“Extracting the Stone of Madness” by Alejandra Pizarnik [Why This Book Should Win]
Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!
The entry below is by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, who is one of the founding editors of EuropeNow, a journal of political research, literature, and art at Columbia University. She previously served as editor in chief of the Columbia Journal and blog editor at Asymptote and Words Without Borders.
Extracting the Stone of Madness by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert (Argentina, New Directions)
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 92%
Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 37%
Had Poe lived to read Alejandra Pizarnik, she would have given him nightmares. Revered by writers such as Octavio Paz, Roberto Bolaño, and César Aira—the latter calling her “the greatest, and the last” poet—Pizarnik is one of the most important contributors to twentieth-century Argentine poetry. Known for her lyricism and concession to misery, Pizarnik wrote of terror, suffering, estrangement, and death, but also of love and tenderness. She wrote seven books of poetry and one book of prose before ending her life at age 36 in 1972.
Extracting the Stone of Madness, published by New Directions and unbearably, stunningly translated by Yvette Siegert, comprises all of Pizarnik’s middle to late work, as well as a selection of posthumously published verse. A reader unfamiliar with Pizarnik’s life and work might flip through the first couple of pages and find her poems gentle, romantic even. Lines like “May your body always be / a beloved space for revelations” and “Only you can turn my memory / into a fascinated traveler, / a relentless fire” could fool anyone. It doesn’t take many minutes of reading, however, before the romance turns into a bitter longing (“You speak like the night. / You announce yourself like thirst”) followed by a violent absence (“The wind had eaten away / parts of my face and my hands.”)
Upon finishing this initial section, Works and Nights (1965), the first-time Pizarnik reader might feel as if they are somewhat prepared for section two, Extracting the Stone of Madness (1968). They are not.
The title poem references a circa 1494 painting by Hieronymus Bosch titled The Cure of Folly (or The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, or Cutting the Stone) depicting a surgical intervention in which a hole is drilled deep into the skull of a “fool”—a medieval practice once believed to relieve mental disorders.
The bad light is near and nothing is real. When I think of all that I’ve read of the spirit — when I closed my eyes, I saw luminous bodies turning in the mist, on the site of tenuous dwellings. Don’t be afraid, no one will come after you. All the grave robbers have gone. Silence, always silence; the gold coins of sleep.
I speak the way I speak inside. Not with the voice intent on sounding human, but with the other one, the one that insists I’m still a creature of the forest.
—from the poem “Extracting the Stone of Madness”
In this phenomenally eerie section, Pizarnik’s poems turn into feverish dreamscapes occupied by solitary women dressed in blue or red, fetuses of scorpions, mirrors, lilacs, and sorcery. Similar motifs extend into the next section of the book, A Musical Hell (1971), which references another painting by Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. This title poem refers to the “hell” panel of Bosch’s famous triptych, depicting musicians playing on instruments that are simultaneously used for torture.
Like in Bosch’s hell, the horror in Extracting the Stone of Madness is inescapable. Every Pizarnik poem is a step down a phantom staircase, an insomniac descent leading to the final text of the book: a poem that was found written in chalk on a blackboard in the poet’s workroom after her suicide.
So why should anyone read this disturbing piece of literature, let alone award it with one of the finest translation prizes in the U.S.? Because Pizarnik’s poetry, and Siegert’s rendition of it, is inescapable: not due to its terror, but due to its mastery.