Reviewed by Jim Welke
The poetry in The Psychiatrist,
written by Mariela Griffor and published by Eyewear Publishing, vibrates with enough
resonant force to shatter the complacent sang-froid of any reader with at
least an iota of empathy in their veins. The fifty poems recorded in this
narrow volume do share revelations of interior, psychological torment to fit
the title, The Psychiatrist, but they also reflect on the human
condition at large, particularly the deleterious effects of political injustice
on the human psyche. The numbing pressure of threatened violence plus the
trauma of realized violence bears down on this verse, compacting and distilling
it into the sort of clarity that a confrontation with imminent destruction
induces: dilation of time, heightened sensory awareness, eerie calm. Often the
violence, the trauma, occurs in recollection as though the writer invokes post-traumatic stress disorder. A riff on
insomnia called “Poem without a number: house,” reads in part:
a barricade. A homemade bomb
made by my hands, the image of my lover and
in my head a semi-automatic
I beg forgiveness of all of you.
The rain is too thin to stop the fire.
My legs and arms are heavy.
Behind me Santiago blazes
and bullets whiz at the sight of who we were,
ancestral pain I cannot shake off.
His body disappears from the earth into the air.
A heart spattered in the streets follows me in my defeat.
Some of the work reflects on healing, but the injury hovers just out of
sight, in shadow. In “Valentine’s Day in Detroit” Ms. Griffor eludes those
demons for a spell when she sheds her “coat of memories:”
A house untied to the ground,
a laundry room of nostalgia,
a window clouded by
a coat of memories we remove
a simple grin and a Sanders chocolate box,
then, we grow to the light like sweet peas.
Mariela Griffor, born in Concepcion in 1961, grew up in Chile during the
sixties and seventies. She was twelve when General Augusto Pinochet — backed in Parliament by the
Christian Democrats and the National Party, and encouraged if not overtly
supported by the US government — led a coup d’etat against President Salvador Allende, who died that day at the
presidential palace, La Moneda, either by murder or suicide depending on whose
account you trust. (Does it matter? Allende resisted the assault for six hours
with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.) For a succinct and remarkably
lucid account of the events leading up to the coup, give a read to a piece
Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote back in 1974, “Why Allende had to die.” Pinochet’s junta
wrested power from Allende on September 11, 1973 (Pinochet formally
ascended to the presidency in 1974) and ruled
until 1990. During his tenure, Pinochet and his minions ruthlessly suppressed
opposition; mutilated bodies of his “enemies” appeared in the streets daily. Yet
the opposition persevered, coalesced, resisted suppression. In “Sunday walk,
urban talk” Ms. Griffor writes:
In those days we didn’t need much.
A heavy ammunition was resting in our hearts.
None of wanted to be compared with Guevara.
Too tiring. Too much. Almost a sacrilege.
Not for what people think.
None of us wanted to leave the country
or experience any adventures.
The level of influence exerted by the US government to expel Allende from
power might be debatable (although cash infusions by the CIA to support a
trucker and shopkeeper’s strike prior to the coup that accelerated decline of
the economy and undermined Allende’s support seem fairly well documented),
but the CIA admits support for the Pinochet regime after
the coup. Banks and other corporations in the US also
propped up Pinochet.
A cynical proponent of realpolitik might argue that Pinochet would
have consolidated power with or without US assistance, and thus it was in the
US “interest” to buy influence. But that obscures the more notable opportunity
missed by the US to stand up for the rule of law and the unassailable
imperative of democracy. The US did nothing to roll back the coup and restore a
democratically elected president to Chile’s executive branch. That constitutes
a sin of omission that suggests de facto approval of Pinochet’s action, and by
induction implicates the US government in the oppression, torture, and murder
committed by Pinochet’s grim apparatus.
While Pinochet consolidated power and “disappeared” the opposition, Ms.
Griffor passed through her formative years. By 1980, she would have been
nineteen years old and witness to indescribable turmoil in her country. The
extent of her participation in the resistance may now be of importance only to
her, but clearly she sacrificed and suffered to end the torture, bloodshed, and
economic oppression that plagued Chile during her years there. In an excerpt
from “Love for a subversive,” she writes:
I remember only the
scars over your lips,
scars over your left eyebrow,
the pieces of flesh missing
around your nostrils.
The pain of your scars
wakes me up at night and I hurt
as I did giving birth to your child.
I don’t know with any certainty
what to do next.
The added pain of exile must only exacerbate the effects of that suffering
and sacrifice: in 1985, age 24, she left Chile for Sweden, and in 1998 moved to
Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan with her American husband. In “The Rain,” she
The sound of the rain in Michigan
reminds me of the rugged winters in my old country
the cold feet in old shoes,
the fast sound of the water hitting the ground,
the smell of eucalyptus in the air.
I close my eyes and make a wish:
wish I could see, for just a moment, your hair
dancing over your face
trying to escape the weather.
At home in Michigan, her thoughts drift back to recollections crystallized in
her consciousness by chaos induced adrenaline, ready to surface with heedless
insistence when triggered by signal events like the whispering patter of rain,
reminiscent of The Narrator in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps
perdu.” And the poems in this volume propel you through
time, backward and forward, with the lyrical grace of Ms. Griffor’s delicate
phrasing. Her suffering as well as her joy, hope, idealism, fear, doubt, and
thrill saturate these pages like a stain. If you read “The Psychiatrist,” you
will feel what she feels, and that’s the amazing feat of finely polished
poetry: the sensations conveyed are visceral and involuntary; sensations
transcend literal interpretation of the words on the page. But pay attention,
those sequences of words are artful and melodious; like songs, you can read
these poems over and over and they continue to satisfy. That they appear in a
language not her first passes understanding; they represent a Nabokov-ian achievement of language
While Ms. Griffor’s poetry stands on its own apart from the context of her
life and the political atmosphere in Chile that influenced it during her early
years, the context seems worth emphasizing for its relevance to the situation
the United States and other western industrialized countries find themselves in
now: growing wealth inequality, decline of the middle class, expansion of the
ranks of working poor one bad day away from the streets, the obliteration of
labor unions and social safety nets, the rise of religious fundamentalism and
right-wing intolerance of anyone near the margin of society, and the growing
influence of corporate money in political decision-making.
All of these afflictions were endemic in Chile in the 1970’s when Allende
finally achieved election to the Presidency after many previous tries. He
sought to undo the economic and political inequity in Chile, and thus
represented a grave threat to the status quo, both in Chile and abroad. The
entrenched, comfortable right felt as much fear of Allende as the
disenfranchised, restive left felt gratitude for him.
Perhaps it stretches credulity not much at all to imagine that social
upheaval on a similar scale might grip some rich industrialized nation in a
decade or two if the pendulum of political influence wielded by the oligarchic
right does not soon reach its apex.
Opposition does exist. Some might judge the Spanish
Indignados movement followed by the Occupy movement failures, but these might be the
first groans of a sleepy giant awakening. Certainly the Occupy movement gained
traction much faster and wider than anyone anticipated, even the inspired crew
in Zuccotti Park. While any sane citizen hopes for a gentle political solution
to untenable inequality, the danger posed by a fearful right should not be
dismissed. The right reacted instantly to the Occupy movement with fear and
loathing, i.e. “smelly hippies.” Fear often motivates irrational behavior more
forcefully than anger. If the reaction of the right in the US to the election
of the timid, compromise-seeking Barack Obama offers any insight, imagine the
corporate-financed reaction to the election in either Western Europe or the
United States of an all out Socialist modeled after Allende. Chile’s past might
be prologue for any number of nations that find themselves drifting toward the
unknowable tolerance threshold of the poor for obvious, pernicious inequity.
Greece recently spun unnervingly near to anarchy. It would be deliberately
obtuse to ignore instability of the system we’ve created, or allowed others to
create as a result of our indifference and passivity.
With Ms. Griffor’s personal reminder of the depths as well as the summits
human compassion and aspiration can reach, those of us pre-occupied with
“first-world” problems might pause for a moment and reflect on the fragility of
our existence: economically, politically, and environmentally. History marches
on indifferent to the quiet wishes of passive bystanders; history heeds only
the demands of the forceful. Surely there will be resolution to growing
inequity; the question will be how do we achieve it? Acute pain often yields
fine art. If we pause and read a bit of poetry, listen to the murmuring oracles
in our midst, we might manage to vote our way toward collective sanity, if we
scoff at wisdom we might again see rockets falling on the palace roof. Mariela
Griffor’s The Psychiatrist offers a good place to start.
From “Sunday walk, urban talk:”
Ignacio, what happened?
We were almost sure we would make it out alive.
What kind of country is this that falls in love
with death every time freedom disappears
from its core?
What kind of country is this
that kills its own sons and daughters
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Name: Mariela Griffor