Quarantine Highway

Millicent Borges Accardi
Flowersong Press ($16)

by Hilary Sideris

Quarantine Highway, the fourth poetry collection by the Portuguese-American poet Millicent Borges Accardi, was written in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a group of thirty Latinx poets participated in a challenge organized by the organization CantoMundo—writing, reading, and riffing on each other’s poems for thirty days. Borges Accardi captures the sheer panic and magical thinking of that time when Covid was at its most mysterious and deadly, and she shows us a community coming together to document and process the absurdity (and, at times, the strange beauty) of pandemic life, taking comfort and inspiration from each other’s raw emotions and rough drafts.        

In the poem “Yes, It’s Difficult,” Borges Accardi lapses into nostalgia for the pre-pandemic world of unfettered travel and spontaneous shows of affection: “it was how we did things then, / dirty and up close and we breathed on each other / sighing air, sipping in fine water droplets.” The poet daydreams of travel in “She Can Do What She has to Do,” finding herself “in a café that I know does not exist, / on a corner in make-believe Paris,” where she watches people pass in the plaza. “Thank you,” she tells the imaginary garçon,

I would love a piece of cheese and some
bread. The drink is cool, so I feel as if
the story of my life can go on forever.

Not surprisingly, a reckoning with fragility and the monotony of living a cautious life dominates the collection. In “All It Takes,” the poet fights off an ant infestation, while outside, bodies stack up in refrigerated trucks. Borges Accardi’s gaze falls on a line of ants carrying their dead across her kitchen floor:

You drink cod liver oil and chant
Go home go home go home as the
ants pick up their dead and march
backwards to their queen.

Even as she attempts to ward off the invaders, the poet recognizes that they, too, are members of a community facing an existential threat. But the kitchen is also a site of hope: Cooking and baking are rituals that engage Borges Accardi in a sensual world where well-being is possible. “One Season, My Father Leases Land to Grow Fresno Sweet Red Onions” describes the pleasure of preparing a spicy Portuguese dish:

To be bright red is to want things to happen.
I know this and make Piri Piri, to be held
carefully, to be used later.
The nuances of honey and bitter, roll
about my tongue as I add the sauce to
our lives.                                     

The poem’s title, like quite a few other titles in this collection, is a line written by a fellow poet—in this case, Juan Luis Guzmán—during the month-long exchange that produced Quarantine Highway. This is a book that shows how poetry matters during a time of crisis, how we can keep writing and remember to breathe through a shared sense of culture and community.

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