The best way to review Alejandra Pizarnik’s slim collection, A Musical Hell, published by New Directions as part of their Poetry Pamphlet series, is to begin by stating that it is poetry with a capital P: serious, dense, and, some might say, difficult. Take from that what you will, but I’m going to follow an idea from Julio Cortázar who, in a letter to Pizarnik (reprinted as a preface to this collection), wrote: “You’ve heard of this reviewing method where you page through a book and cite various verses and passages, then make some comment to praise or shoot it down? I don’t care for this sort of thing.” Okay, point taken, Sr. Cortázar. I’m going to avoid that kind of review this time and try to capture instead the impression of Pizarnik’s art, a truly foolish endeavor on my part but here goes:

The poems are not formal, though they are earnest, surreal, indebted to artistic traditions that broke with tradition, which was quite a thing in 1971 (when the poems were first published in their native Spanish) I am sure, but in 2014 I must admit that the effect is diminished. Poets have been liberated by the likes of Pizarnik and her forbearers Vallejo, Lorca, Desnos—really most post Victorians you can think of. Subsequently, it seems that the most radical thing to do in the 21st century is to turn away from this sort of free verse.

This is not to say that Pizarnik’s poems are failures. By no means! The work is interesting, often striking. In fact, with full apology to the ghost of Cortázar, I’m going to share a bit that I rather liked:


While waiting for a world to be unearthed by language, some one is singing about the place where silence is formed. Later it’ll be shown that the display of fury is not what makes the sea—or the world—exist. In the same way, each word says what it says—and beyond that, something more and something else.

Okay, class: do you get this? No? Not to worry—you’re not on this earth to understand everything. And that’s just fine. I choose this poem partially because I like it but more because it is emblematic of the collection; it is not what anyone expects when they encounter a poem (which a lot of readers and critics of poetry have come to expect). And it contains the word “silence,” a word that seems to appear on every other page. Despite the suggestion of the title, there’s more silence than music, or more concern with silence, more that seems to come from silence than from anywhere else. Which may be the key to unlocking these rather elusive poems, though, frankly, I’m tired of unlocking elusive poetry. I don’t need to follow every poem out there; I’m happy if a poem can bring me to a different place than my linear life can provide, which is exactly what Pizarnik’s poems do. But I’ll also admit that I didn’t stay in that grand other place for very long. And not every poem in the slim collection (48 pages in this bilingual edition) brought me anywhere but to the next page in search of something more substantial.

I have the suspicion that had Pizarnik not killed herself at the age of 36 her work might have matured into something more dynamic. The roots of it are present. There’s invention, bravery, experimentation, but also a note of sadness that sometimes feels callow. Despite this, I must admit to spending quite some time marveling over:

something inside me won’t give in to the avalanche of ash that can sweep through my insides with her who is me, with myself who is she and is I, unspeakingly different from her.

The nice bits like this ensure that I’ll come back to this volume again and will likely find some other joys along the way. This is often the best we can ask from poets: the desire for rereading and renewed surprise. Pizarnik’s work is surely no exception.

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A Musical Hell
By Alejandra Pizarnik
Translated by Yvette Siegert
Reviewed by Vincent Francone
48 pages, paperback
ISBN: 9780811220965
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