Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Exiliana, poetry by Mariela Griffor

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 75 pages
• Publisher: Luna Publications; 1st edition (January 31, 2007)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0978147103
• ISBN-13: 978-0978147105

When one is stripped of country, home, family, lover, to what does one cling? Mariela Griffor will always have language, her chosen tool to rebuild. In this, in her poetry, she takes root. She has found a new home, even as her heart aches for another home in the distance of time and place. She has made her home in a new country, surrounded herself with a new family, and her poetry attests new love.


In the passing of the years
the grief does not disappear.

Griffor has lived a life as complex as a novel, rich and filled with loss and tragedy and redemption. Born in Concepcion, a city in southern Chile, she was involved in politics from age 15, fighting for democracy and against the Pinochet dictatorship. Her first great love was a comrade in arms, and he was killed as such, even while she, still in her early 20s, carried his child and was forced into exile. Life tossed her first to Sweden, then a new love to the United States, where she now lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, today a poet and publisher, founder of Marick Press.

If a poet’s biography rarely makes it to the top of a book review, but is left usually as an after note, Griffor’s story is unavoidable here, for Exiliana is a song of her exile, of love for home old and home new, of an undefeated if still sometimes suffering spirit. Her history is in her poetry, her scars give it its meter, her passion its rhythm, her strong spirit its vibrancy.

In her first poem, “Prologue,” Griffor sets the stage as an outsider, one standing apart, yet even then, defining a new way to continue her life.

I invent a friend to pour out
remembrances of the old country.

Out here, I invent new sounds, new men, new women.
I assassinate the old days with nostalgia.
I don’t see but invent a city and its people, its fury, its sky.

I don’t belong to the earth but to the air.
As I invent you, I invent myself.

When roots are not allowed to sink into the soil where one stands, one grows them in air, easily moved from place to place, rooted instead in those invented men and women, and in that newly invented life. Griffor’s song of exile will resonate with anyone who is at home away from home, perhaps in poetry offering home to others likewise uprooted. She captures that paradox neatly—of embracing one while longing for the other, past and present, old and new, dark and light, somehow managing to remain fully faithful to both.

Her poems are the letters of a lover, and her love is even more fierce for its testing. She pays the cost of loving so fiercely, but it is that ferocity of spirit that is her key to survival. Her poems travel from her long ago home of Chile, to a rainy day in Michigan, wander along the cold streets of Scandinavia. Her poems dig down into coffins where lost lovers lie, soar to distant mountaintops, linger in a child’s all-seeing eyes, scratch with long nails at jealousy and envy, and know more than one moment of simple truth. Her poems sear love with its loss, accept new love with its patience and comfort, remember the chill of a grandmother’s absent “cyanide smile,” and contemplate the first moment of chaos in a butterfly’s flap of wings in faraway Santiago.

When so tossed, one begins to understand: “we were alive, full of sun and fears.” Love is shallow when wasted on the perfect, but blossoms fully with blessing when lavished on the imperfect.

I like you like that, full of imperfections, with that
indescribable hair that is not blond, black, or reddish,
with that big sharp nose
that cuts that Bremen face,
with those large and clumsy fingers
that hang like traps for my kisses …

Joy stands best when planted firmly beside tragedy. Home is most appreciated by those who have lost theirs.

We have left a joy pending.

Live, love, and fight with the same fervour of those
who know that life at any moment can go extinct.

Happiness thrives on grit, “what fresh happiness that was,” sharing a sleeping bag with a lover and the sand creeping in. From impersonal, Griffor focuses on the personal, stepping away for a moment to see her lover as the dead patriot, as others see him, but to her, he is the memory of a shared chocolate ice cream or a clay candlestick long ago lit. She has the heart of a warrior, a survivor, still standing and strong if heavily scarred.

I have lived among men of flesh and blood.
I have loved, hated,
fought against
men of flesh and blood.

I have been conquered, humiliated,
I have been cast out to a shameful exile
among men of flesh and blood …

I have come back in the darkness to encountering them.

Exiliana is a necklace of pearls made of such encounters. Griffor has caught the shadow in her clear, clean and simple language (and one wishes at times to see the originals in her native Spanish, if only to hear another kind of music and shift in rhythm), leaving no room for misunderstanding. This is life at its harshest, love at its most tender, grief at its darkest hour. This is poetry also of healing, encouraging all fallen to stand again, even her present city of Detroit, fallen in its own battles, to which she writes more than one poem like a ballad, or a war cry, to banish its voodoo and shame and rise again.

Griffor is a poet of contrast and paradox. With so much of loss and grief, and wounds time refuses to heal, a reader might fear sinking into such poetry—but should not. Only recall the poet’s reminder that love for perfection isn’t really love at all, but an easy ride soon forgotten. Love for the imperfect that we all, after all, are, is the only kind that sustains. There is a golden thread of hope and endurance through these lines, and Griffor’s poetry sustains by mirroring the battles of life that, to some degree, we have all known and survived.

Let the golden haze
that rusts your aura
shine proudly
on your face again.

Let a feeling of goodness
drench the city like a storm.
Let your dreams flourish and endure.
Turn the holy fight into
Let the happiness return.

Mariela Griffor was born in Concepcion, Chile, and attended the University of Santiago and the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. She left Chile for an involuntary exile in Sweden in 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. Mariela holds a B.A in Journalism and a M.F.A. in creative writing from New England College. She is Honorary Consul of Chile in Michigan.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Wayfarer in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by Ellen Chivers Davies

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Robert M. McBride and Company, New York, 1937
Hardcover: 280 pages

Fitting, that to prepare for my return to my ancestral home of Latvia, the middle of the three Baltic States, I should find some of my more meaningful and pleasant reading in a book long out of print. Latvian is, after all, one of the oldest languages still spoken today, and our cultural roots go deep into history, back to the times of Roman trade routes for amber, Teutonic Knights, and the first colonization of the island of Tobago. While I am born in the United States, a newborn nation by comparison, these three small but culturally rich countries have been in existence for many, many centuries.

Perhaps that is my draw. Or anyone’s, really, to turn back time and return to what was so long ago. If we should learn from history, alas, we rarely do, with humankind repeating the same mistakes over and over again, like a worn argument never resolved. But I am a firm believer in tapping into one’s roots, because to understand one’s own inclinations, a look back into family history can reveal much. Beyond our own personal memories are the genetic memories woven deep into our own fiber. Too often, we have little or no understanding of why we do what we do, how our life sense was formed, and why we long so achingly for we know not what. It could very well be in our history. In our family treasure chest, a dowry passed from generation to generation.

So I return, soon, for the first time in nearly 17 years, a long absence after many trips, beginning at age 15 during the gray and wretched Soviet years. Little as she is, Latvia has been occupied by one great power or another, for almost her entire existence. The Livs, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans, and most recently, the Russians, have taken her by force and kept her people subjugated in often unspeakable cruelty. Yet on November 18, 1918, Latvia declared herself an independent nation, if under a benevolent dictator, and thrived by any measure for about two decades. Yes, only two decades, before the Red Army invaded from the east, clashing with the Nazis from below, and with the help of Roosevelt at the bargaining table, was tossed like a poker chip, up for sale, not even that, merely a bit of bargaining between the super powers. The Baltic States were handed over to Russia and its communist government, and the deportations to concentration camps, the executions, the waves of fleeing refugees began. My own parents, still in their teens, among them …

I visited my local libraries to seek out travel guides and histories, to refresh my mind for what I would wish to see and experience on my return trip. It is not that I have forgotten. If my mind has pushed away painful personal memories, my spirit has had its own demands. One cannot deny oneself. One’s true self. My eventual return, I believe, was a given, only a matter of time.

Yet the libraries held little on their shelves. As the global community expands, of what significance are these three tiny countries on the Baltic Sea? Even as I now see amber from their shores sold in most every jewelry store, grabbed up by customers who know or care little of their origin, the white sands where storms and angry waves wash up the golden nuggets, solidified pine resin from trees that grew on the shores ages ago.

I found this book, then, a travel essay written by E.C. Davies, from Great Britain, and published in 1937. Sixteen photographic plates are included. Oh, you can have your Kindles and new-fangled e-readers! I hold in my hands this old book, dating back to that time when these were free nations, prior to World War II when they were washed with blood. Would anything here make sense to me today, in 2010?

Ah, here is the beauty of countries so old that in some respects, time stands still there. Whereas I now live in a country where houses are considered old if they are built within half a century, where everything is changeable, where change itself seems to be a thing of worship, how refreshing and reassuring to turn these faintly yellowed pages, gaze into these black and white photos, and see what is still there—today.

It could be that I will see many changes on my journey back. I am sure I will. Some of those will no doubt be welcome, while others, equally without doubt, will make my heart ache. But when I read E.C. Davies’ almost tender account of her Baltic travels, I recognize what I know so well. I recognize streets, stores, buildings, villages and towns, natural landmarks, styles of living, characteristics, that I first observed in the late 1970s, when I first traveled there. And those, unchanged, on every trip after. I recognize places and stories that my parents told me as a child, or that were taught to me when I attended private Latvian schools in the States. There it was, and here it is, still and ever so.

I very nearly do not need a new travel guide at all. The wonder of traveling to much of Europe, in fact, is that much of it remains the same, century after century, and buildings survive, built for such centuries, even through so many wars.

Davies writes of her entry by train into Latvia’s capitol city, Riga: “There is an immediate sense of recognition, of acquaintance which rises up in you, even as you set foot for the first time upon the shores of these countries. For me the Baltic lands hold this spell… the thrill quickens, the night passes, and morning light brightens the spires and steeples of Riga, that seagirt city which has seen the argosies of so many nations sail up to its walls. Perhaps the sea way to the Baltic lands is of all others the pleasantest and most fitting. No one can realize how lovely these Baltic cities are until he has seen the long skyline of Riga from the water.” (pg. 94)

"From the very onset Riga gives one the feeling of an Imperial city; her fine buildings, wide, tree-planted avenues, the stately squares and beautiful parks make a lovely picture… the charming fa├žade of the National Theatre, the dignified Ministries and civic offices, the beautiful Opera House and the fine blocks of modern shops and apartment houses… but take only a few hundred steps away from the centre of the modern town, and you are in that very ancient Riga which lies in a compact block between the river and the wide boulevards: a maze of narrow, twisting, cobbled streets, pierced by the tall spires of its many churches; the alleys, darkened by the shadows of the tall Hansa houses…” (pg. 95)

I was not born in that time when Davies traveled there, yet I recall in every detail my own observations, so like hers, some 40 years later, and again over the coming years after. Indeed, even now, planning my return journey, I am browsing tickets to the opera at the very same Opera House she mentions in the center of Riga. Will I buy a ticket to see the opera, Anna Karenina? Or Carmen?

My rented apartment is within that ancient Riga she describes, and my previous photo albums are already filled with my own yellowing photos of those many church spires, those twisted and winding cobblestone streets where I skipped hand in hand with my beloved. My own stories are buried among those cobblestones …

Could anyone pick up a travel essay for the United States from 1937 and still find there the same places, the same attractions, the same life sense of a people still living there? Probably not. And perhaps not everyone would want that. But for me, this stability of the ages come through to the modern day is fiercely reassuring and warmly comforting. I have the sense, again, of returning home. Not only to mine, but the home of my parents, of my grandparents, and the many generations before them. I will find those ancient, mossy stones beneath which their bones have long ago turned to dust. My digital photos in bright color will stand beside Davies’ black and white plates, and if a hairstyle has changed, the makeup or some item of clothing, the Baltic features have not. The buildings neglected in the Soviet years will now show fresh faces, newly painted and renovated, yet standing where they stood so many centuries ago, and the same ones that my parents saw as children.

Davies is of British background, yet she has apparently spent great spans of time and taken great care to understand the local history and tradition of these three Baltic countries. I read her descriptions of known places—of Dobele, where my father was born; of Riga, where my mother was born; of Jelgava, where my father’s family last lived before the war; of Ventspils, port city near where several generations of my family lived and some live yet today; of Tukums, where I myself lived for a time in an old yellow house that had survived centuries—and I am warmed by her gift of time to understand a place and not just pass through it.

That’s what creates something that lasts through the ages. The care and the time taken today to create something of lasting value. Her travel essays of 1937 are quite relevant and informative still today. Arguably even more so than a more contemporary travel guide.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 256 pages

• Publisher: Vintage, 1997

• Price: $13.00

• ISBN-10: 0375702709

• ISBN-13: 978-0375702709

The older and, one hopes, wiser I grow, the more I admire and respect simplicity. Simplicity is not simple. Simplicity means clean lines, all that is unnecessary pared away. Simplicity means choosing that one golden word where ten would only confuse the issue. And, that one word can be clear and true.

Ernest J. Gaines is a master of simplicity. A Lesson Before Dying is clean and clear writing, descriptions that say just enough to evoke an entire scene with all senses engaged, all heart and mind present. His dialogue is bare bone, sparse as the dialogue I so admired as a young writer-in-training, enthralled with that other Ernest—Papa Hemingway, and his unique way of capturing the way that people actually speak rather than the stilted narrative voice of the author him or herself.

“It don’t matter,” I heard him say. He was looking up at the ceiling.

“What don’t matter?”

He didn’t answer.

“What don’t matter, Jefferson?”

“Nothing don’t matter,” he said, looking up at the ceiling but not seeing the ceiling.

“It matter to me, Jefferson,” she said. “You matter to me.”

He looked up at the ceiling, not seeing it.


“Chicken, dirt, it don’t matter,” he said.

“Yeah, it do, Jefferson. Yeah, it do. Dirt?”

“All the same,” he said. “It don’t matter.” (Page 73)

Ah yes, there is that mastery, like a reincarnation of Hemingway, with an artist’s understanding of the way that life moves—not in straight lines, but in circles, ever circling on the same spot, trying out its parameters until it is known, only then shifting to the next circle, a slight distance this way, or that, or even back again. I admire this accuracy portrayed in the written word. The novel becomes life.

The life portrayed in this novel is based on two main characters, set in 1940s Louisiana, the deep south, when racism and segregation ran deep, and a black man was imprisoned just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, innocent that he might be. Jefferson is a simple-minded man who inadvertently ends up in the middle of an armed robbery, and although he has done nothing wrong, is sentenced to die by a legal system that has nothing to do with justice but everything to do with enforcing the status quo. Grant Wiggins seems, at first, Jefferson’s opposite—a black man who is educated and intelligent, a teacher at a church school. Both men, however, live in a prison, even as only one of those has tangible bars.

When Jefferson is called “same as a hog” by his own defense attorney, likening him to a dumb animal in the hopes that the jury will deem him innocent out of sheer lack of enough intelligence to commit a crime, his aunt, Grant’s grandmother, can accept the final verdict of death, but not the image of her nephew dying like an animal. She calls in a favor from Grant, who reluctantly agrees to visit Jefferson in prison and teach him to die like a man.

If this injustice, the death sentence of an innocent man, cannot be changed in a deeply racist society, then one’s attitude about it can be. Jefferson bitterly accepts being called a hog—“it don’t matter”—but the story unfolds in those gorgeously clean lines with the meetings between the two men, some of which are nothing more than sitting together in a prison cell for an hour and staring at the ceiling. There are no lectures, no fist-pounding diatribes, no soapbox rantings to vaguely disguise the views of the author in need of getting something off his chest. There is just this fly-on-the-wall observation of two men sharing space, different yet same, both locked into place, both suppressed by their life sentences to a destiny neither deserves but inflicted upon them because of their race.

So how does a man become a man? What differentiates a man from a dumb animal? Our teachers are not always those with the highest intelligence quotient. Our leaders are sometimes those who are silent, but walk to their destiny, however unfair, with clean conscience and straight spine. Whatever is done to a man matters little. What a man does to himself, and how he handles the circumstances of his life, is all that matters. Live or die, a man does so with honor. Just or unjust, a man answers to himself if he has lived with integrity. If he has, he can walk through any trial, toward any fate, with his head held high.

Edward J. Gaines was born on a plantation in Louisiana, where he is now writer-in-residence at the University of Southwestern Louisiana. Previous books include The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men, and several others.

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 464 pages

• Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2009

• Price: $24.95

• ISBN-10: 0399155341

• ISBN-13: 978-0399155345

On recommendation by the book club to which I belong, I opened the cover of The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel and one which has garnered a great deal of attention—including well over 2,000 reviews on Amazon and counting fast. Indeed, a second review appears on The Smoking Poet, written by Jeanette Lee, which pretty much sums up all that, to my mind, needs be said.

I add, then, my personal opinion. First impression: yikes. I read a few sentences and went to double check. Yes, the author is Caucasian. This is either daring, bounded by heavy research and editorial input on authenticity, or it’s downright risky and potentially offensive. Stockett, also from the south, is writing as a black woman. As several black women, in fact.

“Taking care of white babies, that’s what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out of bed in the morning.” (Page 1)

This is the voice of Aibileen, one of the main narrative voices in The Help, a black maid working in a southern white household. The time is 1962, the place is Jackson, Mississippi, and the civil rights movement is just gathering seedling strength. Eugenia Skeeter Phelan, known simply as Skeeter because she is as thin as a mosquito, is a fledgling writer trying to break into the publishing world. Her first break is to become a local newspaper columnist, writing columns of household cleaning hints. Alas, she knows nothing about cleaning. The family maid does that. She gets her columns fed to her by Aibileen, but her writer’s eye is on a bigger prize—a book, and part by suggestion, part by lucky bumbling, she begins to gather stories told in the voices of “the help,” the black maids of Jackson. The stories, predictably, range from the cruel and demeaning to the benevolent racist, those who profess to “love” their help, almost as if they were favorite pets.

Even as I bit my lip reading the stereotypical speech of the black women, I, like so many, confess that I was drawn to the story. It’s a fast reader. Stockett has good instincts for what makes a reader turn pages. Her cast of characters is colorful, if leaning dangerously close to one-dimensional, and she adds comic relief with Celia, a white woman so completely out of her element in a rich white world that she doesn’t seem to have a clue why no one ever returns her calls. I caught myself laughing out loud several times. Celia plays the role of “white trash” to the fine southern rich women who are all about fashion and parties and charities, ironically enough, for the “poor, starving children of Africa.” Celia, too, however, is borderline stereotype so-called white trash, with her tight sweaters and bleached blonde hair and tipsy behavior. That she can’t cook at all is surprising, considering she comes from a poor background without maids and cooks in her childhood home.

That would sum it up, then. There is an element of Disneyland here. It’s a very interesting story to read. There is conflict, and risk, and bungled and recovered love stories, and villains and nasty neighbors. Beyond that, we see glimpses of domestic violence and a depraved white man who exposes himself. We see horrendous examples of racism, both from those who are well-meaning and those who enjoy their false sense of superiority all too much. That element of fantasy, however, squeaks in continually, with bad folk like Hilly, first to build a special bathroom for the help to avoid catching their dirty diseases, drawn in all dark shades, and Skeeter, painted in all bright colors, seems to miss her own occasional lapses into that more benevolent racism. Skeeter is likeable, and perhaps too many of us might recognize ourselves in her—a person with good intentions who still seems to have too simplistic a grasp on the risks she is asking these women to take by interviewing them for their frank stories. I suspect we saw too little realism here of just how much risk.

Personally, I’ve never dared to write across genders for my main voice. Daring to write across such deep divides as racial ones would certainly be beyond my own scope and, arguably, beyond most anyone’s. I had to search online to satisfy my curiosity about how the general African-American reader perceives this book. It didn’t take long to find some fascinating responses. The point is frequently brought up that the maids in this novel speak in dialect, while the white southerners do not. Why not? Interviews with the author have unearthed a lack of research, basing the novel only on personal memory from living in a white southern household with a black maid (Aibileen apparently is modeled on the author’s actual maid). Unfortunately, by the time Stockett started writing this novel, the family maid was long ago deceased and could not offer her perspective.

There is a place for books that help us, all of us, to understand the perspectives of those different than ourselves. There is always a place for literature that makes us think harder, look closer in the mirror, examine ourselves for where we may be in need of enlightenment. Stockett does accomplish this with her novel. By sheer popularity of the book, she is being read and discussed by many, and one would hope, those are valuable discussions. This book delves into hard and very serious themes, the aftereffects of which are still infused in contemporary society.

Stockett’s book debuts as popular literature, and her talent is evident, if her research lacking. It is a first novel, yes. I fully expect in this writer’s second, she will have learned to add more dimension to her characters and more research to her story. If The Help relies too heavily on stereotype, the author’s ability to tell an interesting story should win out with even better work to come. I’m betting this is an author to watch.