Translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert
(Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2015)
Last November, my introduction to Diana’s Tree was similar to that awe one feels when meeting an exceptional human being—I was rendered speechless. After my first read through these thirty-seven pages of poetry, I felt that Diana’s Tree, written by Alejandra Pizarnik in 1962 and translated by Yvette Siegert, was the most exceptional piece of writing that I had read in 2014. Now, in the first months of this new year, I feel prepared to discuss my experience with one of the most real poetry collections I’ve had the honor of reading.
There are many implications of the term “Diana’s tree,” ranging from the Roman goddess of the hunt to the alchemical tradition of cultivating efflorescent silver crystals from mercury. Not surprisingly, the ways in which a reader might approach Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree are at least as varied. And yet, despite the collection’s exceptionally sparse nature – many of the poems are only two or three lines long – the collection is never ambiguous, but rather it is crisply lapidary to the point of refraction. Pizarnik wrote Diana’s Tree in Spanish while living in Paris under Surrealist inspiration, yet her work is just as relevant to today’s English-language reader. One of the many ways to enter into this heart-rending yet unsentimental collection is through the lens of externalization.
Diana’s Tree is fascinated with mortality and grief:
The beautiful wind-up doll sings to herself, charms
herself, tells herself stuff and stories: a nest made
of stiff thread where I dance and lament myself
at my countless funerals. […]
By projecting herself onto the doll, and even discussing this object in the third person—referring to the figure as “herself” three separate times within two lines—she creates distance between herself and her own emotions. This visualization, this making separate and more literally observable, of something that is otherwise quite spectral allows us to approach and begin to understand these more complex and even frightening parts of ourselves, such as deliberations of death and feelings of grief.
These externalizations not only provide a technique for which we can approach memories, feelings, and even parts of ourselves which we otherwise might not be able to parse out, they also allow for a more concrete media with which we can productively work. For example, Siegert translates, “a faint wind / filled with the folded faces / that I cut out into shapes of things to love.” Grief is hinged upon memory, and I can’t help but wonder if, in the context of this collection, these faces are from her past – if they are the faces of lost or changed loved ones, or even of herself, as discussed in this four-line poem:
at this innocent hour
the one I used to be sits with me
along my peripheral vision
Pizarnik approaches the notion of the return of the repressed, as exposed by Sigmund Freud. This concept is notable today not only for its importance in psychology, but also its prevalence in pop culture. For example, some of the most successful contemporary horror films employ this technique regularly; in The Babadook, a 2014 Australian film written and directed by Jennifer Kent, the monster seems to be an embodiment of the single mother’s grief and anger over the loss of her son’s father. While Diana’s Tree is far from a horror film, it can occasionally frighten: “someone asleep in me / eats and drinks from me.”
Alejandra Pizarnik committed suicide only one decade after the publication of this collection. She was 36-years old. In such a confessional collection, one with such palpable sorrow, it is particularly difficult to separate the speaker from the poet. For me, this makes a continual exploration of the dualism, the distinction between the mind and the body within this unforgettable book, a burning matter. Diana’s Tree opens, “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.” Diana’s Tree is real. It is sharp, and it is raw. Diana’s Tree is for each of us.
| | |
Heather Lang is the Managing Online Editor for The Literary Review.
Five of Alejandra Pizarnik‘s poems are included in TLR’s Fall 2014 issue, Women’s Studies.
Her poem “Exile” is available to read through TLR Online.