Exiliana by Mariela Griffor
Luna Publications, 2006
Reviewed by Anca Vlasopolos
Exiliana—-the resonant, mellifluous title announces the heart of this first poetry book by Mariela Griffor. Its very foreignness extends, like the tall grasses of the evocative cover painting, into seemingly endless space. The poems in this book cluster around Griffor’s enduring theme: the personal is political, and, in this book, the political, too, is so personal as to invade the core of mind and body. One could call this collection a series of elegies, for the violently murdered lover, father of the child whose birth he does not live to see, for the body of the beloved country, especially its capital, Santiago, for the friends of childhood and youth whom the poet does not get to see grow older.
Griffor speaks with the voice of the world’s many exiles; her lament is the exile’s universal lament. In describing the mother tongue, she writes, “It comes sweet and strong/ with syllables I recognize,/ its delicious sounds,” and she acknowledges her somewhat unwilling thrall to those sounds. As other exiles, in the moods of weather of foreign places the poet is constantly reminded of home, existing in a halved awareness of the here being but a distorted replica of the there, the lost home: “The sound of the rain in Michigan/ reminds me of the rugged winters in my old country:/ the cold feet in old shoes,/ the fast sound of the water hitting the ground/ the smell of eucalyptus in the air.”
Ultimately, however, Griffor with this book of poetry returns us to the beginnings of the lyric: these are love poems, mostly for a lost young love that survives the death of the lover to go on haunting the living with excruciating longing, as in “Heartland”:
I wish I could put my heart
under the faucet in the sink
and with the running water
wash away the thumping
thoughts you evoke.
After years of draining
the arteries of my
heart, they come full
again every morning as our first encounter,
insisting on the memory of you.
Despite the cri de coeur in this poem as in the overtly political ones, where the poet becomes the accuser—“What kind of country is this/that falls in love with death/ every time freedom disappears/ from its core?/ What kind of country is this/ that kills its own sons and daughters?”, the song of love is heard from within the bitterness and loss. In a tradition that is, alas, not common to many women poets writing in English, Griffor explores the erotic in the context of fierce love: “I remember your lukewarm hands/ between the pleats of my beige skirt . . . . despite the passing of years,/ I still feel your hand/ between the pleats of my skirt.”
Yet, unlike many exiles who long only for the lost homeland, Griffor turns her creative energies to describing the places she has inhabited since, “Along the Cold Streets of Scandinavia,” as well as along the mean streets of Detroit, and her take on these new landscapes is generous and large. She enjoins Detroit to “Leave your vinegar grief behind.” In Uppsala, she sings of the spring of a second love: “In a mantle of spring/ you approach slowly”; “Love that has been asleep . . . / turns from the colors of grey . . . to the red of living sap.”
But turning a generous eye toward one’s refuge does not mean abandoning the burden of remembrance, of witnessing the horrors of deaths, disappearances, and tortures in the homeland or the various wounds and amputations of exile, and Griffor best summarizes the desolation in a short poem, “How Chaos Begins,” perhaps the most powerful of the collection: “A butterfly flying in the streets/ of Santiago on a September day.”
Mariela Griffor was born in the city of Concepcion in southern Chile. She attended the University of Santiago and the Catholic University of Rio de Janiero. Griffor left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden until 1985. She and her American husband returned to the United States in 1998 with their two daughters. They live in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan. She is co-founder of The Institute for Creative Writers at Wayne State University and Publisher of Marick Press. Her work has appeared in periodicals across Latin America and the United States. Griffor holds a BA in Journalism and an MA in Communications from Wayne State University. Exiliana is her first book. For more information visit
Anca Vlasopolos’ publications include Penguins in a Warming World (poetry; Ragged Sky Press, 2007) and No Return Address: A Memoir of Displacement (Columbia University Press, 2000), which was awarded the YMCA Writer’s Voice Grant for Creative Non-Fiction in 2001, the Wayne State University Board of Governors Award and the Arts Achievement Award in 2002. Forthcoming publications include the historical novel The New Bedford Samurai (Twilight Times Books, 2007); the poetry chapbooks, Through the Straits, at Large and The Evidence of Spring; and a detective novel, Missing Members. Vlasopolos, a 2006 Pushcart Prize nominee, has also published poems and short stories work in literary magazines such as The Rambler, Porcupine, Typo, Perigee, Poetry International, Barrow Street, Adagio, Avatar, Terrain, Nidus,, Short Story, Natural Bridge, Center, Evansville Review, Santa Barbara Review, River Styx, Spoon River Poetry Quarterly, Weber Review, among others.