I have to confess at the outset that my knowledge of Latin American poetry extends not much further than a few Neruda quotes. I’m aware of the dangerous political environment in which many of the great names were writing, and of the long shadow that the 20th-century dictatorships cast over every writer within this tradition; but I’m still largely unfamiliar with the works themselves. As a newcomer, therefore, I’m grateful that The Psychiatrist is a collection which presupposes no prior knowledge of South American literature and only modest familiarity with the politics of the region. This is a highly accessible collection; its clarity is never impeded by unfamiliar references. It even provides a miniature glossary at the end, where a small number of phrases are briefly explained.
The collection spans poems written between 1986 and 2011, charting the poet’s path from Chilean revolutionary to exile in Sweden and, later, the US. The work is heavily autobiographical, or at least biographical – it isn’t clear how much poetic licence has been taken with the more startling stories, but what is clear is that this writer has lived through turbulent times. It’s hard for cosy British poets, with their cloistered poetry readings and expensive writing courses, to honestly understand the ‘other’-ness of a world where being a writer can make you a political threat, a military target. It is to Griffor’s credit that she gives us a glimpse into that world without sensationalising her past, and without any exaggerated claims as to her own role in the struggle.
Despite the autobiographical tone, this collection doesn’t follow a linear narrative arc. Glimpses of the poet’s past are given in snapshot form, without chronology, allowing the reader gradually to piece together a rustic childhood, a great love, a violent bereavement, then exile and motherhood and a coming to terms with the past. The dead lover looms like a ghost over these poems; but what is most intriguing is that we never really get to see more than a shadow of the man. We infer an outwardly conventional marriage (at least, in the sense that elderly relatives are happy to embroider blankets for the couple), an academic career, a circle of intellectual friends – and then the revolutionary stuff, the death. But these are no more than glimpses. Only the penultimate poem, Chiloe Island, offers any kind of linear narrative, eventually stringing these threads together in a coherent whole:
“...When he came back to the hotel, after his
lens in photography class saw everything,
we ran up the street...
...He made me promise if we ever had
a child, and if he was not there, I would leave the country.”
The poems themselves are un-fussy free verse, with plenty of white space to let the words sink in. The language is unpretentious and there is a striking lack of imagery. Those physical images which do carry emotional resonance (flowers, rainbows, blood, long corridors, guns and ammunition, the aforementioned blanket) do so by way of unsurprising metaphors, and I did wonder at first if this was a weakness of the collection. But actually Griffor is a very fine descriptive poet. Like the dead husband, she has a photographer’s eye for the telling snapshot image:
“In Detroit it is easy to see pheasants walking the alleys,
or children running like a flock hunting a dog,
murals of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Bob Marley
or BB King on dirty walls,
pink, velvet sofas covered by bags full of garbage...”
(from Selective Exposure)
“The night before your call, I dreamt of the ocean:
cold, dangerous, deep, dark, blue at dusk and dawn...”
(from Thirty: just in time)
“...They had gardens where the sun rose
face to face with the sand.
They had rainbows, like us,
thirsty and wild.
They had emptiness like us...”
(from In Manistee)
The poet is content to let the visual pictures tell their own story, without imbuing them with more than their fair share of significance.
The emotional heart of this collection lies in the poet’s personal struggles: with exile, bereavement, motherhood. “What do we do with the love if you die?” demands the first line of the second poem, Love for a subversive – a question that rings like gunshots through all the poems that follow. Accusations are levelled against the poet’s mother –
“Here I see her,
her face in a duel with the sun...
I see my pink communion dress in her hands.
I do not know her smell”
– and grandmother:
“She hid her smile to use against us.
So powerful, so invisible...
Even war is not so cruel”
(from Cyanide Smile)
– though when the narrator herself becomes a mother, a reconciliation of sorts is reached:
“...The last paragraph
of the letter said ‘I hope now when you are a mother yourself
you can understand your own mother a little bit better.’
I couldn’t answer her. Not because I didn’t have anything
to say but it was so hard to say it.”
(from A Mother Thing)
It is in these poems that I begin to suspect a hint of unreliability in Griffor’s narrator. In other poems in the collection, her childhood memories verge on the rose-tinted, and it’s not until she arrives as an adult in Santiago that the conflicts really begin:
“I assassinate the old days with nostalgia.
I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky...”
(from Prologue I)
The title poem of the collection brings these conflicts and contradictions graphically to the fore. Manuel Fernandez, the psychiatrist who guides the poet through her traumas, becomes a hate figure for the narrator precisely because of his reasonableness:
“You are suffering a post
partum depression, he told me, before I shot him,
like the many other voices in my head.”
At its best, The Psychiatrist is a vivid, engaging collection. It’s full of colour and fine description, peopled with outlandish characters – from the pipe-smoking mathematician Robin Gandy, who laughs “the way / a beggar laughs in children’s tales: / smoky and loud”, to the stern taskmaster Andres the Barbarian, “the man who hit me in the head / every time I forgot the letter ‘H’”, by way of a colourful string of revolutionaries with code-names like Wolf and Daphne. Griffor’s sadness for the country she abandoned and for the friends left scattered across the world is palpable:
“...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...
This time you give me your list, full of incomprehensible requests:
go to Mass on Sundays, talk to the girls.
I will bring my chair closer.”
(from The middle of this goodbye)
Where I had difficulties with the poems, these largely seemed to arise not from the storytelling but from the translation. My proof copy contained no translator’s details, so I’m unclear how many of the poems were originally written in English, or whether Griffor made her own translations of any that were not. In the earlier poems there are a number of weaknesses in the choice of words and in the phrasing and layout of stanzas, which I suspect would not have been there had the poems been presented in the poet’s first language. Line breaks happen haphazardly, often on unimportant words (“a”, “the” or “of”). Poems full of dramatic portent fizzle out and end with seemingly inconsequential domestic detail (Death in Argentina). Abstracts abound: “innocence”, “truth”, “disappointment” (Child’s Eyes); “certainty”, “regret”, “indifference” (Heartland). A few poems (Heartland; Boys) seem to be nothing more than lists of rhetorical questions.
These blemishes gradually disappear on progressing through the collection – presumably a reflection of Griffor’s increasing ease with the English language in the later poems. The political narrative, too, evolves, becoming a backdrop for the personal. Stories of tyranny really matter, and it’s important that they are shared; but for me, those stories became so much more moving when the poems progressed beyond reportage, and Griffor allowed me to glimpse how they shaped her narrator, with all her contradictions, years after the tragedy and the exile.
The strengths of this collection lie in the accessibility of its language, the breathtaking clarity of the descriptive writing, and the gradual empathy that Griffor elicits for a complex, not overly reliable, but always compelling narrator. The Psychiatrist is a thought-provoking introduction to an important genre within western poetry, and a salutary reminder to English poets that we should never take our freedom of expression for granted.