Mariela Griffor’s The Psychiatrist, Reviewed by Giuseppe Bartoli

In her new book The Psychiatrist, Mariela Griffor disproves once again Winston Churchill’s assertion that “history is written by the victors.” This book forms part of a proud literary canon, which began in Spain through the promulgation of El Romancero de la Guerra Civil Española and immigrated alongside the surviving anti-fascist members of the Generación del 27 to the Americas. The arrival of poets like Luis Cernuda, Jorge Guillen, and Rafael Alberti helped reinforcement the South American poetic landscape, which was an exiting Modernista movement that promoted an anti-colonial discourse. It is from this tradition of trying to create [or as the poem ‘Prologue I’ makes clear: “invent”] a discourse, which encompasses both her own history as well as that of the Chile under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the confessional style of Griffor’s poetic voice reveals to the reader how the written word has become more than just a coping mechanism to “assassinate the old days with nostalgia.” Memorable lines like ‘As I invent you, I invent myself’, which is reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s ‘For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you’, heed the reader not to interpret this book as just an autobiographical exposé. Like Griffor’s poetic predecessors, who emigrated from Spain to the Americas in the 30s, in The Psychiatrist, the poetic voice is fully aware on how to treat the subjects of circumstance, subject, surrounding, and language [English being Mariela’s second tongue].

Divided in three sections: Exiliana, House, and New, this trinity or trilogy [of poetic events] cleverly plays with the notion time does not necessarily have to be linear. The reader is batted around between the past, present and future in such a way that it effectively conveys the feeling of panic and confusion, which the narrative in struggles in each poem with. One of the finest examples can be seen in the differences between the poems
‘Daphne and non-profits in the Western Hemisphere’ [located in the middle section of the book] and ‘Codes Names’ [the final poem]:

It was fun to be with them at some moments
The adrenaline addiction was the biggest problem after two or three years of belonging,
cheap whiskey and wine rolled its own nightmare.
(9-10; 16-18) The adrenaline addiction was the biggest problem after the two or three years[we] drank cheap whiskey to forget that some of us might die. (1-2; 11-12) Fully aware of these “remembrances of the old country,” these poems successfully uses the concept of invention [or of reinvention] through time to try to come to terms with how “the indifference of people” of Chile, and of the world, allowed the Pinochet regime to commit countless crimes against humanity less than thirty years after the Nazi trials at Nuremburg. What I truly admire about this collection is that it does not sacrifice the poetical by being political.
Lines like “What kind of country is this that falls in love / with death every time
Freedom disappears” (‘Sunday talk, urban walk’, 33-34),
“The sweet, bitter, sandy taste of an oyster with lemon / reminded me of a place I was willing to die for” (Thirty: just in time, 12-13) or “What happened to the men / I knew and never saw again?” (‘Boys’, 35-36) expose great imagery through clever word play, as every word seems to have a function and a place. The Psychiatrist acts as a continuation of the dialogue began by her predecessor, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in his Canto General. Both the state of Chile and that of humanity are examined under the lens of poetry:
The Lucky Strike we shared finally killed him.
It is ironic that after all the gigantic genius
didn’t kill him with a tank or modern M-16, but the toxins of addiction.
(4-8) Like Neruda’s sonnets, the words seem simple yet the reality they portray is either impossible to translate, or worse, attempt to express in our own words.

Whether or not the reader knew beforehand Mariela’s actual past, such as her supposed association with the far-left guerrilla underground movement Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front (FPMR): independent of this fact, the poems succeed in that they’re not dependent on history, but convey a history. What I also find fascinating about The Psychiatrist is how the subjects of family and family life are portrayed in times of turmoil; particularly, the poetic voice’s relationship with her mother, father, grandfather, deceased lover, husband, and son. One of the best examples is how the political beliefs between her father, who was a supporter of the National Party, and her grandfather, who “was a sympathizer of Allende,” are portrayed without the need of either taking sides or drawing conclusions about each individual’s character in relation to beliefs. Instead, the true genius behind these family poems [and any other type of poem in this book] is that the reader is put into a place where they are the ones who must take sides or draw conclusions, as if these strangers were members of their own family. As the plot progresses in The Psychiatrist, the reader will discover that the stakes are gently escalated; however, the book’s true wisdom relies in its anticlimactic ending seeing that neither the poetic voice nor the reader can ever find true resolve. We learn that like the incident of “post / partum depression”, the only comfort one is left with, is the possibility of one day finding the sufficient inner strength to continue. Hence, the book is like a circular poem since we are left not too far from where we started: confused, afraid, and somewhat dispirited.

I applaud Mariela Griffor’s effort to expose the blanket of extremism that has covered Latin American since its postcolonial days, as we [the people from this region of the world] have paradoxically self-imposed ourselves with greater oppression than our former Spanish rulers. My hope is that her book will inspire a dialogue of reconciliation between the Chilean people as well as other works concerning persecution and undemocratic rule within the region.

Giuseppe Bartoli was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. An avid world-traveler, he has lived in Peru, Chile, Italy, France, Scotland, Spain, Argentina, and England. His first collection of poems, Excerpts of Life, was published in 2003. That same year, Giuseppe relocated to Fife to study at the University of St Andrews. Inspired by the advice of Douglas Dunn and WeiEn Chen, he began working on Las Veinticinco ( Horas), which was published in Spanish by Editora Mesa Redonda in 2009. He is currently working on a Creative Writing PhD. at Kingston University, based on the life of and work of the Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini. Some of his most recent poems have appeared in Poetry Scotland and Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam. Ayacucho, his first novel, which deals with the Peruvian Internal Conflict, might be hitting the London bookshops in the next year.


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