Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi
New Meridian Arts Press
106 pages, $16.00
Review by Allison Bird Treacy
The voices contained in a collection of poetry are never exclusively that of the poet. This is something serious readers and writers learn early, and there are terms for it. Collaboration. Allusion. The Anxiety of Influence. Persona. In other words, when we read a poem, we don’t directly layer the text onto the author, partly because poetry is not inherently autobiographical, but also because we all build our linguistic practices by borrowing from others.
Intentionally and unintentionally, such bricolage is the foundation of our literary traditions. When poets carefully attune to their influences, however, and deploy them thoughtfully, we see the formation of a creative lineage, and that is precisely the work Millicent Borges Accardi has undertaken in her most recent poetry collection, Through a Grainy Landscape (New Meridian, 2021). It is a self-conscious, citational text that seeks to clearly define the scope of Luso American writing, anchoring Accardi as not just a participant and co-creator, but something of a documentarian of this still-emerging tradition.
Upon opening Through a Grainy Landscape, the reader finds two epigraphs – one from a Portuguese soccer player, the other from one of the nation’s notable essayists – and then a note: “Many of the poems in Through a Grainy Landscape are inspired by lines from Portuguese and Portuguese-American poetry.” And, indeed, as one reads through the first few pages, the names of Portuguese and Portuguese-American poets are cited again and again, acquainting readers with Luis Quintais, paulA neves, and Inês Fonseca Santos, among others. These names serve not as hooks for the poems, cheap “after” ideas where Accardi can hang her hat, but as a tool for building a strong literary tradition. These names are a foundation upon which her citations construct an extended framework, acting the way famous allusions have long behaved in Anglo-American and other dominant traditions; they only require citations in order to reach an audience unfamiliar with their landscape.
Landscape, of course, is a key word for this collection, appearing in the title as it does in that of so many other poetry collections, but here it’s engaged in distinctly different work. These poems are decidedly not what one might term landscape poetry, not engaged in the pastoral tradition or a similar aesthetic tradition. Instead, this title, which is a quote from Tiago Araújo, describes Accardi’s efforts to map the ‘landscape’ of a culturally-bound literary tradition and how it intersects with the persistent, widely explored problem of home.
One of the particular ways the idea of home is stitched through Accardi’s work is in the particular manner of the immigrant and first-generation American child. In “It was my Mother who Taught me to Fear,” the speaker takes a series of irregular English verbs – a unique challenge to the English language learner – as a starting place for setting down new roots, writing:
…As the train car runs through
every state in the union, interwoven, interwoven
in a pattern called starting over,
in a safe place with a brand new method of
keeping, kept, kept. Where no one genuflected
on Sundays, kneel (knelt/kneeled, knelt/kneeled).
To recreate yourself from nothing is a wonderful thing.
Times were, you almost believed
it was possible.
These newly woven strands, train tracks stretched between new homes, are meant to anchor the immigrant family, finding purchase in the traditions of the Catholic Church, but those anchors aren’t as strong as they might wish. Recreating oneself can seem a solution at first, but it is fraught at best, impossible at worst, and traditions reveal themselves to be fragile. Indeed, that concern about belonging and the troubled history of Catholicism, particularly for Portuguese women, reappears in “None of us Could Ever”:
the Lisbon Inquisition
when it was common for Catholic
Priests to work with bruxas,
especially for banishments and cleansings,
healing those who had been bewitched.
Here, the forbidden identity, the bruxas who supposedly work through the devil, who have the power of witchcraft that is so clearly spurned by the Church, have now become their necessary partner. You can’t engage in such colonial dominance without co-opting local traditions. As in the prior poem, the old and the new intersect in a way that can only yield one’s own undoing. The bewitchers undo their own acts, just as those who immigrate and attempt to start over turn around and attempt to re-immerse themselves in familiar spaces when such reinvention fails. These displaced speakers struggle in the space between becoming something new and staying rooted in a familiar, defining identity.
Perhaps what is most interesting about this play of old and new, tradition and reinvention, is the way in which Accardi non-specifically draws from other Luso-American poets in her overall textual construction. The poems and associated notes offer a variety of citations, but they aren’t quite direct; the words “from a line by Frank Gaspar” may sit below the title, but only readers deeply immersed in the field can know which line immediately. Indeed, Accardi doesn’t even reveal the answer clearly in the endnotes. To understand the full scope of her work, readers must travel the landscape. Until then, her work tantalizes us by deploying this series of inspirations, making the complete collection something like a sidelong cento. Just as a cento takes lines from other poems to make something new, Accardi carefully reads the work of peers and predecessors to build the foundation for her own novel work.
In a 2020 article for LitHub entitled “All Poetry is Collaboration,” Matthew Rohrer describes the way in which writing is inherently a listening practice and an act of collaboration, whether we are writing with others intentionally or not. Accardi takes this idea to its logical end by building a clear frame around her writing in support of the emerging Luso-American tradition. When others won’t necessarily recognize the pillars that support your project, presenting those citations becomes an act of preservation. Such bolsters can seem, as Accardi writes in “Over Broken Bottles and Rivers,”
whiff of distraction above, mere
remnants of the truth which is
just about to be voiced.
Accardi’s poems are elegant, but what makes them compelling has less to do with their content than the way in which she approaches the establishment of a tradition. It is one thing to write criticism, to set out the landscape before readers in descriptive longhand, but to undertake such a
project as integral to one’s own poetics, to make one’s place in an unfamiliar tradition evident takes a keen eye. While poets from more established traditions have the option of hiding the threads that construct their work, of setting aside the map to the poetic landscape, here Accardi sketches our roads and borders while building new landmarks simultaneously. It’s a literary feat and a clear accomplishment by one of today’s most important Luso-American voices.
Allison Bird Treacy is a poet, literary critic, and unlikely church lady whose writing centers on issues of disability, history, and ecology, and the intersection of those themes in myth and faith. Her work has appeared in Sinister Wisdom, PIlgrimage, and Pleiades, among other outlets. Bird lives in Massachusetts with her wife and too many cats.
Twitter – @abird_tweets and main IG: @abirds.view