Book Review

The nature of longing permeates Millicent Borges Accardi’s most recent collection, Through a Grainy Landscape, with poems that seek to understand the world through the pasts, presents, and futures considered by the poet herself and by immigrant families establishing their place in a new home while missing the firm footing of the homes they left behind. Drawing inspiration, titles, and lines from Portuguese and Portuguese-American writers, Borges Accardi sets a sense of nothingness alongside a quest for solidity, the experience of loss in communion with the minutia of living.

The characters that fill Through a Grainy Landscape—from the Columbian parents explaining their lack of a visa to their kindergarten daughter in Borges Accardi’s opening poem, to longtime Lincoln Heights residents displaced by gentrification, to members of her own family—desire to not feel invisible, to be seen for their whole selves. By reveling in the concrete aspects of her characters’ lives, Borges Accardi provides a foundation they may not feel themselves. A simple polyester cotton blend shirt, in “The Graphics of Home,” offers life lessons for the undocumented, “the original / Navigators.” Originally ordered by catalog and gifted as a hand-me-down, the shirt was treated as new, mended when necessary, then cut short-sleeved, then sleeveless. Eventually, the buttons were removed and saved:

the cloth cut into small usable pieces
for mending, for doll clothes, for
whatever was left over. The rest, torn
into jagged rags for cleaning and, if the fabric was soft,
used for Saturday’s dusting of the good furniture
in the den.

Whatever remained was sold to an oily rag man who rounded the neighborhood “urgent and smiling as if / his soul were a miracle of naturalized / birth.” Here, Borges Accardi has textualized an aspect of immigrant life, her details demonstrating deep acts of care that stand apart from the rag man.

Absence could be considered its own character in Through a Grainy Landscape. Fisherman husbands have disappeared into the sea, leaving behind widows on the Azores, the Portuguese islands from which Borges Accardi’s family seems to hail. Parents’ bodies have gone light. Words and sounds are missing, and questions about family history are not asked. Wishes and hopes are unrealized. Grief has its own terrain, and the Portuguese sense of saudade—a deep melancholy or nostalgia for something or someone loved and likely beyond return—settles into many poems. Borges Accardi, in “Your Native Landscape,” questions:

. . . why can’t
we all just get old together and age
as kinfolk, bundled in heritage
sharing down to earth wisdom . . .

as she attempts to better define the grief of losing a parent. But reality is not so kind to children and parents, and years of living with loss don’t stop a chance recollection or a return to a former neighborhood from making the past crash into the present in unresolved ways. “Grief is like that,” Borges Accardi recognizes, “it’s shrapnel under the skin working / a way out.”

In Through a Grainy Landscape, truth is also working under Borges Accardi’s skin, trying to find its way out. A truth of grief is how remembering a loss can feel like being slammed into a wall while having to continue to change shoes like you do every day, as the first-person narrator of “Drinkers of Silence, Emigrants from Other Worlds” must do. The poem “And, at last, God Returns” suggests that a truth of salvation is:

like a small boy
who cannot find the last puzzle
piece to the lake with the swans
on the family table and is punished for it.

A truth of illness is pain and waiting, as seen in the final poem of the collection, “I’ve Driven all Night through a Grainy Landscape.” Here, Borges Accardi struggles with borderlines and normal civilities, noting that “. . . last year, it didn’t take weeks / for the clock to click one minute to / three like when you were a kid.” Here, a truth of death is its journey, and Borges Accardi is trying to face what comes before its passage, that moment when you reach the point between “someone saying everything is gonna be / OK and everything is over.” By the poem’s end, a truth of death is also “. . . hoping for a time / When you won’t wait any longer.”

At times lovely in its specificity, and others penetrating in its clarity, Through a Grainy Landscape opens a new lens on the generational impact of immigration and on the absences so many of us feel in our lives, but perhaps don’t turn our eyes toward. Millicent Borges Accardi is unflinching in her approach to the beauties of her world and the contradictions of her life experiences. The objects and abstractions that she focuses her gaze upon become something altogether new and alive. Through a Grainy Landscape will take you on a journey through the world you know and offer you many ways to reconsider it.

About the Reviewer

Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.