For the same reason I love poets’ collected editions, I love The Most Foreign Country—because it’s a pleasure to see the beginning of a trajectory. In this book, we see a young poet gesturing at something big. She doesn’t always get it right, but it’s a gift to see her in progress. And more than that, it’s a stand-up collection on its own—that is, it’s loyal to the concerns of its poet. The 40-page collection treats topics germane to Pizarnik’s later works—like estrangement, silence, darkness, love, death, and language itself—using many of the same figures and images found in her later work: flowers, the woods, dolls, colors, shadows, the body.
Even if I didn’t know I was reading Pizarnik’s first collection, written when she was just 19 years old, I think I would have recognized I was reading an early book. That’s not to say that every young poet is the same, but I do think certain moves are recognizably “early poet”. For one, there’s the inclusion within this slim volume of many forms (list, lineated poem with and without punctuation, prose poem), as though Pizarnik is testing them all out. Then there are the words that feel like the pet favorite words of a young lover of literature: “phantasmagorical”, “shards”, “eviscerating”, “skin”. She sometimes loses tension at the ends of poems, falling into summary or sentimentality; some of her final lines feel “twee” or soar into an overly transcendent tone: “shine, oh essence of my star!”
The book is published in English only, rather than as a bilingual edition. As a translator myself, I go back and forth about bilingual editions. Not having the Spanish at my disposal means I can’t critique Siegert’s individual, line-by-lines choices, but it also means I can’t appreciate them. But even without the Spanish, I get the sense that some of Siegert’s brilliance in translating this book had to be resisting the impulse to correct, via the translation, certain aspects of the young poet’s work. In this way she has preserved its aforementioned feeling of early work. Siegert doesn’t cut the exuberant exclamation marks and “oh!”s, she doesn’t tighten language that feels cluttered with function words (that, which), she doesn’t concretize nebulous words like “vague” or “abstract”, which make the MFA student in me cry “Show, don’t tell!”
My favorite poem is “My Forest.” It’s more imagistic than many of the others, and displays that jewel-like handling of language that I so love in Pizarnik’s later work.
She writes, “and after that ten horses will come / to throw their tails to the black wind / the leaves will rustle / their damp manes / and the regiment will come / rounding up the verses” (15). The sound here is so precise (horses/verses), the colors so striking, the parallelism so tight—and there’s a deep but lightly handled suggestion of the violence done to language, all in just a few lines.
The final section of the book is called “A Sign Upon Your Shadow”, and it is composed of six poems, all more overtly about love. I like the idea in Cole Heinowitz’s introduction (which, sadly, does not comment at all on Siegert’s translation) that “The closest the young Pizarnik comes to creating a separate figure to stand for the poet’s own absence is ‘love’” (XII). This final section launches her from her juvenilia, if we may call it that, into the more mature writing she’s known for.
Ugly Duckling Presse makes beautiful books, and this 14th installment of the “Lost Literature Series” makes me very glad that The Most Foreign Country need no longer be lost to English-language readers.
Kelsi Vanada. November 2017.