Glimpse Inside a Poet’s House

by Tamara Madison


House is not home.  House is the construction, the walls, the roof, the foundation or lack thereof.  House is not the comfort of home with its imprinted cushions, kitchen table stories over coffee, pillows fluffed with dreams and lover talk, photos bleeding into the walls as embroidery of the life once lived still lingering.  Home is life even if only the dysfunction of it.  House is pre-home or the ghost of home past.  In Mariela Griffor’s House (Mayapple Press 2007), we are haunted by this ghost:


In this house,

covered to the ceiling with my insomnia,…

I remember:

a barricade.  A homemade bomb

made by my hands,

the image of my lover and

in my head a semi-automatic

as redemption.                                  (pg. 26)


Like the lone withering branch that graces the cover of this book with its browning leaves about to fall, House is the enigmatic voice of exile violently driven from home and constantly in search of it.  From the very opening poems, the destruction, hopelessness and despair are bravely evident:


They broke the fingers

of those who didn’t want to shoot people.

Those who could sing and play the guitar had their hands cut off.


They cut open the stomachs of politicians

so they would sink fast into our cold ocean.                               (pg. 6)


Throughout the book, Griffor references the terror of civil war in her native Chile that she left in 1985 stumbling into exile by way of Sweden.  Hers, however, is not simply a socio-political commentary or virulent outraging protest, Griffor bravely undresses before us and reveals the festering wounds that seep into dreams, “a head without its right eye in a pile of human heads” (pg. 7) and invades the most intimate simplicities of human life, “We cried for them on our own side of the bed.” (pg. 32)  Unlike the masculine voice of exile most often encountered, Griffor’s voice is unmistakably feminine, as brazen and undaunted as it is mournful and tender. “It makes me want/ to disembowel the universe,/to see if something changes…”  (pg. 21) Ironically the very feminine that mirrors her Mother Earth is driven to “disembowel” and become the terrorist as the poet herself has been terrorized.  The she-warrior appears again even more unabashed as the suicidal lover forlorn and the fierce resistance soldier all at the same time in “Santiago Revisited”:  “…my conviction grows like a Victor Jara song./ We will see who will win, I will attack you every time/ one of your soldiers takes a piss.” (pg. 25) 


Here is not the mythical damsel of distress waiting to be saved, but the war goddess with bread and milk in one hand, bomb and blade in the other.  And yet, there is humor and hope as Griffor describes her distaste for Swedish meatballs, an unwanted memory of her stay in a refugee camp, or the tale of her insatiable desire to count stars as a child and grown woman though “If you continue to bother those stars,/ warts are going to cover your hands!”(pg. 16)  Herein lies the beauty, she counts anyway and simply cannot help herself.  Likewise even though “The gods can’t/speak in tongues…They don’t speak/ the language/ of humans,  she prays in some of the poems anyway whether soliciting god for an appointment or venting her frustrations and despair. 


The speaker never returns to Chile, her homeland, like the poet herself.  To survive she holds on to snatches of memories that fade like the ink of old letters.  Her “mother tongue,” where she is most at home, remains but even this “home” slips through her fingers.  The speaker’s “mother tongue” is personified in the closing section of the book Guesthouse in a powerful poem, “Hair of Sand:”


Out of the lost memories

she is getting closer

little by little

half awake

and full of dust


my mother tongue.   (pg. 45).


But even this goddess with her motherly caress slips through the poet’s fingers in an elusive embrace:


her words

her syntax of contradictions

her sovereign stylistics

of colonial clothes

and violent changes

inquisitions of the soul.      (pg. 46)


Most strikingly is Griffor’s use of form with the book itself as poem (not just its individual pieces).  Consistently at the bottom of each page, the voice in Guesthouse is spliced into stanzas in Spanish.  Yes, Spanish while the rest of the book is written in English!  The notes revealing this technique are at the very back of the book rather than the front forcing the reader to confront them without comfort and explanation (whether Spanish speaking or not).  The Spanish stanzas are taken sequentially from the poem and placed without rhyme, reason or explanation forcing the reader into a type of exile.  Like the poet and the speaker, the reader is left hanging uncomfortably with never a place to completely rest or feel at home in the book. 


            But how can we sing without voices?

            How can we sing with a

            knot in our throats?             (pg. 39)


In House, Griffor finds a way to sing through the terror and madness that is exile, that is current, that is present, that is as embedded in the shores of this America as it is in faraway places.  It is a song that informs us and blessedly never lets us forget.