The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, Translated from the French by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander, New Directions, 2018
Have you ever been thrown into the deep end of a pool or overcome by a rogue wave, unable to get your bearings and reach the surface for air?
Unpublished during the poet’s lifetime, Alejandra’s Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour: French Poems (New Directions), translated from the French by Patricio Ferrari (who has also translated the collection into Spanish) and Forrest Gander, tips the reader headfirst into an engulfing, bottomless sea of emotions.
Born in Argentina to Russian-Jewish immigrants, Alejandra grew up ridden with complexes: as a young girl she suffered from acne and was overweight; her European accent in her mother tongue of Spanish made her feel like an outsider wherever she went, and she was plagued by jealousy of her older sister. Although she never openly identified as gay and had difficulty expressing her Jewish identity and her sexuality, she was known to have several female love interests.
This French anthology was written during her Paris sojourn (1960–64) and in Buenos Aires (1970–71) between editorial positions, translating writers like Antonin Artaud and spending time in the company of Julio Cortázar, Rosa Chanel, and Octavio Paz, finishing only one year before the poet’s suicide in 1972. For Pizarnik and many aspiring Latin American writers at the time, the vibrant city of Paris and high culture of the French language were synonymous with the success of their literary careers. “Tengo que ir a Francia” (I have to go to France) she wrote in her diary before embarking on this transatlantic journey.
As the introduction to the collection suggests, it is not likely that Pizarnik had publication on her mind when she penned these intimate poems on loose sheets of paper, now archived at the Princeton University Library. Photographs of these original drafts have been included in the book, and what is curious to observe are the numbers scribbled in the corner of each one, ultimately defining the order of this collection.
Before diving into Pizarnik’s profoundly autobiographical French poems, I recommend you fill your lungs with air as this in-between state of haunting daydreams, wakefulness in nightmares and mirrors is akin to the depths of the Mariana Trench. Rather than being a fantastical place, this is Alejandra’s reality; a real battle with her identity, a tangible lack of self-worth, a behemoth of delirium, and incessant cycles of self-doubt. Here, readers must give themselves over to the poet’s innermost desires and obsessions and in doing so make a choice: “choose silence or dream.”
Pizarnik threads a theme of imbalance through the first half of this collection, which is characterized by the collision of emptiness and overabundance. In the pair of prose poems, “All day long” and “All night,” an excess of water and clamor spill out onto the page:
All day long I hear the noise of moaning water […].
All night I’m swimming your waters, drowning in my eyes become your eyes […].
All night you rain over me, rain of water-hands that drown me.
All day long
All night I hear the noise of moaning water.
All night I make night in me […]
that moans because day falls like water through night.
In the wake of these recurring transient images, Pizarnik is left with a void: “an empty space without warmth, without cold.” Here, the shadows of Alejandra’s days are defined by relentless memories of lovers that leave the reader heavy with a sense of weariness. She talks of love that is emptiness and abandonment—a perpetual dialogue with absence in which the borders of existence between the self and the other dissipate and we can no longer distinguish the protagonist of these poems from the lost lover. The shapes of Pizarnik’s nights are defined by her dance with insomnia away from and towards herself “I lead the chase, I lead the fugue.” Here, torturous nights overflow with self-blame rooted in her imperfections.
The weight of her prose poems is reinforced by the dense language adopted by Gander and Ferrari, as demonstrated in the first poem of the Galloping Hour anthology. The resulting translation in English is at times suffocating and choking:
On est souffrant et on rampe, on danse, on se traine.
Quelqu’un a promis. C’est de moi que je parle. Quelqu’un ne peut plus.
We suffer and crawl, dance, we drag ourselves.
Someone has promised. It’s of myself I speak. Someone can’t take it anymore.
In “The Words of the Wind,” this “someone” struggles with the abundance of herself. This ferocious prose poem is a forewarning of choleric times, a cry for help at the poet’s nightmarish realization of looking in the mirror and seeing only herself staring back: “How I’d love to see myself some other night, beyond this madness of being both sides of the mirror.” Longing for another version of herself and to escape these “ancient wailing nights,” the galloping hour—perhaps not for the first time—brings with it her equine savior: “Horse of ire, carry me far away from myself. Far from this cry that stands in for the night.”
Continuing to grapple with a plethora of Alejandras, in “If for once again” we revisit a past of “broken toys” and “expectation[s]” that Alejandra herself has set and fallen short of. Despite this, she still awaits the answers to the existential themes she repeatedly brings to the mirror:
—je parle de la lumière sale qui courre à travers la poussière, les yeux bleus qui patientent. Qui me comprend?
—I speak of sullen light running through the dust, blue eyes patiently marking time. Who understands me?
Here, the translation maintains the intimidating grace of the French and holds Pizarnik’s distinct voice from the French across to the English through the use of the gerund to create a continual flow of movement and the choice of “patiently marking time” to describe Alejandra’s concept of “les yeux bleus qui patientent” (literally, blue eyes that wait).
In the fifth poem of the anthology, “Sex, Night,” the theme of absence is revisited in the company of a lover. This meditation on sex is freeing at the same time as it is restraining, alluding to her never-voiced homosexuality. In the dead of the night, Pizarnik casts herself in the position of a voyeur to quench a “thirsty thirst” with love that is laced with guilt and sin: “my joy more horrible than my fear.”
Exploring the limitations of language—“my words are keys that lock me into a / mirror, with you, but ever alone”—Pizarnik lashes out at the futility of trying to express emotions in mere words; words which only serve to burgeon the distance between her and her companion, making her feel even less understood and even less able to make sense of what she is feeling. Ultimately, to search for wholeness in the other is only to be reminded even more of our separateness.
Echoing back to the suffering depicted in her work Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems 1962–1972 (New Directions, 2016), these French poems present the poet’s depression as a gallery of contrasts and limitations: air that fills lungs yet fuels fire and carries cries and wails; reflections in which one searches for symmetry, only to find asymmetry, water that quenches thirst yet is one’s ultimate demise. In this abundance of water—representative of the abundance of herself—she drowns and is reborn: “a child of rain.”
The Galloping Hour: French Poems brings us themes that are both uncomfortably familiar and comfortably tense. Yet the obscure and surreal tone Pizarnik employs and her exploration of sex, death, and the body from a female perspective have only intensified her struggle as a female writer and meant that she has been greatly overlooked beyond the borders of Argentina. The translation of this anthology into English is a gallop towards her much-deserved recognition as the feminist icon and poet she was.
Rachael Pennington is an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote.
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