Mental Illness in Alejandra Pizarnik’s ‘La jaula’

by Catherine Wray (Y12 student at Canford School) 

Mental illness casts a shadow over the life and works of Alejandra Pizarnik. Born in Argentina, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, she was traumatised by an adolescence afflicted with acne, self-esteem issues, introversion, feelings of isolation and a stutter, whilst her sister glowed as a social success and the golden child of the family. 

After studying literature and painting at the University of Buenos Aires, Pizarnik became a poet. Her biographer César Aira called her ‘no sólo una gran poeta, sino… la más grande, y la última’. Nonetheless, she remained gripped by depression. At the age of 36, she took her own life, leaving behind her writing and her poems, some of which have only recently been translated into English. 

The mental and emotional anguish she experienced is reflected in her poem La jaula [The cage]: 

Afuera hay sol.
No es más que un sol
pero los hombres lo miran
y después cantan.
Yo no sé del sol.
Yo sé la melodía del ángel
y el sermón caliente
del último viento.
Sé gritar hasta el alba
cuando la muerte se posa desnuda
en mi sombra.
Yo lloro debajo de mi nombre.
Yo agito pañuelos en la noche
y barcos sedientos de realidad
bailan conmigo.
Yo oculto clavos
para escarnecer a mis sueños enfermos.
Afuera hay sol.
Yo me visto de cenizas.

The poem’s famed last couplet [outside there is sun. I am dressed in ashes] has become emblematic of her work. It refers to a great glory and jubilance which she is too weighed down by her depression to appreciate. Like a bird in a cage, she is barred from joy. It also alludes to isolation, a feeling of not belonging to the world if you cannot experience it the way others can. 

This impression is also present in the first stanza [it is no more than a sun, but the men look at it, and then they sing]. She is unable to appreciate the light – even a light as huge and power-ful as the sun. Her depression has numbed her senses and put distance between her and the men who find joy and comfort in the light. 

This removal from the light is explored further in the next stanza. Pizarnik declares that the sun is unfamiliar to her: ‘Yo no sé del sol. Yo sé la melodía del ángel y el sermón caliente del último viento’ [I know not of the sun. I know of the angel’s melody and the hot sermon of the last wind]. The pairing of ‘Yo no sé’ and ‘Yo sé’ shows the contrast she perceives between others’ experiences and her own. The staccato precision with which she writes emphasises her certainty and gives the poem a gospel-like resonance. 

Pizarnik’s desperation is further expressed when she declares, ‘Sé gritar hasta el alba’ [I know how to scream until dawn]. Once again, Pizarnik takes an aspect of nature which is regarded as positive – dawn is beautiful and vibrant and brings with it a new day with new possibilities – and demonstrates how even nature can be distorted by mental illness. The image of a person screaming until dawn brings to mind the exhaustion they must feel when dawn finally arrives, thereby alluding to the physical and emotional ordeal of those who struggle with depression. 

To further emphasise this point, Pizarnik writes ‘cuando la muerte se posa desnuda en mi sombra’ [when death lies naked in my shadow]. In this way death is exposed and vulnerable, laid bare before her, where she can examine and inspect it as much as she wants. This implies she can see it, feel it, almost reach out and touch it. In this mental state, death is not an abstraction but rather a tangible object. It is close to her. It is tempting. It is embedded in her shadow. 

The final two stanzas can be seen as a surrender to the power of la jaula, which can be seen as a cage within her mind and therefore harder to escape. Pizarnik mentions crying ‘debajo de mi nombre’ [under my name] as if her identity has been weakened and perhaps removed. The image of waving handkerchiefs is a classic symbol of surrender, bringing to mind the waving of a white flag to end a fight. Handkerchiefs are associated with tears and sorrow. The men-tion of ‘barcos’ [ships] could also bring to mind a battle, whilst the phrase ‘sedientos de realidad’ [thirsty for reality] alludes to a need for normality and an escape from the mental illness which has seeped into her mind and taken command. The idea that these ‘barcos’ are her only source of company demonstrates the full extent of her solitude. 

The final stanza reads like an acceptance of her pain and demise. Once again, the staccato effect is present, as if the poet is playing sharp notes on an instrument. The end of the poem echoes the beginning by contrasting what is in the world with the state of her world, but it goes further than that. ‘Yo me visto de cenizas’ implies that she has prepared herself for death and that she feels it is already so integral to her that she has nothing more to lose. Her life is gone, all the beauty in the world is unknown to her, and all there is for her to do – all she can do – is end her pain. 

La jaula was published in 1958. Fourteen years later, she fulfilled the haunting prophecy, overdosing on Secobarbital while on weekend leave from the hospital where she was institutionalised. There can be no doubt that mental illness had a stranglehold on her life and work. In her work, her pain was immortalised, but in her life it shattered her will to live.