Friday, August 01, 2014

Mariela Griffor: The Psychiatrist

Child’s Eyes

People say that children see and hear things
they themselves cannot see or hear,
and this child breaking into
the room to hug and kiss
his grandmother, Wilma,
hasn’t seen me yet.
I am afraid of his eyes,
touching like a hummingbird
the cornea of my eyes.
I don’t want him to see
the puddle of
old pain and rusty love
that grows inside of me,
the spider web of my disappointment,
a beaten heart that
has never overcome the loss of him.
I am afraid of this child
running around with his two frank
years, afraid of me breaking.
I’m sure he would scream
if I let my pupils touch his,
and the room would look
at me knowing the truth of
what he sees.
I am afraid and old,
smashing day after day
a memory of innocence.
I know too much.
My mind is fragile.

This is a favourite poem of mine from “The Psychiatrist”, Mariela Griffor’s latest collection, sent to me for review by Eyewear Publishing last year.  Searingly poignant, simply put, the poem expresses — in a way I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere — how one can feel confronted and even intimidated by the innocent life force of a young child.  With this poem, I have only one — albeit small — quibble: it’s with the antecedent of the pronoun “him” in the line “has never overcome the loss of him”.  We can assume it’s not the child itself, but a man, an adult love to which she is referring — Ignacio, perhaps, mentioned in an earlier poem, or the unnamed subversive in “Love for a Subversive”, the unnamed lover in “Rain”?  There is probably some way around this, but at the same time, that pronoun in this poem has its own brute force. 

Mariela Griffor was born and raised in Chile, and came into adolescence and early adulthood under the Pinochet regime.  As a young woman, she joined a revolutionary group, and doubtlessly ended up on a blacklist.  In 1985, she left Chile for Sweden under involuntary exile.  Much later, in 1998, she moved with her American husband and two daughters to the United States, where she is now Honorary Consul for Chile in Michigan.

Here are poems of subversion, exile, and solidarity that ache to be told: elegies for friends who were tortured or disappeared, evocations of nights of insomnia, furtive meetings under code names, a character sketch of a relative who was a possible undercover agent for DINA (National Department of Intelligence.)

All contemporary Chilean poets – indeed, Latin American poets – write under the shadow of Pablo Neruda.  Indeed, Ms. Griffor will soon be coming out with a new translation of his Canto General, published by Tupelo Press. Her own style, though, doesn’t bear a trace of his lush, surrealistic influence.  She reminds me of certain Eastern European poets — Czeslaw Milosz, Tadeusz Rozewicz, Wislawa Szymborska among others  — or of her own countryman, Nicanor Para: poets that speak unvarnished truths with simple irony and measured declaration. In some later poems in the collection, the Griffor’s free verse becomes rather too prosaic for my taste:

My grandfather did not talk about what Mr. Monzalves said,
but it was clear that he knew that my grandfather
was a sympathizer of Allende and that he had come to deliver a warning.
Just before I left Chile the last person I met from the Front
in Santiago was my commander
His real code name was Wolf.
I told him I was planning to leave the country because I could not avoid the surveilland anymore and my good friend,
the lawyer Inunza, had arranged for me to go to Sweden or France.
                                    (Exiles)

In a patch like this one, I wish that the author had fashioned an introduction or searched more deeply for lyricism in her subject matter.   In most places, though, her straightforward style has its own strength and sensibility.

The title of the collection raises expectations that it will concern mental illness, or perhaps relate a series of psychiatric consultations.   The brief title poem, however, is the only one where a psychiatrist is featured; there he figures as a voice of authority in the narrator’s head that the poet summarily shoots down to get on with her life. 


Mariela Griffor’s “The Psychiatrist” is well worth buying and reading.  I look forward to seeing more of her work.

Monday, March 31, 2014

RIP Bill Knott

SONNET
Bill Knott

The way the world is not
Astonished at you
It doesn't blink a leaf
When we step from the house
Leads me to think
That beauty is natural, unremarkable
And not to be spoken of
Except in the course of things
The course of singing and worksharing
The course of squeezes and neighbours
The course of you tying back your raving hair to go out
And the course of course of me
Astonished at you
The way the world is not


I enjoyed this poem a lot when I encountered it on today's AAP Poem-a-day. I love its ease and casual (seemingly casual) brilliance, hallmarks of Knott's verse. Then I discovered by scrolling down that its author had died only a couple of weeks ago. Quite a shock.

I first encountered Knott online about ten years ago, ordered his renowned early collection, "The Naomi Poems" at considerable cost through Abe Books, and then his self-published selected, "Goodbye to Prisoner", from the blog of the author himself. We had some correspondence, but he struck me as cagy and bitter, with a harsh penchant for self-deprecation that seemed both a kind of exaggerated put-on, but also genuine, borne of profound self-hatred.  Then I got very busy, and our dialogue fell off.  This article in the New Yorker confirms those impressions, and tells us more about his life and work. Like one of the writers quoted there, I learned to admire him from a distance.

Is the "not" at the end of the first and last lines a play on the author's name? It certainly becomes so, inevitably, in that final, fatal light. (A light all good poetry is written in, of course.)  Anyway, RIP at last, Bill.  Your work will endure.

Friday, March 28, 2014

This is a Generic Brand Video

Check out this generic brand video based on Kendra Eash's brilliant poem, This is a Generic Brand Video.  It spoofs every buzzword-laden corporate feel-good video ever made.  Be sure to click through to the poem, originally published on McSweeney's.  I daresay in its deadpan way it works just as well on its own.


Sunday, March 02, 2014

JOSHUA TROTTER: HEARING

HEARING


Mornings after we gave up words, we still loved
to lie and graze the day awake
watching our old chit-chat thatch the street like rain.

Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon
now the dead grow sound limbs to stand upon
nourished by discourse we once loved.

In their sodden crypts they sigh awake
solitary, listening to the rain
heartened by our lost and rousing homilies—the rain

engaging vacant brains it falls upon
until everyone we love or once loved
is dying tonight or lying still awake

listening, for our sake, as rain rains the dead awake.
There’s something diplomatic about rain
strewing cool phrase upon cool phrase upon . . .

But here I pray that none whom once I loved
has held words they loved from rain; I’m held awake
by heavy sentences the rain might lay upon them.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Back again...Hello!!

In October last year, I said goodbye to this blog, saying I would transfer its functions to my website. But, because of formatting defaults on that website that I didn't like and couldn't easily change, I've decided to reopen this blog.  On my website's blog I'll announce news -- upcoming shows and the like -- but here I'll quote poems, write opinion pieces, etc.  I've moved some postings here from that blog... anything dating from last Oct., in fact.

So here I am, again! Adieu becomes au devoir.  Tangled in the woodwork, coming out of it, as always!


Sunday, December 15, 2013

SUNDAY POEM


MY SKELETON
by Jane Hirshfield



My skeleton,

you who once ached

with your own growing larger



are now,

each year

imperceptibly smaller,

lighter,

absorbed by your own

concentration.



When I danced,

you danced.

When you broke,

I.



And so it was lying down,

walking,

climbing the tiring stairs.

Your jaws. My bread.



Someday you,

what is left of you,

will be flensed of this marriage.



Angular wristbone,

cracked harp of ribcage,

blunt of heel,

opened bowl of the skull,

twin platters of pelvis–

each of you will leave me behind,

at last serene.



What did I know of your days,

your nights,

I who held you all my life

inside my hands

and thought they were empty?



You who held me all my life

inside your hands

as a new mother holds

her own unblanketed child,

not thinking at all.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Fun evening...


Tonight I went to a book launch by Mansfield Press, at a beautiful venue, the Cardinal Teahouse, 5326 St-Laurent, upstairs from The Sparrow. Bought new offerings by Jason Camlot, Stephen Brockwell, and Glen Downie — much of it very clever work, and some it, to their credit, deeply felt.  Have been reading it all evening.

The Cardinal Teahouse... another great Montreal retreat for bookish, kindlish laptop nomads.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

W.B. Yeats: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death




I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

SUNDAY POEM

W.S. MERWIN
___________________________________________________

THANKS


Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois -- finalist for the Paraphe Hugh MacLennon Prize for Fiction


My wife Jocelyne Dubois’s novel, World of Glass, is one of the finalists for the Quebec Writers’ Federation Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.
She’ll be taking part in a reading of all the QWF awards finalists on November 6, 6 pm at Paragraphe Bookstore in Montreal.  The winners will be announced at the QWF Awards Gala on Nov. 19.  Details & ticket info are to be found at qwf.org.
Needless to say, we’ve been celebrating all day.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

EDGAR ALLEN POE: SONNET-- TO SCIENCE



Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!    
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. 
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,    
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities? 
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,    
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering 
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,    
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing? 
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,    
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood 
To seek a shelter in some happier star?    
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood, 
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me 
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree? 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review of Jocelyne Dubois' World of Glass in Montreal Gazette

My wife Jocelyne Dubois' debut novella, World of Glass, was reviewed last May in the Montreal Gazette, both in print and online.  A very touching, perceptive and eloquent review by Madeleine Thien. Thien is the award-winning author of Simple Recipes, Certainty, and Dogs at the Perimeter.
It is reproduced here.


A new world is easily shattered
By Madeleine Thien, Special to the Gazette May 10, 2013 6:06 PM



Jocelyne Dubois makes powerful observations about the mind’s interior in World of Glass, narrated by a Montrealer whose joy gives way to terror.

In Jocelyne Dubois’s debut novella, World of Glass, a young woman named Chloé arrives in Montreal. She is poor and “knows no one in this city,” but she is happy. These streets will be a testing ground for her, a place to build her dreams.

At first, Chloé excels. She falls in love and Montreal takes on a new radiance. She is aware, perhaps even hyper-aware, of small details: the particular colour and shape of things, the way objects touch but never merge. Her paycheques arrive and she imagines furnishing her apartment: accumulating new sheets, a table and chairs, waiting patiently for “a vase I truly like.” Her life is about to be filled in. “I am young still, I belong,” Chloé tells herself. “I speak French to Claude and to everyone in this city. This creates a new person in me. The way my laugh comes from deep within.”

When the love affair ends, Chloé finds herself retreating from the world. At first her grief feels like something familiar, a ripping heartbreak, but then it grows into a more insidious disturbance. She is constantly afraid. Soon, Chloé can barely speak. She looks out at the books piled up on her floor, “Books I have not all read. Books I cannot read now.”

What follows next is unexpected and terrifying: Chloé falls through the looking glass. The old Chloé disintegrates (“I am invisible to everyone I pass”) and a new one comes into existence in a locked psychiatric ward in a Montreal hospital.

Dubois makes powerful observations about the mind’s interior, about what it feels like when our own thoughts endanger us, about what it means to need help, about what it is to be seen, and treated, as less than a human being, about what it costs to come alive again.

She writes with a dimensionality that resists the simplified ways in which both the hospital and the outside world might render Chloé. She writes, in fact, with a kind of passionate realism — an extraordinary feat when describing a setting in which feeling and colour are wiped out to make a “safe” environment. Despite the fog of over-medication, Chloé never stops observing details: a man who lies on a sofa, his “faded blue packsack crushed against his chest,” or the “short, silver hair” of the psychiatrist. Hibiscus flowers are “erect pistils surrounded by frilly skirts.”

The opening image of Montreal is overlaid with a detailed rendering of the locked ward so that what is real and what is mad, what is visible and what is hidden, are offered as part of a surreal double exposure:

“I sit next to a woman who holds two knitting needles but no wool. I watch her knit invisible wool.”

“Betty walks in and says, ‘You’re ready for the day room.’ ”

These tense sentences have a cumulative power, like watching someone slowly tear apart a piece of fabric.

Halfway through the book, a woman named Louise pays a visit to Chloé. Louise, it turns out, is a writer working on a play about madness and she wants to see where Chloé sleeps, to find out “what it’s like to be on the inside.” She takes a tour, all the while scribbling notes, and leaves after a “polite hug.”

Afterwards, Chloé tells us, with just the hint of a smile, “It occurs to me that Louise forgot to ask how I am.”

Dubois is not Louise; she is not that kind of writer. She has not come to borrow or beg, or even simply observe.

Rather, Chloé describes her world (objects, ideas, family) with a frank precision. Illness has re-drawn her life and, more than ever, details matter: the world of glass, despite its myriad fractures, is real. Chloé knows that her disease, a chemical imbalance of the brain, is perceived by others as a spiritual failing. Yet the beauty of the text shimmers with a brave awareness: we only have this single, brief life and the way that we perceive the world is, in the end, what makes it ours.

Like other celebrated Montreal writers, from Hubert Aquin and Lise Tremblay to Nelly Arcan and Rawi Hage, Dubois writes provocatively about mental illness and those who fall below Montreal’s smooth surface. World of Glass discovers the woman that Chloé becomes, the love she chooses, and the hesitant rebuilding of family, trust and self. It is a remarkable work.

Madeleine Thien is a Montreal-based writer. Her most recent novel is Dogs at the Perimeter.
World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois Quattro Books 120 pages, $14.95
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