Reviewed by Russell Thorburn
In The Psychiatrist, a collection of poems both old and new by Mariela Griffor, we learn of her love for those she left behind in Chile during the Pinochet regime. The first poem from a previous collection entitled Exiliana, “Love for a subversive,” meditates on that very subject in lyrical lines obeying some instructions from a higher power. That higher power comes from Neruda, first of all, in her spontaneous-styled lines examining love:
What do we do with the love if you die?
Do we put it in your coffin
together with the green, red and gray plaid shirt
you like so much?
With your khaki pants
and light brown shoes,
the ones you use in your normal life?
But this directive is also the result of a deeply felt love for those who didn’t survive, a love she, the poet and witness to turbulent times long ago, spends “night sleepless/thinking about what to do/with the love if you die.”
An exile living in the metro Detroit area, she witnesses the decay of a civilization, a people “with their privileges revoked” and “whites preposterous about their color/walking by,” in the poem “Selective Exposure.” Her imagery can leave you breathless at times. In the same poem she writes:
Sometimes old garages are semi-fallen
as if the breath
of a snowstorm will take them away.
Snow is as dangerous as bullets at times.
But it is her capability to sing in full voice of what she believes in, of that particular poetry borne from a love for Neruda. If you look carefully at a Neruda poem like “This is where we live,” it is easy to see, and why not for both Griffor and Neruda are Chilean poets, Neruda’s concerns as an exile are shared by Griffor:
All that deserted space was singing
and I, lost and awed,
looking toward the silence,
opened my mouth and said:
‘Mother of the foam,
here I will begin my own rejoicing,
my particular poetry.’
In House, a selection of previously published poems, she focuses on dreams and the danger of those dreams. Thirty: just in time is a good example of that. She dreams of the ocean: “Cold, dangerous, deep, dark, blue at dusk and dawn.” And she takes a deep breath worthy of the stout-chested diplomat-poet Neruda when she says: “Taking a big breath, I left my body in this building/in the North for the Southern Hemipshere.” In “Poem without a number: house,” this danger returns to her in “a homemade bomb” made by her hands, or “semi-automatic” seen as redemption in her head. She has done things in the name of freedom in Chile that still drip blood line by line from poems.
In her new poems, this violence is returned to, as if she were at times channeling the edgy hardboiled lyricism of Roberto Bolano, exile—and misft in the truest sense of not fitting in the places he wandered through.
Take her poem, “Death in Argentina.” Her Raymond Chandler voice of a dick on a case—that irony of hyper-coolness Bolano has adapted many times in both his poetry and fiction—pours out easily in the following lines:
The Lucky Strike we shared finally killed him.
It is ironic that after all the gigantic genius
didn’t kill him with a tank or modern M-16,
but the toxins of an addiction.
She admits she shared the same smokes as Mauricio who was found at the morgue “with the inscription of NN/hanging from his left toe.” In a Bolano-like aside, she claims they went to the movies once, and, of course, they saw a New Wave super-hip film by Francois Truffaut, Jules et Jim.
The tough girl voice can be heard in other poems, too. Like the title poem, here in its entirety:
If I remember correctly, I could not cry
until the baby was born. They wanted to shoot him.
I understood why Manuel Fernandez wanted
me to stay at the hospital after the birth.
I never told him anything about the group.
I could not trust him. I had to be strong
for my child. I needed to go to the pump room
and leave my milk. You are suffering a post-
partum depression, he told me, before I shot him,
like the many other voices in my head.
It reads like a complete detective novel—and whatever happens in a pump room, with its Kafkaesque sounding name, must be terrible as bullets in some way.
Mariela Griffor is a poet of good-byes—and often leaves us only the mirrored image or the shadow of something too incomprehensible to be uttered. In “the middle of this goodbye,” she relives one of these moments that still haunt her, where minor details become cathedral sized, recalling coffee at a bakery with a lover or friend (we never know exactly which):
There you and I will order
Two Napoleons and two coffees.
We will sit at the table, you will look around
To check if everything is the same.
I will sit a bit away from you and look into a mirror
Where I can find my reflection and fix my hair.
We are given the scene of a film right before something final or terrible like a good-bye is about to happen. The camera dollies in for a close-up and we see her edging her chair closer, but then the poem ends, as if fading to black.
Griffor, in a phone call, offers us telling evidence of a life lived in Sweden. “Cattys,” a poem of lists and past emotional connections, reveals layers of her past alongside her friend’s. It flashes before our eyes with glimpses of an Ingmar Bergman film. Their husbands with their addictions, one of them somewhere mysteriously writing algorithms on a blackboard. But it is the food that is most compelling—a longing for Kalles Kaviar and cucumber slices, as if love and death—and bombs—have an equal footing in her memory.
The Psychiatrist is published by Eyewear in London, England—a suitable irony for a Chilean poet—who struggles for clarity in dreams, returns to coffee scenes of good-bye as if written for a foreign film, or phone calls that bring back cucumber slices on a sandwich which evokes a past full of bombs and bullets and redemption. It is a book to be read while sitting in a coffee shop with strangers, not knowing, in this dangerous age, who is to be trusted or who bears weapons ready for slaughtering others. A book to be placed on the shelf when returning home between Neruda’s Extravagaria and Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. And one remembered for its sense of love in a desperate age. That voice singing for the lover left behind.
Russell Thorburn, poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and author of Misfit Hearts