Yvette Siegert’s translation of Alejandra Pizarnik’s Diana’s Tree is concise, luminous, deliberately crafted, and it would be foolish to speak of it in anything less than admiration. Its poems—sometimes only two or three lines—widen as “hole[s] in the night,” spin like “inventors / of storms,” and, with a commanding poise and steady step, identify their silence and throw their arms to us.
The term “Diana’s tree” has been given many definitions, and I found each of them to be a helpful way into the collection. Many think of Diana’s tree in its physical, made-in-a-laboratory form—the product of silver, nitric acid, water, and mercury brought together in the right ratios. When combined correctly, the materials form an alchemical “tree,” branching out in white spikes, “fuses, or, more rarely, thorns” (think: a close-up view of a snowflake). Some claim that these growths are tiny “fruits” and that they are evidence of a life force existing in all minerals.
In his smart, twisting introduction to the collection, Octavio Paz suggests a number of other explanations of Diana’s tree—that of mythology (“The ancients believed that the bow of the goddess Diana was a branch from this sacred tree”), ethnography (some idolize Diana’s tree as one with roots and a scar down its center, representative of the male and female identities of nature), as well as that of chemistry, physics, etc. However, Paz says that those who imagine Diana’s tree as a physical object are missing the point, suggesting instead that we use those images as “natural instrument[s] to aid our visual faculties.” He insists that the tree—and just as much, the poems in Pizarnik’s collection—should be seen not as literal buds or branches, but rather, as lenses through which to view our reality.
The way I see it: go ahead and bring whatever definition you want. Pizarnik’s poems are aware of each perspective, and I don’t think any are truer than the others. Diana’s Tree is a machine unlike any I’ve ever seen, and its network is one we can navigate freely. One poem reads:
She leaps, shirt on fire,
from star to star,
from shadow to shadow.
She dies of a distant death
this lover of the wind.
And that’s it. That’s the poem—the tight arrowhead of it pointing in any number of directions: maybe to the Roman goddess and hunter Diana, “lover of the wind,” said to have lived in the wilderness without ever marrying; or to the goddess again, distraught, turning Orion into stars and shooting him from her bow into the night sky; or again, “leap[ing], shirt on fire, / from star to star,” as she is said to ride out every night to give each star its light; or maybe to the “leap” of the chemist’s tree as its branches grow; or to Paz as he mentions this poem, and all poems, as a “focal point . . . a luminous heat”; or maybe to Pizarnik herself, who once said, “I have love for the wind even if, indeed, my imagination can give forms and fierce colors.” There are a hundred ways to read this poem, and this density makes it such an absolute pleasure to read.
Let me say, too, that the poems in Diana’s Tree are far from vague or untamed. If anything, they’re the exact opposite—purposefully designed by Pizarnik to hold all of these readings within them. And, even if you prefer to bring nothing to your reading of Diana’s Tree—no context, no Roman mythology, not even Paz’s introduction—the poems by themselves will still absolutely wreck you. Pizarnik and Siegert give us moments like, “This repentant song, standing guard behind my poems: / it belies me, it has silenced me,” making it clear that it doesn’t matter what research you’ve done or what you know of the etymology of Diana’s tree. This is how I did my first reading of the collection—blind to all its history—and I found myself underlining entire poems and reading them out loud, if only to keep them in the room a little longer.
Writings on Pizarnik often speak of her fascination with death, her identification as a “vulnerable child,” and describe the “fragile bodies” of her work. These ideas are no doubt present in Diana’s Tree, but they fail to recognize the sheer force with which her writing takes (and leaves) the page. I don’t recall ever taking so long to read a collection containing so few words, and I say that only as testament to Pizarnik’s work; to her economy; to my own fears of finishing too soon and not having given these poems the time they deserve. No matter how often I return to Siegert’s translation of Diana’s Tree, I know I’ll only ever uncover a small edge of it. I know also that it keeps me coming back, and I’m not sure what else I could ask for.
ALEJANDRA PIZARNIK (1936–1972), has published books of both prose and poetry, including The Blood Countess and The Last Innocence. She was a friend of Julio Cortázar and Octavio Paz and also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and Fulbright Scholarship. Pizarnik took her own life at the age of 36.
YVETTE SIEGERT has edited for the New Yorker and appears in or is forthcoming in 6x6, Stonecutter, and Chelsea. Her translations of Pizarnik’s Extracting the Stone of Madness and A Musical Hell are available through New Directions.
ALEX GUARCO lives south of Boston and can be found in DIALOGIST, SOFTBLOW, and The Siren.