By Mariela Griffor
Mayapple Press; $14.95, 62 pp.
You’ve probably never been chased by the secret police. Most likely you have never used a code name, had your fiancé murdered by the government, or been involuntarily exiled to a foreign country.
All of those things (and more) happened to the poet Mariela Griffor.
A current resident of Grosse Pointe Park, she is a survivor of the terrifying Pinochet regime (1973-1990) in Chile, a reign which was responsible for the abduction, torture, and murder of thousands of people in concentration camps and secret prisons.
We humans have a particular urge to seek meaning, to transform confusion into conclusion. Griffor’s newest book of poems, House, is one such quest. We can never escape our past, the poet writes.
Released October 2007, this is Griffor’s second full-length collection of poetry. Her first, Exiliana, was published in Toronto, Canada. This time, Griffor can boast a more local publisher: Mayapple Press, located in Bay City.
When I asked Griffor to explain the title of the book, she answered, “For most people a house symbolizes a very concrete and tangible thing. For me, House is my language, my traditions, the abstract fibers of existence. I live in a space where things that should be concrete are not anymore.”
Beyond an interesting title, the book is, simply, gorgeous. Its cover is the most alluring of all the poetry covers on my shelf—and I own A LOT of poetry.
In terms of subject matter, House is about pillow talk, stars in the sky, and childhood innocence. It is about torture chambers, bloodshed done in the name of God. It praises love for an aunt, a grandmother, a daughter, a friend. Its prayers need answers from a God sometimes not felt or found. Have we offended You?, the poet pleads.
The words of House spring from a mind whose mother tongue is not English—therefore we can forgive her sometimes far from bull’s-eye diction. For example, in “Twenty-Nine: Yellow Ribbons,” she writes, My skin is curdled with hope. This expression is odd. When speaking of hope, a writer should select a word more positively charged, such as “brimming” or “shining.” Yet these kinds of mistakes can be forgiven, as Griffor’s art does the important job of reminding one that murder is murder in any country; tears are tears no matter what the nationality.
In tone, House is not ethereal poetry: rather it is useful, made of stone and wood. It will not bring you out of the world, but rather set you flatly on the world, showing you atrocities as well as its beauties.
There is a singular sense of desperation in the work (Notice me! Notice me!) and a sense that only in the writing will any meaning be found—meaning which would heal the past wounds; it is only in language that Griffor’s serenity can be reclaimed. In “Fourteen: Beyond the Red Traffic Light,” she matter-of-factly states, The place where I was born is lost. Money does me no good.
One of the best poems is “Six: Song for Chile,” a version of which was published originally in Exiliana. Here in House, the poem has been revamped. Griffor’s editing is nicely done, and the improvement to the piece is undeniable. In it, Griffor addresses Chile directly, saying:
Everything I love nearby and in the distance,
everything has gone to a tiny place, remote,
where you, like a miracle,
appear five seconds each daybreak.
Griffor recently told me, “‘Song for Chile’ was one of the most painful poems I ever wrote. It came to me when I left Chile for a second time…I knew then I would never return to that place that I love so much.”
The strongest sections of House are the first two and the last two poems. Her prologue and conclusion effectively draw the reader in and close the reader to the work. My ultimate favorite of the entire book is the last, “Hair of Sand” (another revamped poem, first printed in Exiliana), which discusses the need to keep alive her mother tongue of Spanish. She explains that this language:
revives me and wraps me
in her cape of sun and shadows
of water and ice and so
I become myself
Griffor’s sentiment here calls to mind the brilliance of Alice Walker, who wrote in an essay “Coming In from the Cold” (Living by the Word, 1988): “If we kill off the sound of our ancestors, the major portion of us, all that is past, that is history, that is human being is lost, and we become historically and spiritually thin, a mere shadow of who we were, on the earth.”
House is Mariela Griffor’s stubborn mixture of dark reality and bright hope. It is a book of both the sour and the sweet. In “Three: Either-Or,” Griffor writes, there is more hope/in eel soup than in the promises governments want us to buy.
Beyond House, Mariela Griffor is a writer who has done wonders for our local literary arts. She is the Publisher of Marick Press and the founder of the Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University. She is the Honorary Consul of Chile in Michigan, and is a dedicated organizer of events and readings across Metro Detroit.
My hope is that she will one day try her hand at short stories or novels. Her voice and style convey narratives well, and the amazing tales from her life deserve to be heard by an even wider audience. In this frivolous time, U.S. citizens need to realize politics are more than flashy presidential debates…no, politics are as serious and crucial as love. Folks need to hear the warnings of the poets; of Mariela Griffor, a woman who sometimes seems almost radical in her simple truisms…like in “Fifteen: Futuristic,” she writes:
Principles are like coals turning into ashes
in an open fire.
To defend life stubbornly has lost its value.
To live without life is not absurd.
And, finally, let’s not forget House’s best line of all, from “Seventeen: Santiago Revisited:”
Suburban life is a bastard.
House is available for sale on amazon.com and mayapplepress.com. Check out the poet’s website at http://www.marielagriffor.com
Hear Griffor read from House, December 14th, 6:30pm, at The Poets Follies reading and discussion group.
Poets Follies is located at the Marick Press Offices at 15120 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Park. For more info. on this event, please contact Griffor directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 313-407-9236.
Welcome to our December lit section. (…after two months hiatus. Oooff!) Here, we bring you three excerpts from Riopelle, a creative non-fiction piece by Erin Marks. In the full essay, she illustrates the exploration and effects of having a perceived outsider-insider perspective of Detroit, sieved through the lens of contemporary urban abandonment. The two excerpts included in the lit section illustrate the diversity of voice and literary forms she embraces to execute her intention. What drew me to the piece initially was a sense of honesty – despite the fact I have yet to determine whether she perpetuates or eradicates certain stereotypes. Therein, I found my point of entry and my point of intrigue to the work.
Feel free to email me at email@example.com to continue the dialogue. Let me know if the piece resonates with your opinions/perspectives. Or if it doesn’t. Perhaps we can post some comments in subsequent editions of thedetroiter.com…
To be a part of thedetroiter.com’s lit section, see our Call for Submissions here. (All subs and questions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thank you & happy reading. David Bartone, Poetry & Fiction Editor
3 Excerpts from Riopelle, a creative non-fiction work by Erin Marks
Here on Riopelle Street it’s ok to be afraid. Fear does not always have to be typical or obvious, an enraged, knife bearing lunatic chasing you through moonlight streets. Fear can be born out of silence, desolation, solitude. It begins as an eerie sensation in a small, confined part of the brain when crossing the zone of comfort and stumbling into an environment unpredictable. Soon the fear spreads transmittently throughout every nerve receptor in your body creating a nervous panic gnawing at the edge of your conscious. You then start to ask yourself hypothetical questions like Should I really be afraid of this? or How could I defend myself? or Would anyone hear me cry for help? No, here on Riopelle Street no one would hear your ear-wrenching pleas for help. No one would happen by your struggle and sacrifice their own safety for yours. No one would likely even find your bleeding body oozing its memories, fears, biological ingredients onto the welcoming pavement. Because here on Riopelle Street, no one is ever in sight.
A Dad, a Brother, and a Bottle
Both of my parents grew up in Detroit— which is why I didn’t. Their parents lived there when it was flourishing, but mine got to witness the violent downfall that hit its peak in the 60’s. As a result, Steve and Janet Marks did not want to raise their future children in such a city, and decided to move to the nearby suburbs. While my brother and I didn’t grow up within the city limits, we were exposed to Detroit starting in childhood as we would take countless trips and visit family and friends who lived there. It was always exciting to go to the city and see the taxis and the traffic and the huge buildings. It was so different from the small town I lived in with subdivisions, perfect green lawns, and smooth sidewalks. As we would drive through Detroit when I was little, I knew it was very different from the small town where I was growing up, but at the same time it seemed familiar. The narrow streets, the close set homes, the graffiti covered over passes, the sounds from the freeway became routine. I would go there to visit the people I was close to, and it was in the city, as well as my own hometown, that I felt comfortable. I would return back to my own home after the visits not realizing that the city was a part of who my friends and relatives were, and from a distance, was becoming a part of me as well. I was being exposed to, and becoming a member of two very different co-existing worlds.
When I was about five years old, I remember going to the Detroit Historical Museum with my dad and brother, who was nine at the time. It was the only trip that the three of us had ever taken together by ourselves. My dad held my hand and pointed out the displays to me, explaining the historic events of the city so I could understand them. I remember getting a small souvenir that day– a corked bottle about three inches long, “Detroit Historical Museum” stenciled across it in thin white lettering, with an old fashioned black Ford glued inside. I still have the bottle today, sitting on my desk at home.
Interlude– Part Trois
Ahead of me, the man on the street corner stares forward away from Riopelle, gaze transfixed on nothing in particular- steam streaming up from the sewers, decayed buildings lining the block,
bare tree branches shaking
in the wind, the dirty garbage bag clutched in his hand sways slightly under the weight of whatever is contained
inside, I tell my myself not to stare at him (he could be dangerous) and to look away (don’t get involved) but I fail
miserably, draped in oversized denim and flannel he is worn, torn, sunken within his own shape and
alone, walking towards him I cannot help but look at him and wonder who he is, what’s his sad story,
if he is waiting for someone or something—a wife? a friend? a ride? but coming up
I tell myself to stop wondering about truth I cannot see and things I cannot change
now, I pass by him and our heads turn,
our eyes meet for a few seconds until he pulls his away from mine and
for a brief moment in time,
I suddenly realize there are some things I will never truly see,
some realities I will never truly understand— and neither will he (one sad story to the next, transcending time).
Erin Marks is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University with a B.A. in Literature. While she intends on pursuing graduate school for literature, Erin plans to continue to write non fiction and poetry about things that often go unsaid and unnoticed.