Poetry for Southern California
Only More So
Book by Millicent Borges Accardi
Salmon Poetry (www.salmonpoetry.com)
Reviewed by G. Murray Thomas
In Only More So, Millicent Borges Accardi explores tragedy through the personal stories of the people affected. She tackles topics ranging from ethnic cleansing to breast cancer to environmental degradation, and much more, but the poems are always human stories, not theoretical rhetoric. The focus is always on the details, not the big picture, which actually makes the poems more powerful, the horror more horrible.
Early on she dives straight into big issues, war and genocide. The title poem and “Ciscenje Prostora” both deal with the war in Bosnia; both examine it through the eyes of a woman visited by a soldier, in the first, to steal; in the second, to rape.
The soldiers, making circles in the dust
on the hearth, asked the woman to remember
the unremembered: the jewelry sold for food,
the Moravian lace curtains.
(“Only More So”)
Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia; the countries undulate
together while he dances the the dance of the basilisk
thighs marching, marching.
The women are fearful and helpless, but resolute. Both poems end on a semi-hopeful note – the determination to survive. “...she thinks not of peace, but of surviving/ the winter, of outlasting the enemy, of winning.” (“Ciscenje Prostora”) “... now she must survive by owning air.” (“Only More So”)
Accardi similarly examines the Holocaust through a photo (“Portrait of a Girl 1942”); the weight of history through exhumed catacombs (“In Prague”); dictatorship through instructions for avoiding it (“How to Shake Off the Policiade Seguranca Publica Circa 1970”); and racism through slang (“Breaking with the Old”).
It's not all politics and war. She also has poems about domestic violence, cancer (“Under Different Circumstances”) and the pain of death (“Widow”). Again, the emphasis is on the personal experience. From “Under Different Circumstances”:
They say that once you have it
it does not go away, like a thirst
for liquor, a child, intelligence,
an abusive hand, a talent with
words, blindness, poverty,
a green thumb, perfect pitch.
They say it changes who
you are, how family treats
you, what strangers say. Words
to avoid, books not to read,...
But all is not despair in these poems. There are poems about mundane life as well – clothes shopping, watering the plants, summer vacation – but still with a sharp eye for detail, and for the ironies of experience. “This Is What People Do” presents the basic details of everyday life (the things people do) in such a way that they become magical. The title raises the expectation of commonplace things we all do, but the poem is instead a list of unique actions, the things that make us individuals.
a house with a pool on Mount Washington,
then get a divorce. They have a brother with
pancreatic cancer. They recycle the garbage for
the entire building. They visit ground zero
in New York.
In the end, the recurring theme here is resilience and survival. The women in the Bosnia poems are focused on their survival, on what they will do next, not on what is happening to them now. As are the person escaping the secret police and the cancer victim. Even “This Is What People Do” is about how life goes on.
Near the end of the book is a series of poems that focus on the resilience of nature, especially as opposed to human effort and artifact. “Almonds” is about eating the fruit of abandoned orchards; “Portuguese Bend” describes houses slowly sliding into the sea; and “Mother Ditch” gives the history of a thin waterway through stages of human development. In the end, nature outlasts humanity. I found this both hopeful and ambiguous. After so many poems of man's inhumanity to man, amoral nature proves to be stronger. Yet in the end, the notion of survival strikes me as more important than the specifics.
William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things.” Accardi demonstrates a corollary, “No ideas but in people.”
Reviews 12 /15