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Modern Argentine Poetry Exile, Displacement, Migration by Ben Bollig


Overview: Throughout Argentina's history, authors and important political figures, such as Presidents Domingo Sarmiento and Juan Perón and the writer Julio Cortázar, have lived and written in exile. Exile is a vital theme and a practical condition for Argentine literature. As a country that in its modern history has welcomed mass immigration and political exiles from Europe and the rest of Latin America, contemporary Argentina is also a nation shaped by the work of immigrants. The case of poets is particularly important; poetry is often perceived as the least directly political of genres, yet political and other forms of exile have impinged equally on the lives of poets as on any group. This study is thus the first to focus specifically on the displacement-poetry link in the case of Argentina.

The corpus includes poets who are influential, recognised, but in general have not enjoyed the detailed study that they deserve: Alejandra Pizarnik, Juan Gelman, Osvaldo Lamborghini, Néstor Perlongher, Sergio Raimondi, Cristian Aliaga, and Washington Cucurto, all presented with generous selections of poems and original translations into English by the author. As well as thematic innovation, the study offers methodological advances, in particular by applying the tools of cultural studies to the study of poetry: close readings, combined with contextualisations, and theoretical works from contemporary philosophy, political theory, and economics. 


Modern Argentine Poetry  Exile, Displacement, Migration by Ben Bollig Book Chapter One


 Alejandra Pizarnik41this mania of knowing i’m an angel Without age, Without death in which to live, Without pity [or piety] for my name nor for my bones that cry wandering.and who has no love? and who takes no pleasure amidst the poppies? and who doesn’t have a fire, a death, a fear, something horrible, even if with feathers, even if with smiles?sinister delirium to love a shadow. the shadow doesn’t die. and my love only embraces what flows like lava from hell: a silent lodge, phantasms in sweet erection, priests of spume and above all angels, angels beautiful like knives that rise up in the night and devastate hope.there are two characteristics which iwould like to focus on in this poem: firstly, a certain portrayal of ‘exile’ as a form of alienation; and, secondly, the creation of a particular literary genealogy.3in the first case, there are two thematic constants: lack (or loss) and love that is frustrated or impossible; we see this from the very opening, as in lines 1–5, which are characterised by lack: the repeti-tion of ‘sin’ with different nouns, for example. Here the poetic subject lacks age, death and pity. age suggests an existence in time alongside death as a condition of life; pity defines a certain fellow feeling between human beings. that pity is itself expressed for a name and bones is of particular importance: Pizarnik’s first name (alejandra) was adopted during her adolescence for the purposes of her literary work, while her surname points to her background of european Jewish immigration to argentina (it is a mistranscription of ‘Pozharnik’) (Piña, 1999b: 37; 19–20). bones, Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4105/05/2011   10:08
42Modern Argentine Poetrymeanwhile, the physical core of a human being, are themselves characterised by emotion (‘lloran’) and wandering. this structure of triple repetition reoccurs in the second stanza, ‘¿yquién ...?’; again, the speaker is characterised by the lack of what is apparently a given for others, in this case love and pleasure. in the third stanza, a particular form of love is defined, in this case love for something that cannot be grasped; we see the paradoxes this entails in the grammatically unusual use of the personal ‘a’ for feelings and actions towards shadows and things: these are not people, and thus an unconventional relationship is proposed to the human and to violence: ‘beautiful like knives’ or ‘devastate hope’. thus, the poetic subject is dangerous, an outsider, but, at the same time, one of a group linked by a particular form of love, the ‘silent lodge’.iwould argue that in this piece ‘exile’ is a form of existential not-belonging. Pizarnik was not an exile, certainly not in the sense outlined by suvin (2005), and discussed at length in the introduc-tion. When the poem was published, in 1958, Pizarnik was still resident in buenos aires.4 Furthermore, at this stage, not long after the so-called Revolución Libertadora (the 1955 anti-Peronist coup), exile was not especially a feature of argentine political or literary life; certainly not the exile that affected so many writers, intellec-tuals and activists from the late 1960s onwards, or offered the background to the founding texts of earlier generations, such as those of the Generation of 1837, including José mármol and esteban echeverría. in fact, the most prominant ‘exile’ of the time would have been the former President Juan domingo Perón himself, who had left the country after a coup against him in 1955.5cortázar had been resident in Paris since 1951, initially after falling out with the Peronist administration, but was not at this stage the celebrated writer he would become in the 1960s. the problem that these observations raise for the subject position adopted in this piece, then, is how would one be able to account for actually existing political exile?some comments on Pizarnik’s own personal and political situa-tion may prove useful here. Pizarnik was later to write, in 1967, ‘iwon’t talk about urgent problems that economists, sociologists and politicians know all about’ (2006: 308).torres Gutiérrez goes some way towards a characterisation of Pizarnik’s not-belonging: ‘she is a product of the urban, she has an association with uprootedness as she has no local roots, she experiences the nostalgia of her internal Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4205/05/2011   10:08
Alejandra Pizarnik43auto-exile’ (2004). iwould argue that, rather than a sense of auto-exilio, instead we see in Pizarnik a sense of not-belonging at all, or perhaps something closer to the oxymoron ‘internal exile’, or ‘insilio’. However, this is not an explicitly political stance, in contrast, for example, to José lezama lima’s position in cuba during the final years of his life, after the Padilla affair. nicholson argues the importance of Pizarnik’s self-perception as an outsider, and a particularly literary outsider at that (2002: xx); she situates Pizarnik ‘at the opposite end of the spectrum to Jean-Paul sartre’s ideal of engaged literature’ (xx). this distinction became even more important once Pizarnik took up residence in Paris, where, as Wilson observes, she aligned herself with the group of late, dissi-dent surrealists associated with the mexican octavio Paz, whilst ‘otherwise the late 1950s and 1960s belonged to sartre and his committed brand of existentialism and the radical nouveau roman’ (2007: 78). Pizarnik can be seen as a critical reader of surrealism (77), but one taken in neither by sartre’s theories nor by Julio cortázar’s eventual commitment to the latin american revolu-tions; her diaries, for example, remark on her distaste for politics, not least the communism and socialism of her friends (Pizarnik, 2005a: 170). For nicholson, Pizarnik’s writing emerges within a dual context: firstly, argentina’s cultural history, in which poetry forms part of the intellectual and cultural life of buenos aires, often divorced from contemporary issues, what Piña (1999b: 69) calls a ‘divorce from social and political reality’; secondly, the importance of France as a cultural model, and the tendency of French and other surrealists to divorce themselves from politics after the second World War.secondly, parallel to this existential ‘exile’, we also witness Pizarnik tracing a literary community and genealogy: perhaps the ‘silent lodge’ of line 17 above. this poem is dedicated to raúl Gustavo aguirre, the argentine poet, anthologist and critic. aguirre directed the review Poesía Buenos Aires, published the Antología de la poesía nuevain 1952 and was an important figure both in Pizarnik’s early career and in the contemporary literary scene in buenos aires.6the collec-tion in which the poem is included is dedicated to rubén Vela, a poet who was involved in the Poesía buenos aires group; other dedicatees in the collection include Pizarnik’s friends, the poets olga orozco and elizabeth azcona cranwell, and the psychoanalyst león ostrov. iwould argue that the dedications form part of an attempt to set Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4305/05/2011   10:08
44Modern Argentine PoetryPizarnik within the poetic or literary scene of buenos aires. at the same time, the collection is prefaced by a verse from Georg trakl, in aldo Pellegrini’s translation:Sobre negros peñascos se precipita, embriagada de muerte, la ardiente enamorada del viento.(2005b: 71)Over black crags she throws herself, drunk with death, the ardent lover of the wind.this is characteristic of the literary genealogy traced by the poem, in particular its mixture of quotations and themes drawn from romanticism and tropes and techniques taken from surrealism. if we return to the final stanza, we encounter lines such as, ‘my love / only embraces what flows’. this suggests a type of love that is out of one’s control, incapable of holding on to anything and, furthermore, self-destructive. later, we see this love as being for a shadow, and thus of course impossible, as in the trakl epigraph, above. meanwhile, images such as ‘priests of spume’ and ‘angels beautiful like knives’ employ the surrealist technique of unexpectedly juxtaposing elements from radically distinct lexical fields. that these references come after the crisis of the first two stanzas would suggest that the literary is a reaction to personal crisis. However, the literary work also appears earlier, with the use of the future subjunctive (‘fuere’) in lines 10–11. iwould argue that these epigraphs form part of the construction of a personal poetic tradition and a set of privileged interlocutors; the poem thus traces existential or internal exile as literary, and the literary as a condition for this exile.apoem from 1959 adds further detail to Pizarnik’s portrayal of exile and her literary genealogy.carolinedeGunderodeEn nostalgique je vagabondais par l’infinc. de G.Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4405/05/2011   10:08
Alejandra Pizarnik45la mano de la enamorada del viento acaricia la cara del ausente. la alucinada con su <<maleta de piel de pájaro>> huye de sí misma con un cuchillo en la memoria. la que fue devorada por el espejo entra en un cofre de cenizas y apacigua a las bestias del olvido.A Enrique Molina.(2005b [1959]: 148)the hand of the lover of the wind caresses the face of the absent one. the bedazzled with her ‘birdskin suitcase’ flees from herself with a knife in the memory. she who was devoured by a mirror enters a coffer of ashes and pacifies the beasts of oblivion.this is another pre-Paris poem and it follows the model observed in Las aventuras perdidas (1958), with the combination of an epigraph that sets the poem within the tradition of the poètes maudits, in this case a sexually ambiguous poet-suicide, and a dedication to a local surrealist. both title and epigraph are references to Karoline von Günderrode (1780–1806), an impor-tant figure in the mythology of German romanticism, particularly given her charged relationship with bettina von arnim and her suicide, aged 26.the full quotation from Günderrode reads as follows:le passé, pour moi, se trouvait aboli! au seul présent j’appartenais. néanmoins une nostalgie était en moi, qui ne connaissait pas l’objet de son désir, et toujours je cherchais, et jamais rien de ce que je trou-vais n’était ce que j’avais cherché; en nostalgique je vagabondais par l’infini.Günderrode’s lines deal with impossible desire for an unidentifi-able and unreachable object, that is to say nostalgia for something one has never had. the result is aimless wandering. the parallels to Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4505/05/2011   10:08
46Modern Argentine PoetryPizarnik’s piece are clear; her lines 1–2, for example, show the absence of the object of desire, or, to exemplify, if one is in love with the wind, rather than the air, one is always able to touch or sense a lover who is not there. again, this is a very literary, indeed romantic, love. the opening phrase of the piece, ‘la enamorada del viento’, is drawn from Georg trakl, who provides the epigraph to the collection Las aventuras perdidas (2005b: 71); again, we see the literary work to inscribe the poem within a particular version of the european romantic tradition; we must also note the change that Karoline von Günderrode’s name undergoes in Pizarnik’s poem: she loses her umlaut and a letter ‘r’, and her given name is Gallicised (K becomes c, von becomes de). the movement thus suggested is one of importation, of a particular type of writer – the accursed proto-romantic poet – for her own writing. at the same time, the poem also makes use of the type of surrealist tropes and images, in particular the shocking juxtaposition, that we would find in the work of enrique molina (to whom the piece is dedicated), such as ‘birdskin suitcase’, ‘knife in the memory’, and ‘coffer of ashes’. indeed, the poem as a whole feels like a surrealist exquisite corpse, in particular the division into lines, with its seven distinct and only tenuously linked phrases. thus, a poem dedicated to a local surrealist, enrique molina, functions like a surrealist game. there is a further biographical link between the two traditions in the argentine case. trakl’s poems were translated into spanish by the prominent argentine surrealist, aldo Pellegrini, and were published in 1972; once again we see the meeting between the local literary circle and european authors. it is important to note the language that Pizarnik uses in this poem: as noted, Günderrode’s (German) name is Gallicised, and she is also quoted in French. meanwhile, trakl and Kafka are both quoted in spanish translation in the collection. again, we can observe Pizarnik as a trafficker of literary influence.these literary quotations and the tracing of such a genealogy together might suggest a reading that supports the thesis of Pascale casanova’s ambitious study, The World Republic of Letters (2004). casanova’s central thesis, which follows both Pierre bourdieu’s work on cultural field theory and Fernand braudel’s notion of the economic world, is that there exists a literary world or universe, relatively independent of the everyday world and its political divi-sions, whose boundaries and operational laws are not reducible to Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4605/05/2011   10:08
Alejandra Pizarnik47those of ordinary political space.7casanova’s method consists of ‘situating a world on the basis of its position in world literary space’ (xii). casanova suggests that ‘this world is quite separate from the ordinary world, but it is only relatively autonomous, only relatively independent of it – which is to say, by the same token, relatively dependent on it’ (349). the pillars of casanova’s argument are thus found in two notions: those of, firstly, the literary national and, secondly, literary competition between nations. she goes on to suggest that ‘a genuinely literary history of literature can be written only by taking into account the unequal status of the players in the literary game and the specific mechanisms of domination that are manifested in it’, that the oldest literary spaces ‘are most endowed’ (352). in this sense, Pizarnik would be seen as a writer from a less well-endowed literary nation (argentina) trying to create her own superior position through the use of international quotation and reference.christopher Prendergast offers a rounded critique of casanova’s work, and a number of his observations are of particular relevance for this study of an argentine lyric poet; firstly, he examines the status of non-european writers in casanova’s work:Her theoretical frame of reference creates the impression of an ines-capably eurocentric purview. Wherever she goes, europe – and Paris in particular – seem not to be far behind. latin america gets a good billing but most especially in terms of those writers who at one point of another end up in europe. even the brazilian writers who took a principled stand against european influence are defined largely in terms of this europe-referring stance. (2001: 106, n.3)subsequently Prendergast looks at those genres that function less well within a framework that seems inevitably to favour the novel: ‘How might the national-competitive construct work with lyric poetry? [... a] single, generalizing description misses too much and is destined to do so, if it is offered as the description’ (121).iwould suggest that Pizarnik’s work at best only partly fits the schemata drawn by casanova. there are four principal reasons: firstly, we are dealing with Pizarnik’s poetry. iwould argue, with Prendergast, that poetry is perhaps the genre that fits least well into World systems-style readings, mainly because of its very different mode of circulation; that is to say, poetry is the genre perhaps least Modern Argentine Poetry (Revised).indd   4705/05/2011   10:08
48Modern Argentine Poetrywell assimilated to the market. secondly, the competition that is central to casanova’s work is absent in Pizarnik: instead, we see a poetic, literary genealogy being traced at a local and international level, rather than a battle for recognition between different national spaces. thirdly, the notion of the national, that is to say, in this case, ‘argentineness’ or ‘argentinidad’, so central to casanova’s work, is almost wholly absent from Pizarnik’s work, except in a negative sense; in a letter from 1967, for example, she wrote of ‘este maldito país “mío”’ [this damn country ‘of mine’] (bordelois, 1998: 179).Finally, Pizarnik is writing in mid-boom, as latin american novelists began to achieve fame and recognition on a global scale; argentina was not so peripheral, particularly given the importance of buenos aires-based publishing houses in the 1960s.moving beyond casanova’s study, rosi braidotti’s Transpositions(2006) offers possible philosophical inroads into Pizarnik’s poetry. braidotti’s work stresses ‘the relevance of a materialist, nomadic philosophy of becoming, as an alternative conceptual framework, in the service of a sustainable future’ (4). she defines her concept of ‘nomadic subjectivity’ as involving a ‘materialist approach to affectivity and a non-essentialist brand of vitalism’ (4). this would allow ‘the possibility of a system of ethical values that, far from requiring a steady and unified vision of the subject, rests on a non-unitary, nomadic or rhizomatic view’ (4–5). as a consequence, braidotti stresses the importance of alternative forms of belonging, what she terms ‘Flexible citizenship and multiple belongings’ (79). this has important consequences for our conception of nations and nationality, as a ‘post-nationalistic sense of diasporic, hybrid and nomadic identity can be translated into the political notion of flexible citizenship’ (79). braidotti’s thesis insists that, firstly, ‘a non-unitary vision of the subject is the necessary precondition for the creation of more adequate accounts of our location’ (93), and, secondly, ‘far from resulting in oral relativism, non-unitary subject positions engender alternative systems of values and specific forms of accountability’ (93). nomadic subjects are ‘qualitative multiplic-ities’, for example, black and muslim and woman at once (94). thus, braidotti offers us a mode of multiple, non-essential and voluntarist belonging. something of such a sense of willed belonging can be seen in Pizarnik’s case in literary terms

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