Diana's Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert

After reading Diana’s Tree by Alejandra Pizarnik, in Yvette Siegert’s translation, all the way through in one sitting, I wanted immediately to read it again. It’s a slim volume of equally slim poems, but they’re the kind of sparing that is deceptive. I hadn’t read much Pizarnik before, I’d seen her pop up in anthologies and translation workshops, I can’t tell you how many emerging translators I know who’ve started with her work. But, I think mostly because of estate issues and rights complications, I’d never seen a full collection until Siegert’s translation out last year with New Directions, A Musical Hell. And though that book was excellent, for some reason this one just struck me in a completely more significant way.

The lyrical intensity and absolute focus of the lines is what makes these poems so dense, so complex, so compelling. Working primarily at the level of image, they abide in abstraction; but it’s the kind of abstraction that contains multiple possibilities rather than mushy vagueness.

“An illuminated memory, a gallery haunted by
the shadow of what I wait for.
It’s not true that it will come. It’s not true that it won’t.”

That we never quite know what is being referred to, a memory, as shadow, a haunting. Something waiting and waited for. Something that both will and will not come. But that the referent is abstract only adds to the possibilities of it, by virtue of the certainty of the language. That’s a great virtue of this translation: Siegert trusts Pizarnik’s language, herself, and her readers enough to avoid the temptation to clarify, and thereby reduce the possibilities of the poem.

One of my favorite moments in the book is poem 9:

“These fossils gleaming in the night,
these words like precious stones
in the living throat of an ossified bird,
this gorgeous green,
this searing lilac,
this heart that is nothing but mystery.”

The anaphora of demonstrative pronouns that again expand into image shifts the tone, in my mind, to something mythic. Diana’s Tree, at once an alchemical reference and a mythological one (among others), layers itself as context through these poems. There is something both mythic and alchemical about these poems, branching as they do from a single, unseen trunk; luminous and illuminated; translucent; precise, almost scientific, and magical. And there is something mythic too: the hunt appears in allusion and the poet is both hunter and hunted. “It’s not true that it will come. It’s not true that it won’t.”

Octavio Paz’s brilliant introduction plays with the various interpretations of the title, is almost a poem in itself, a poem that weaves itself around and through Pizarnik’s book. I’m haunted by the image of the transparent tree, visible only to some.

And haunted, and hunted, is how I feel reading these poems. They strike like little arrows, they linger like ghosts. “these threads capture the shadows / and force them to account for the silence / these threads bind your sight to the sob”

Siegert’s given a gift in these renderings of Pizarnik. She has impressively created the lyric and the precision of these poems, while maintaining their radical openness, and radical intimacy.

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