Review of House By Mariela Griffor

Brian Volck

Mayapple Press, 2007



                        The gods can’t

speak in tongues.


The gods do and undo.

They don’t think.


They don’t speak

the language

of humans.



So begins Mariela Griffor’s poem sequence from a life interrupted and scarred by September 11, 1973, the day those twin gods of Enlightenment rationality, Capitalism and Marxism, once more bloodied their rival altars of liberty.  With US support for Army Commander Augusto Pinochet, the odds were heavily against Chile’s duly-elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende, and thus the country was “saved,” in Henry Kissinger’s words, from “the irresponsibility of its own people.”  The coup and its seventeen-year aftermath of terror are well-documented elsewhere. What Griffor offers, in a series of connected lyrics, are the echoes of that event, played out in her experience.        


Clearly influenced by her fellow Chileans, Neruda and Mistral, and perhaps by Spanish poet, Garcia Lorca, Griffor ably combines strains of the confessional, political, and love lyric into a single voice.  Self-exiled to Sweden in 1985, and now making her home in Michigan, she writes of Chile as a first, great love against which all other affections are measured.  While wondering if “…the best/ that can happen to a refugee/is to remember only the/good:/ to wear like a tiny brooch on the chest/ all the good that Chile is as a nation,”  she refuses to forget places of torture like Villa Grimaldi and Quiriquina, those who died during the repression, or a fellow expatriate formerly in the active resistance to Pinochet’s regime. Other affections are recalled, as well: young lovers, a husband, language; but it’s difficult to hear, as the ultimate object of her desire, anything but Chile in such lines as: “Come and feel how after this long silence/my heart seeks to tell you that I am only yours.”  

At the end of each poem in the sequence is an excerpt of a longer, Spanish-language lyric, attached to the fabric of the English poems like cuffs on sleeves. For readers of Spanish, these appendices often have an immediate, haunting resonance with the English above them.  For the rest of us, there is a complete, English-language translation (“Hair of Sand”) at the end of the book.  The weaving of these fragments into the English provides a linguistic reminder of the disruptions Griffor endured through exile and resettlement, and the cultural negotiations necessarily accompanying such moves. 

If there is anything to fault in this collection, it’s the seductive trap of referential opacity so common in contemporary American lyric.  On occasion this vagueness opens, with time, into mystery – as all fine poetry should – but there are moments which induce, for me at least, questions interrupting the reading, not deepening it.  If I’m to be fully engaged, I need to know more of the lost voices – miscarriages?  abortions?  pregnancies desired and denied? –lamented in “Hyperemesis,” or anything at all about the person in “Years of Marriage.”  And why the seemingly random details in “For the Van Pelts?”  Blame my own dullness or love of the concrete, but Griffor’s talents can, I’m convinced, balance mystery and compression with specificity and coherence. 

Still, these are minor blemishes in an otherwise compelling collection. Griffor negotiates the treacherous crossroads of politics, culture, language and memory with grace and skill.  “The words,” she says in her translation of her Spanish language lyric, “charged with meaning/ return me to life itself.”   That’s what I look for in poetry: a way back to life, a summons to the things of this world.  House not only delivers, but promises far more to come.  I’ll be watching.