In a statement regarding establishing authority in poetry, William Stafford notes that “the only authority you [the poet] have builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build.” In a poem, the immediate performance is found in the words on the page, their selection, in the elements brought together and shaped into a vision. The poems in Millicent Borges Accardi’s latest collection, Only More So, stand with the authority of one able to bring the lyrical imagination to bear on human lives and survival. Whatever the element—world history, personal life, health—Accardi fashions poems that evoke and stay true to human life.
One of the ways in which this work is done is through the use and manipulation of lists. In the poem “Ciscenje Prostora (Ethnic Cleansing),” for example, an account of a woman raped by a soldier begins:
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.
This quick list of names in the fourth line works in two ways: first, by fleshing out “the devil’s four poster bed” into a geographic metaphor; and secondly, by presenting a list of places, three of which are tied to recent war and turmoil, and then having these connotations troubled by the last place, “home.” In doing so, the poem presents its stakes as both personal and historical. The troubling of the list continues later in the poem:
She knows not to stare back
when he finds her, hiding behind a clay
pot. When his soldier’s eyes become her
life, more understandable than her or me or any
pronoun she whispers out between no and help,
she shuts her eyes, imagining cold weather.
Here, language slips and falters as the “soldier’s eyes / become her life,” and, in doing so, swerves away from the safety of what is known. An imposition of bodies becomes an imposition of meaning; there are no words to make this moment more “understandable” or reconcilable to the mind. When the woman in the poem “shuts her eyes, imagining cold weather,” one can see her mind match the impending physical assault not with words but rather with thoughts of physical sensation, of weather that leaves one numb. This evokes the desperation of the scene, the gravity and lack of comfort or recourse to be found, even in words. This imposition of bodies and meaning also enacts a loss of self. When the list of names returns towards the end of the poem, the words themselves are imposed upon and twisted by the soldier’s violence:
Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia; the countries undulate
together while he dances the dance of the basilisk
thighs marching, marching.
Even little sounds, like birds overhead,
encourage him to go on, to spit, to breathe
three generations of her surrender into his lungs.
Lost territories, rebels, food, clothing, shelter,
she thinks not of peace, but of surviving
the winter, of outlasting the enemy, of winning.
In these final stanzas, one list is answered by another: the violated/violating list of countries gives way eventually to the last stanza’s list accounting for what is left to do: the work “not of peace, but of surviving.” There is an urgent emphasis implied in the line break “surviving / the winter” that speaks to hope as well as agency. The line break places the focus on “surviving” first, only to follow with this other series about the goals she has for her survival. Placed as the last line, this list fiercely asserts itself as the last statement, writing over everything before it.
The use of lists appears at its most compelling in “How to Shake off the Políciade Segurança Pública Circa 1970.” In this poem, the speaker works through a series of instructions:
urgent nor pokey.
Make clear cut
turns and hold
your head up high.
Carry an ordinary
briefcase . . .
Delivered primarily two to three words at a time, these instructions accumulate meaning and weight as the poem develops. The choice of short lines allows each word to be considered wholly, and evokes the feeling of being asked to memorize what is being said. At the same time, these short lines work via enjambment, which makes the text harder to memorize but also infuses it with a jolting energy that mirrors the dire circumstances of what is being depicted. The poem goes on in this manner, painting scene after scene via details. What begins as a poem about being watched on a walk home quickly becomes a poem about being far from anywhere familiar:
Find the stairs. Sit
in the darkness under
until you have
become the earth. Hold
until the men have gone
by. Tell yourself you are safe
is fine. Remain curled up
longer than you have to,
longer than you imagine might
be necessary before
you regroup and head back.
Here, the theme of survival and self-reliance returns. The practical instructions that point back to the surface meaning of the title are interrupted briefly by the lines “Tell yourself you are safe / and everything / is fine.” With this instruction, the conceit of the poem is foregrounded by the speaker and expanded for the sake of inner counsel. It is a moment not only of self-assurance but also of self-narration; while these instructions are necessary due to the police’s imposing presence, the speaker allows for hope and agency even while being frightened and forced to take measures. The instruction that follows and ends the poem—to “Remain . . . / longer than you have to, / longer than you imagine might / be necessary”—returns the reader to the unsettled and dire nature of this list. It emphasizes just how far from home, and one’s self, one must be to survive.
The second half of the collection expands on the theme of survival by exploring its connections to pain and poetry. The opening lines to “Under Different Conditions,” for example, show a poetic imagination reaching after ways to understand a diagnosis of breast cancer:
They say 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 form,
hiding around corners of the
bloodstream, inside the bones
of imagination, in the minds
of worry, between the lines
of every poem you read.
The use of lists returns here as a tool of reckoning; the speaker stands between “They” and the reader and works through her list of metaphors trying to establish a sense of what the diagnosis means. The complexity of the emotions roused is reflected in the richness of the items on the list when compared to the things associated with the diagnosis; traits of impairment (“blindness, poverty”) live in the same world as positive traits (“a green thumb, perfect pitch”). The complex first list is made even more complex by the insidiousness implied in the second stanza. When we arrive at the second stanza’s last line regarding the reading of poetry, the reader finds herself again considering human life in terms of language. (Also, it is another case of the outside world imposing itself on the inner.) This search for meaning in the face of hardship, ultimately, is where the heart of this collection lies. What makes the search compelling is Accardi’s ability to linger and meditate on ways that the search can go awry or be subverted.
This poem ends on a note that implies both how much and how little of the search for meaning is in our hands:
. . . Promises are assumed to be left
open-ended, like women who
never finish what they say,
letting the ends of words float
in the air, hoping, counting
on the fact that those around
them will sooner or later fill
in the mornings for them or—
“Write it; you can say this.”
Breast Cancer. People might stop
and watch rooftops as an unexplained
plume of black smoke rises and changes directions above us.
In considering the “open-ended” nature of breast cancer, this poem fulfills its ambition to articulate some of the complexity found in pain, poetry, and survival. It is the refusal to solve this kind of complexity, however, that establishes the authority of this collection. Time and again, the poems of Only More So present a speaker in the act of reconciliation. Here, the work is helped along via the interjection of an outside voice (“Write it; you can say this.”), a gesture that brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s “Write it!” from her poem “One Art.” Both poems show their speakers working through and reconciling themselves to what needs to be written. In both cases, though, meaning is far from resolved.
Instead of resolution, Accardi offers the image of people watching “an unexplained / plume of black smoke” rising over rooftops. This image is one of my favorite moments in the collection because of the way it keeps the poem’s meaning in motion long after it is done. This motion is mirrored visually in the way that the last line—the line regarding the “plume of black smoke”— is the longest line in the poem. This formal deviation acts out how the plume “changes directions” and mirrors how a poem, like life, moves like smoke, only more so.
A CantoMundo fellow, José Angel Araguz has had poems recently in Crab Creek Review and RHINO Poetry. He is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Author of six chapbooks and the collection Everything We Think We Hear, he runs the poetry blog The Friday Influence. His second poetry collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017.