Reviewed by Ilya Kaminsky

by Mariela Griffor

Luna Publications, 43 Gifford St.,
Toronto, ON M5A 3H9
ISBN: 0-9781471-0-3
2006, paper, 75 pages, $14.95 U.S.

A Note On Mariela Griffor’s Work:

“Out here, the snow is an insider, I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky,” so begins this collection of furious and tender poems by a voice memorable for its utterly exilic music. “What do we do with the love / if you die? / Do we put it in your coffin / together with your khaki pants / and light brown shoes, / the ones you use in your normal life?” This is a universal question, the one posed and made recognizable regardless of the political situations from which it may have been voiced in this poem. The author’s voice is ours: “I spend nights sleepless / thinking about what to do / with the love if you die.” And, yet, the politics are inescapable, their deeply felt human urgency pierces the reader (at least this reader) with the sense of recognition, compassion, understanding: “Santiago is a scarlet puddle / of idiots, / poets, / assassins and / innocents. / You said it yourself / before it happened.” Thus, the love poem and political poem are brought together in these lines and their unity is clear, and also somehow instructive to many American poets of our time. How so? In the USA of this day and age, when our government is fighting (in our name) a violent war with more than one country at a time, it is instructive for our poets, I think, to learn not to be afraid of their feelings, to understand that the phrase political poetry is not a bad literary term in a snobbish book review, but something that happens on the page when the author is attempting an act of intimate, personal witness. When a woman writing to her dead lover “remembers the pieces of flesh missing / around your nostrils” and states directly, without patronizing:

I will keep secret all your names,
the places where
we will be doing barricades and
attacks on police stations
until they kill us all

or they surrender.

When I read these lines, and find these variations in tone between the intimate lyric voice and the direct political statement, I am tempted to think it is Anna Akhmatova’s form and tone that Mariela Griffor aspires most to resemble. Akhmatova, one of the 20th century’s most important authors, certainly was able to bring the intimate and public utterings together in the work of poetry that is dazzling and instantly memorable. And, Mariela Griffor?

Born in Chile, an involuntary exile, first in Sweden and then in the United States, the author of this collection does have a life story that is also both tragic and amazing by turns. Yet it is not just her lyrical voice and not her biography that attracts me to Griffor’s work, it is “her ability to write about love in the time of war, attempting to make of memory’s violent imprint into language an art.”

Reading this book, I am most interested in Griffor’s constant pursuit of both tenderness and truth, her understanding that “one must live, love and fight with the same fervor of those / who know that life at any moment can be extinct, while admitting, we can still look each other / in the eye and smile.” There is, in this book, also an interesting attempt to understand the author’s new country, the United States with its “Detroit with its churches and voodoo, / fearful of God and the blues,/” a country that is perhaps fearful of itself, without admitting so. And here the poet asks: “Detroit, so full of churches, / so where is God?” It is a question for us, all, to answer.

What can this poet, coming from the graves of Latin America, with the shadow of Pablo Neruda standing behind her, teach us about our own existence? I myself have learned a great deal. Read her poems such as “Twinkies” or “How Chaos Begins” and you will understand what I mean. For even though she knows that “...Chaos begins / A butterfly flying in the streets / of Santiago in a September day,” this poet still insists, “maybe despite everything I / can promise you a morning walk in the park.” It is her promise of this walk that allows for grace and praise of our world. And, for that, I am grateful.

Ilya Kaminsky was born in Odessa, part of the former Soviet Union, in 1977, and arrived to the United States in 1993, when his family was granted asylum by the American government. Ilya is the author of Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004) which won the Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Metcalf Award, the Dorset Prize and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship. He teaches Creative Writing in the Graduate Writing Program at San Diego State University, California.