Millicent Borges Accardi explores her Portuguese-American heritage and experience in this collection, using lines from other Portuguese or Portuguese-American poets. The title is a quote from Tiago Araújo, “I’ve driven all night through a grainy landscape,/ on a motorway with dim and orangey lights.” The quote is suggestive of seeing things from a different perspective and using a little knowledge to make sense of them. The mood perhaps fearful, as it is in, “A Man Sleeps, the Skies Move” written from a line by Luis Quintais,
“We moved and were a day late
in reporting our new address,
so we are trying. There is the sky.
We save money in a jar that looks
like water, the glass dense and broken,
in the jar. At any rate, you are born
in America. You are OK. Please, be
an adult. I know you are in kindergarten
and want to pick roses for your teacher,
but, please, listen and listen and listen
for a moment, listen for your whole life.
There may come a day when we might
be away. Memorize your Auntie’s number.
Take care. Watch the rain clouds. Do the dishes.
Do not fall asleep without worry.”
The parents, fearful of the potential consequences of reporting their move a day late, urge their child to learn a relative’s telephone number in case the parents are taken away. There’s no suggestion that the parents will definitely be removed, but the fear is enough to fret and worry about keeping the child safe. Although done with good intentions, the child is learning to be fearful of something dreadful happening at a time when the child’s main concern should be which flowers to pick for a teacher. The mundanity of everyday chores, such as washing up, are darkened by the need to watch the weather, to be prepared for potential storms.
This intergenerational inheritance of fears is picked up again in “It was my Mother who Taught me to Fear”, where California,
“was a gifted promise for the melting
pot generation, goodbye to bend (bent, bent)
into shape. 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.”
The repetitions give the poem the feeling of running over rails. The moving away is posited as a gift, something positive, a chance for reinvention. But it also means learning about and adapting to a new set of social conventions and being the outsider until you fit in, although fitting in doesn’t guarantee acceptance. It seems liberating, a chance to start afresh, but it only works if you can also leave the problems you moved away from behind. It offers a breathing space, not a solution.
Among the immigrant themed poems are some more personal, yet also universal themes. Here, in “Because You’re Really Tired of it”, a sick parent for whom “Everyone says get well soon and seems/ disappointed when you don’t or can’t” because the script states that wishing people well means they recover, however,
“It’s topsy-turvy where black is white
and the messy world is grey, all grey
and messy and there are weeks when
no one seems to care about the lost
wishes you used to mumble about,
about when you
could not see the sun for a whole year,
and you missed the sun every day and
missed the eclipse too. I’d like to see
the sun again. Hurry back. I’d like to
drink some rosé too. All around I walk
with my eyes closed, as if I can find my way.”
The (adult) child now has to care for the sick parent in a reversal of roles. The role of caring is all-absorbing, especially when casual visitors don’t see the deterioration or console themselves that the parent is recuperating. But the daughter knows this illness isn’t going away or getting better. The odd bad day is now becoming more frequent and gradually becomes every day. Weather becomes a motif, here it’s not sunny. There’s no drama of a storm or refreshing rain, but a lack of sun greying the outlook.
The inevitable grief pops up in unexpected moments. In “Your Native Landscape”,
“Bang, it happens. Even years later
back in America, you run past Clifton’s
or see the Dupar’s sign and the past
slams into the present, in new ways
that the future has yet to consider
or digest. Grief is like that,
it’s shrapnel under the skin working
a way out. A person born
in a specified place, aligned with a land
made whole because of birth,
whether subsequently existing there or not.”
When you think you have accommodated your bereavement and moved on, a trigger sends you back, opening the wound again.
The title poem explores its way “into a world where there are walls/ built across artificial boundaries,/ and families torn apart” and the daily negotiations in “The mid-line boundary between/ someone saying everything is gonna be/ OK and everything is over” as life continues oiled by courtesies and civility,
“But my heart also breaks. In truth, it hurts a lot
Because the heart knows what my
job is. The hurt is the pain above
it all, the others keep moving away, to form
new shapes, now, and when I want them
to stay close, they stick to me like glue.
Longing is the middle ground, when you have
distant connections. It’s such a hard place to be in.
The waiting and the hoping for a time
When you won’t wait any longer then, feeling lived,
a life guilty for that thought. Then, it all runs together
in time, like dirty rivers, seeking a new mouth.”
Finding your own community when you are an outsider is hard and made harder by not being close to the usual networks of support in the extended family, neighbours you grew up with, being able to rely on a childhood friend during a mid-life crisis. Moving on and reinventing yourself often means cutting off your roots and learning to sustain the plant you’ve become in shallower soil while others regard you as a weed, something grown outside the formal lines of the original flower bed, leaving you unsure as to whether you’re going to be left alone or cut down to size. Both the individual poem and collection explore that theme of how to maintain or keep in touch with the culture you belong to while settling. It questions how far compromises can go and whether those compromises are worth it. From the specific lens of Portuguese-Americans, it asks universal questions about the status of those regarded as outsiders.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.