Book Review: Even More So (Millicent Borges Accardi)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Millicent Borges Accardi's most recent book Only More So is aptly named. In many ways it is an expansion of her original chapbook Woman on a Shaky Bridge. Her powerful poem "Ciscenje Prostora," the opening poem "On a Theme By William Stafford" and even the new book's title poem are all part of that first volume. The themes of sexuality, her inheritance as a Portuguese American, and the primacy of emotion in human lives are still there. One of thing that has been dropped is the pretense of formal organization seen in her previous book Injuring Eternity and the return to an unsectioned structure that might have been subtitled "poems, old and new."
The key to reading Accardi's poems and, indeed, to their composition is probably best illustrated by and summarized in the title of her poem, "Start Here."
It was like trusting
Accardi posits a situation or even an opening line and follows it through to see where it leads her. In her most successful poems, such as "Start Here" the reader who follows her is lead to a point where they find themselves standing on an emotional ledge.
A list of some of Accardi's first lines not only makes us readers want to "start here" and dive into the poem, but almost impels the poet in us to want to finish writing the poem on our own:
"It's Sunday and he makes the mistake / of brandy" ("Renovation")
"I don't trust anyone/ and love fewer than that" ("Mother Ditch")
"Seemingly overnight her breast grew/ fat and the moles appeared" ("Ordinary")
Accardi's strategy works best when the poet follows a more or less linear trajectory. In the poems where the progression is associative, the reader sometimes wonders how they got to where they have ended up and why they are there.
While the tendency among many contemporary poets is to rely on the context of an entire book to imbue individual poems with greater depth of meaning, this is not the case with Only More So. Though there are certainly recurring themes and images, the individual poems stand (or fall) on their own. This may be old school, but it works.
One of the most fruitful poems from the point of view of a disability literary journal like Wordgathering is "Under Different Conditions." The poem works through the repetition of the first words in the beginning line of a new stanza, "They say…."
After the first line enters a new concern, the lines that follow pile on images supporting the original observation, as in the second stanza:
They say it changes form,
In the final four lines of the poem, the third person pronoun switches to second person pivoting responsibility for response, "'Write it; you can say this.'/ Breast cancer." The poem not only toss out the many literal reactions that people have upon hearing someone has received what could be a life threatening diagnoses, but, as in the stanza above, illustrate how it works on the mind "inside the bones of the imagination."
Another strong poems not appearing in a previous collection is "The World in 2001." The opening stanzas acquire particular significance in the contemporary polarized American political climate:
My Dad and me, we made fun of slackers
As in the previous poem, "The World in 2001" works off of a litany of concrete examples, but this time supporting one central idea. The poem that turns on the phrase, "We thought…that New York and the Twin Towers would always be there."
If the similarities of the two poems above give the impression that Accardi, lacks versatility, that impression would be totally misleading. One of her most haunting poems –at once both visceral and etherial – "Like Nameless Skyscrapers," the poet's re-imagining of the Daphne and Apollo myth. The poem begins:
She carries him, still,
Readers familiar with Accardi's work know that the almost moonstruck effect of sexuality – wanted or not – on the speakers who populate her poems is an ongoing theme. Here, she metamorphoses the old myth once more by making Apollo not a force from without but something within that the poem's subject is unable to free herself of. It is subtly done and Accardi only reveals the source of her poem when she writes.
Though the poem leads to resolution, it is not one open to easy interpretation. Is the solution to avoiding this invasion of the blood, to cease being human? Does holding close to the earth or returning to our roots mean giving up aspirations or flights of imagination? One of the pleasures of the poem is the possibilities it allows.
A hallmark of Accardi's previous work is its commitment to the exploration of what it means to be a Portuguese American, and Accardi fans will not be disappointed by her latest book. Several of the poems in Only More So were even included in the dauntingly named Gavea-Brown Book of Portuguese American Poetry and Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora in the United States and Canada: An Anthology. Among these, "Swing Open" stand out in particular. While images of the poet's father take precedence in the poem, other relatives including aunts, uncles, grandmother and a grandfather who "hid in a ship's barrel, accused of murder in Petrepetzia" weave in and out of unrhymed couplets to create a landscape of which Accardi says:
When readers learn that a poet one has enjoyed in the past comes out with a new book, it is always both with anticipation and with the fear that somehow this new book will not measure up to expectations. Followers of Millicent Borges Accardi have no reason for concern. Not only does Only More So provide a comfortable transition by actually including some of the poets best poems from the past, it takes the themes that her readers are familiar with and extends them. In the process of stretching herself as a poet, Accardi plays with some new forms – some with more success than others – but she never takes those who know her too far from home.
Title: Only More So