a leading voice in twentieth-century Latin American poetry. Born in Avellaneda to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Pizarnik studied literature and painting at the University of Buenos Aires and spent most of her life in Argentina. In 1960, she moved to Paris, where she was influenced by the work of the Surrealists and participated in a vibrant expatriate community of writers that included Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz. Known primarily for her poetry, Pizarnik also wrote experimental fiction, plays, a literary diary, and works of criticism. She died in Buenos Aires, of an apparent drug overdose, at the age of thirty-six.

About the Reviewer:
Carole Mertz has reviews and essays in Arc Poetry Magazine, Ascent Aspirations, Copperfield Review, The Conium Review, Capper’s, Mom Egg Review, Tiny Lights Journal, Working Writer, and World Literature Today. Her poems and stories appeared in With Painted Word, The Write Place at the Write Time, Toasted Cheese, Every Day Poems, Page & Spine, Rockford Review, WestWard Quarterly, and in various anthologies. In June 2015 she won the Wilda Morris Poetry Challenge. Carole lives with her husband in Parma, Ohio.