Finishing Line Press 2010 US$14
Reviewed by Gill Andrews, Ross Kightly and Matt Merritt
I admire Accardi’s willingness to use unfashionably short lines. The first stanza of ‘On a Theme by William Stafford’ ends:
...... . . . I’d hang up my long
......coat in the closet and really move
Putting "in" on its own line emphasises the word in a way that worked well for me. This is a device used in many of Accardi’s poems. She also uses short sentences to good effect. For example, ‘Only More So’ describes soldiers arriving at a house and (I think—the narrative isn’t entirely clear) burning the furniture and raping a woman. Most of the poem is in longish sentences running over several lines of poetry. It ends with a single line stanza: “It was like this, only more so.” I found this chilling and effective.
I was less convinced by the consistency of the poet’s line breaks. She gets it right in, for example, ‘Ascenseur pour l’échafaud—Take II’. In the following extract, the line break makes the word “living” work twice—we first understand “the music is living”. Then, on further reading, we understand it to be “living heaven”
....... . . At one point
......the music is living
......heaven . . .
However, too often Accardi inserts the line break between adjective and noun in a way that wrong-foots the reader (at least, this reader) to no discernible benefit:
....... . . They wait until the last
......minute and show up at the Hollywood Bowl,
......getting box seats for Tony Bennett, then go back
......stage and meet Pete Samprass.
............(‘This is What People Do’)
The poems have so many of these odd line breaks that they lose any power to interest the reader; I found them rather annoying. What I didn’t find annoying was Accardi’s use of images, which was superb. In ‘Ciscenje Prostora’, rebel tanks
......are rolling through the town, shaking houses
......like wind . . .
As well as working on a purely descriptive level, this elevates the tanks to the status of forces of nature, against which the townspeople are utterly powerless.
And Accardi often surprises. In the same poem, a hiding woman, found by a soldier “shuts her eyes, imagining cold weather.” This seemed to me both surprising and moving.
A quibble—I could have invested more in some of the poems if their narratives had been clearer. For example, ‘Coupling’ relates to a difficult male-female relationship, but I couldn’t work out what was going on (is it a marriage or an extra-marital affair?).
This is a very engrossing small collection. Each of its sixteen poems offers a challenge to the reader. For me, the challenge was often to feel sympathy for the creative impulse behind the poem: I have to accept that this is a failing on my own part. Millicent Borges Accardi is unafraid of tackling big, difficult issues, as in ‘Ciscenje Prostora’ the title of which is helpfully glossed for us as (Ethnic Cleansing). This poem sets out its theme in the first stanza:
......This woman does not know he
......carries the devil’s four poster bed
......in his palm, clutching it like promised
......money: Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, home.
......she thinks not of peace, but of surviving
......the winter, of outlasting the enemy, of winning.
After quite a number of readings I had to admit to myself that this was a succesful poem and even the sometimes quirky enjambments do serve to carry the sense quite relentlessly through the whole.
However, one of the virtues of the collection is its variety—of imagery for instance: In ‘A Raga for the Full Moon’ there is some excellent mingling of the senses in the images: a Chalumeau [ancient forerunner to the clarinet] has
......The overtones, of green
......hearts, the under sounds
......of a blue
......river about to melt.
I now know a bit about the Chalumeau because I Googled it.
However, with ‘For John, For Coltrane’ I don’t know enough about Coltrane to judge whether the portrait of the jazzman is accurate—but it’s still a good poem to me. Fine last couplet:
......And the night came in long,
......longer than he ever wanted it to.
Fortunately it wasn’t necessary to know beforehand anything about Mukilteo in order to enjoy the exuberant ‘This is What People Do’—a long catalogue poem that combines various layers of popular conception about the life-cycle of a stereotypical American family which can be dipped into with pleasure at any point and delivers a simultaneously generalised but strangely moving portrait: something perhaps like those weird photos from the Sixties or Seventies that purported to prove the existence of a Controlling Hand in the Universe by superimposing portraits of individuals one over an other until the resulting image—a spooky composite—had become an impossibly beautiful divine being—ertainly a strange and effective poem.
With ‘Buying Sleep’—I found it difficult to follow the trajectory: who is the narrator—the poet or a boy with an imaginary brother? This is perhaps partly owing to the ambiguities of some parts:
......says to a boy half his age
......a boy tossing and fearing
but eventually I realise that he’s not a precocious six-year-old masturbating over fear, but he’s restlessly turning over in bed with that terror, and the outhouse snakes are like redbacks under the dunny seat—but in the US.
Not everything has been said but space has been exhausted. A collection to grow on you.
There are two well-chosen epigraphs for this chapbook collection (very attractively produced, as so many American pamphlets are). One’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, linking lovers, lunatics and poets, while the other details a social experiment that looked at the link between anxiety and attraction.
One of the strengths of this book is that the poet returns to dualities such as the latter again and again, without ever hammering the reader over the head with them.
So, in many of the poems, while one emotion or mood in the foreground might seem to be the focus, its flipside will be crackling away in the background, ready to burst into flame.
That’s particularly true of those pieces that deal with some of the grimmer episodes of 20th century European history. There are reflections on ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and the Holocaust, and in ‘Only More So’, an unspecified armed occupation. It fairly bristles with menace, in lines such as:
......Surrounded by dust and half-opened words,
......the woman’s mottled eyes brought a dull patina
......to the repeated questions. The sharp wool collars
......of the soldiers pointed south; inside,
......the crudely made benches evaporated into firewood.
‘The Well’, too, is a fine poem, using its short, almost staccato lines to create and maintain great tension, and to point up more of those dualities mentioned earlier, this time between curiosity and danger:
......Without warning, one afternoon
......her life became a wish. A game
......of hide and seek with added
......consequences. It was just a stone
......she saw, perhaps, or a flower pot
......covering a tunnel to eternity.
......The voice said, Climb up, slide down.
......It will do you good, she listened.
Elsewhere, Accardi is excellent at shining a light on the sort of seemingly unremarkable, perpetually overlooked American lives that feel like they belong in a Raymond Carver short story. ‘This Is What People Do’, for example, is like watching the suburbs and edgelands flickering past from the window of a speeding car. Climb in and enjoy the ride.