“Saudade”: Review of Through a Grainy Landscape by Millicent Borges Accardi
by Angele Ellis
Saudade is the most Portuguese word to make its way into the English language, so rich and nuanced that it is nearly untranslatable. Wikipedia takes this stab at definition: “…a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one cares for and/or loves…it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again…a feeling both happy and sad…approximated by the English expression ‘bitter sweet.’”
In her fourth poetry collection, Through a Grainy Landscape (the title poem revisits a poem by Portuguese poet and diplomat Tiago Araújo) prolific Portuguese-American and Californian poet and scholar Millicent Borges Accardi channels saudade from the work of Portuguese and Portuguese-American poets, immerses her intimate experiences and those of her immigrant family and countrymen in saudade, becomes saudade.
In “The Most Vertical of Worlds,” a poem of the struggles of childhood and its aftermath, Borges Accardi apostrophizes saudade, addressing the complex emotion as a companion or an alter ego:
…Saudade, the universe has moved
on and given up its brightness
or fought through tremors
with deep fists of physical violence,
or words, but you are trapped
inside an identity you did not imagine
you would be.
“And There was Red Fish”—in this lyrical meditation on innocence and experience, saudade mingles with an early memory of seeing red fish in the ocean as both destiny and as something precious, in danger of slipping away:
…time that had yet to be experienced,
saudade, a life yet unlived like communion
a beggar, a virgin. What you
longed for as a memory. Saudade.
Before it was lost, it was a dare
and an astonishment
In “Lacuna: A Blank Space or a Missing Part,” Borges Accardi defines saudade by merging it with recollections of her grandfather and mother and of other hardworking and hard-loving Portuguese immigrants:
…Under the clothes line in the backyard of
A house 65 years in the past now, a paradise
Key where the object of longing is missing
Like a deed or a lucky charm, it is the saudade
Of all we have, lost in fact
Factories where they manufactured golf balls,
Workers hand-wrapping string around tight wooden spheres
That they held in their hands as the machines
Whirled around them, with plastic coverings
Poured over a hardening shell, the object
Of a longing that might never return, saudade.
This meaty collection, as deeply satisfying as a novella, contains poems on a variety of subjects (the sputtering end of a teenage love affair, life in the shadow of COVID). Another major thread in the book, however, is Borges Accardi’s grief for her late parents—particularly for her mother, Audrey.
Although the poet writes of her lost mother at a number of stages of life, again and again, Audrey appears in “a sexy dress, cut / by a sexy track of old sweat / on a working body that is in its / prime and undeniable” (“An Unsuitable Green”). And in “Mixing Drinks”: “There was the lemon / polyester dress, / matching shoes and the / purse gotten for free from / a soap company after / box tops were collected. / This was the year my mom’s / hair was bright red”
That lighthouse beacon of a dress—as well as the mother’s persistent, defiant, and joyful womanhood in the face of scrimping poverty and prejudice—are on full display in “Woman in a YelloX Dress” (the poem’s title is a play on LatinX):
…On a whim, my mother saved up
for the yellow polyester sheath,
trim like the body of a bottle,
a treasure promised to her from soap
and furniture polish commercials,
The squeaky bright yellow pumps
that accompanied the lemon-colored
A-line drop dress, matched with
a heavenly scarf, that, when she wore
it, was as if she was every movie
star and every woman was vintage
Sophia-Loren-beautiful, on her way
to a Roman holiday in a topless
sports car, shrouded by her escape.
Driving, and the escape it promises or implies, is a theme in works by many Californian poets: “…You got a tank of gas / and received Corningware” (“Woman in a YelloX Dress”). In Through a Grainy Landscape—although here, the automobile alternates with the Portuguese fisherman’s traditional boat—the car has the final word. “Driving All Night Through a Grainy Landscape,” this collection’s final poem and on one level, a meditation on the pandemic, takes the reader on a wild ride with no certain ending:
…It is the passage
Of that long journey, that I have
to work myself up to face, to make it
Through borders and boundaries, week after
week for the past year, a life lived,
sawed in half like a magic trick.
The waiting and 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.