In her slim first book of poetry, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, Millicent Borges Accardi offered the thesis that our actions in life are primarily determined by our emotions. That theme with its sub-themes of sexuality, impulsivity and family interactions are still all there in her most recent, much larger book, Injuring Eternity, but this second book is a much different animal.
The reader afraid of philosophical poetry need not be concerned about the metaphysical implications of the title. They won't be wrestling with Rilke. Perhaps the best way of envisioning Injuring Eternity is to conceive of it as more or less a portrait gallery divided into three rooms with the names that the poet has given to the three sections of the book over the entrance ways: morning, noon and night. While many visitors to the gallery may just prefer to wander and make their own connections, or simply appreciate an individual portrait, others will want an audio guide.
The first section of the book opens, "Morning" opens with a portrait called "His Hand on her Black Pants" that almost invokes "American Gothic." When the poem begins,
Because they were not parents
the reader suspects they know what Accardi is up to, that this is a book that is going to unfold chronologically such as, say, Rebecca Foust's book do. The reader would be wrong. The next poem, "Mourning Doves," is the descriptive poem its title implies, the third poem "Poor Little Sod" is about a neighbor's child, and the fourth offering is a love poem. This is where a docent comes in handy. "His Hand on Her Black Pants," a strong opening offering, does reveal several characteristics characteristic of best poems: there is an implied (often overt) sexuality, they focus on men, they attempt to slide back and forth into the mind of the subject, and the poet herself is always deeply implicated in the picture.
The string of poems from pages 10-23 are among the strongest in the book, and those in which the author herself is not ostensibly the subject are the most intriguing. Though each of the men in "Somewhere Ahead a Man is Waiting, " "He Talks of Guns" and "Spitting Nails" is presented as a separate portrait, each is essentially the same man – oozing with machismo, the conventional man's Clint Eastwood.
This man thinks
Birds in a storm or a young American
What is most fascinating about these men is the poet's fascination with them.
The second section of Injuring Eternity begins with the poem "Photograph of My Mother as a Young Mother, " which seems to be a companion piece to the books opening poem and, indeed, this section does shift focus to poems centering much more around the narrator's family. As in the first section, though, one has to wander through the gallery a bit to find them. They are found beginning with a stretch of poems at "Music Remembered from the Womb," a seductive and disturbing poem in which physical attraction between father and daughter begins even prior to birth.. It is one of Accardi's strongest arguments for the irrational, emotional nature of human choice – one which is so primitive that it brings the question of human freedom into question and could arguably be said to be an apology for the concept of original sin.
The following poem, "Why Not Irish," also about family influences, takes a very different tact. It argues for the role of cultural influence on one's upbringing. The poem begins:
My mother said, her red hair
As the poem continues with details of her Portuguese heritage, it serves to illustrate just why Arcardi is at her best and most interesting when she forgoes attempts to be profound and simply focuses on the concrete details of life:
The leather shoes three sizes
The poem is a testament to the way that the contemporary American has been formed, the blending of immigrant cultures that makes her what she is. (It would be an excellent and accessible choice for a social studies teacher to include in a middle school U. S. history curriculum.)
Accardi's mother may have had some legitimate cause for complaint, since many more of the poems are oriented towards her father and her Portuguese heritage. "Catholic" is a good example. The poet does pay tribute to her mother in "Last Letter to My Mother," but it is a peripheral sort of tribute since the poem is really more about the author own personal development as a writer than about her mother. What may be most intersting to the reader of the poem may be to conjecture just how closely the author identifies with the poem's narrator. Does she really take the last lines ("…she needed to let me grow up, even though I already was") seriously or is she pulling a Robert Browning, allowing the reader to see the self-deception that the narrator herself does not see? The last interpretation would certainly make for the more interesting poem.
Upon entering the third room of Accardi's gallery, "Evening", the subject and mood make a shift – at least initially. The first three poems all invoke jazz musicians. The poem the reader first encounters, "Sounds is a Circle," dedicated to Miles Davis, even tries to capture a Michael Harper jazz poetry type of feel. As in previous parts of the book, however, the reader then encounters a random configuration of poems, until one once again coming upon a musical association, "Chopin." This transitions not, as one might at first suspect into poems turning on classical music as a subject, but to a short string of poems about Poland or Prague. As in the second section, the strongest poems are not those like the ending poem "Victory" that aspire to loftier feelings, but those such as "The Argument" that ground themselves in specific details. Here, in Prague, two Americans who come for inspiration, end up fighting and lending support to the prevailing image that many Europeans already have of them as uncouth:
In this city we curse; my fists hit your arm
In describing such incidents, however, the poet builds her case for the irrational and indefensible nature of the ctions that make up individual lives. The portraits that Accardi is best at painting are not Greek, but Roman. Her skill is less at pointing toward the universal, than at discovering warts on faces.
When a poet's first book is a slender volume like Accardi's Woman on a Shaking Bridge appears, there is no sure way of predicting what she will do with a second, more comprehensive book. Certainly, many of the themes of sexuality, male dominance and the inability to control our fates that were promised in such poems as "Cisenja Prostora", and the tension that such poems generate in the reading of them, are present in Injuring Eternity. So are some of the poets absorbing portraits of individual people. One is tempted to ask whether Accardi took a kitchen sink approach to her latest book, trying to include everything and diluting its power, when a more streamlined approach would have made it more muscular. An alternative point of view might counter, that the structure of Injuring Eternity reflects life as it is – a generally random and unpredictable sequence of events in which one is lucky to find small islands of consistency. It is up to the reader to decide which view they take.