June 5, 2010

Review by Robert ManasterWoman on a Shaky Bridge by Millicent Borges Accardi

WOMAN ON A SHAKY BRIDGE
by Millicent Borges Accardi

Finishing Line Press
P.O. Box 1626
Georgetown, KY 40324
ISBN 1-59924-552-3
2010, 23 pp., $14.00
www.finishinglinepress.com

In “On a Theme by William Stafford,” the first poem from Millicent Borges Accardi’s chapbook, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, the speaker begins,

If I could be like Wallace Stevens,
I’d fold my clothes into the bureau
drawer instead of living
from a suitcase.

Unlike Stevens, a poet who’s imagined here as transient, the speaker wants “really [to] move / in.” She’s also able “to open the window for / the neighbors” to be seen as well as to see for herself; she’s in essence settled yet open to experience outside of the room. She observes and participates in the world of experience (outside of the imagination) while at the same time responds with the imagination “so that even the last bite contained / both cone and cream,” alluding to Stevens, the “emperor” of the imagination.

The poems in this chapbook are both settled (in the poems’ awareness of place) and on-the-move (in the imagination). By the end of this well put-together book, Borges Accardi has shown that she can certainly borrow the imaginative force of Stevens just as she simultaneously borrows from Stafford’s plain-spoken poetry of experience and discovery. In the last poem, “Inventing the Present,”

…That happens.
The lull, coming home to a warm
body, the checking in.  The awful
noise that ends where one
begins and is later part of two

In this book, she’s essentially inventing the present (or rather, her perceptions of the present). There’s tension between the imaginative force and experience, where both seem to commingle (versus existing side-by-side), and in the end, imagination and experience recover/restore as a whole that’s “part of two.”

The whole chapbook contains this tension between Stafford and Stevens—one between the particulars of the present, outside world and the range of the imaginative, inside world. Even before her poems begin, Borges Accardi frames these inner and outer worlds, detailing the woman-on-a-shaky-bridge experiments. For her, these experiments with their explicit sexual tension clearly bring out the perception between what’s “real” on the outside and the emotions of fear and attraction that resonate within us.

Borges Accardi skillfully imagines the consequences of an experience that has forged together both fear and attraction. In “Ciscenje Prostora (Ethnic Cleansing),” a rape victim, “thinks not of peace, but of surviving / the winter, of outlasting the enemy, of winning.” Such deft lines. There’s an effective line break at “surviving” and such a turn of being victimized in horrid circumstance to gaining strength and perhaps salvation—all within the imaginative force of the rape victim’s thoughts. Borges Accardi also shows where the fear can lead in “Portrait of a Girl, 1942”: “I am a mirror for all who choose / not to speak. I crack / in the dark. I shine in the snow.” Out of the terrible circumstance, the victim/speaker has internal salvation, or at least an inner strength. The excellent line break at “choose” gives emphasis to choice and free will within (as opposed to the overwhelming circumstance of fate), and the verbs “crack” and “shine” crack and shine in the poem with considerable force and will.

The themes of Borges Accardi’s work range from the fear-inducing circumstance of Bosnia and the Holocaust to the fear in Jessica McClure being stuck in a well for days. There are poems on Jazz, of America (or of an American’s sensibilities), and about growing up. It seems all of the poems in some way weave into them that shaky-bridge interplay of fear and attraction.

Poetically, Borges Accardi’s strength relies on the line and the tension within her line breaks. Her lines are not quite as plain as Stafford’s plain spoken line and not quite as ornate as Stevens’. “In Prague” starts out:

Men jackhammering the corner of Jilska and Mickalska,
disturbing the air’s intonation.  The exposed
sewer pipes, inches from open graves, lie like illness.

“Exposed” is an effective enjambment between the end-stopped lines, moving the reader on. Exposed what… street? This word can both connote vulnerability (e.g., wound exposed) and threat/violation (e.g., scandal exposed or indecent exposure or exposure to cold or disease, etc).

In general, her lines are pared-down and become quite interesting with her impeccable line breaks. They feel (as above) as if they want to explode out into more depth, as in “Swinging Open”:

How impossible at that age
to lather up and take an open blade
to my cheek.  To match father’s
thumbs, cracking the rabbit’s yielded
neck.  Surrounded by lemon trees,
one quick motion, releases. Stories
told around the picnic table.

Her strongest work has this adept phraseology, a pace unencumbered by proper, complete syntax. Her phrases and lines have a vibrantly moving, and perhaps stark, poetics about them. Of course, at times a delightful image blooms out, and her language adjusts to the freeing pace invoking this image, such as this one at the end of “Swinging Open”:

… How delicious
the world was when grandmother shook
the linen table cloth into the wind.

This ending has almost the same structure as at the beginning of this poem, but here, at least, it’s grammatically complete, however slightly strained (deliberately?). Indeed, her poem has swung open. This openness, however, is one in which the voice has poetic authority and has moved toward an unobtrusive mastery of what has to be said.

At Borges Accardi’s most trying times, though, her phraseology languishes into prose. In “The Rattlesnake in Front of my House,”

I called the fire dept but the snake
Was by now under the red
Tool chest with garage odds
And ends in the way.
Later, I watched the snake as he moved

In this poem, the found poem “Sorting Through” and in only a few other places, the energy of her phraseology is gone, and the poem seemingly breaks down into chopped-up prose. The line breaks—however impeccable— cannot save her in these short-lived moments.

Borges Accardi is at her best in this chapbook when she varies her not-quite plain and not-quite ornate language with her line breaks and syntax. She does not reach for new patterns or try new forms. That’s because she writes well in the pared-down brevity of phrases (and lines) with some effective repetition when she chooses to do so.

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Robert Manaster has published work in various journals including Many Mountains Moving, Wisconsin Review, The Literary Review, and International Poetry Review. He has also co-translated poems published in journals such as Virginia Quarterly Review and Visions-International. Recently, he was awarded the Dorothy Norton Clay Poetry Fellowship for the Mary Anderson Center.