Quarantine Highway by millicent borges accardi (flowersong press 2022)
Reviewed by Alex Carrigan
After the start of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, we’re finally beginning to see literature that addresses the global pandemic that has radically altered the world we live in. At this stage, the works we’re reading are from those who used the lockdown to produce new work and use poetry as an alternate diary. These pieces offer emotional insight into moments during this time, but because of the length of the pandemic, many of these moments blur to focus more on the emotions and details that resonated from the isolation.
Millicent Borges Accardi’s latest poetry collection, Quarantine Highway, is a prime example of the early COVID collections that will emerge in this decade. Accardi’s collection assembles a series of poems that reflect the sort of stream of consciousness that emerged during lockdown when people began to find themselves cut off from their status quo and had to find other ways to find stimulation. The collection reads like Accardi’s attempt to take note of the world around her, and to notice how these meditative moments dig up past memories.
Many of the lines throughout read like an attempt to write down the thoughts that come in without concern for stopping and starting. This gives the collection a dreamy, abstract feel at times. For instance, in the poem “We’ll Come Down Close Behind,” Accardi writes, “And such and we have / and we need and we want / and we have and if it happens, / we couldn’t leave, and there is not a / never in the universe except now.”
Other poems in the collection sift through the abstract to form more concrete memories and visuals. There are mentions a few times throughout about the narrator being exposed to neighbor kids with chicken pox, such as in “Yes it’s Difficult,” where Accardi notes “But it was all so easy / then, and it was how we did things then, / dirty and up close and we breathed on each other / sighing air, sipping in fine water droplets / into each other’s lungs.”
The poem “It Made Her Feel Like” contrasts moments from 1992 and 2020. She writes:
In 2020, I cannot imagine driving
on the freeway or waiting in line.
Everyday things slip through my slipping place
And my fingers, close and easy as sodded
dirt, now, and I focus on things
at hand, that I can reach for,
tasks obtained safely, close to from where I am
While reading Quarantine Highway, the reader may get the sense that Accardi spent a lot of the lockdown reading works by other poets and attempting to tie their work to her memories and emotions in this time. Numerous poems in the collection are written as responses to lines or works by other authors, many of whom are Hispanic/Latinx. These include writers like Pablo Neruda, Ruben Quesada, Javier Zamora, Raina León, and more. In some cases, the titles of the poems lead into the poem, such as in the Zamora-inspired “I Told my Friend to Rub her Lice Against my Hair” which starts with “So I could get the comb through and deal with / the nasty lotion and the sitting on a chair in front / of the low kitchen sink so my mother would / love me and fuss over my hair and touch / my chin instead of being afraid as to what would happen.” This aids in showing what literature writers like Accardi were drawn to during the pandemic and what truths and memories could be found from this meditative process.
Quarantine Highway is Accardi’s attempt to map where her mind traveled during a period of uncertainty and isolation. By using the time to examine how memories and other writers impacted her, she’s able to transcribe a period of time that will be under examination for years to come, while also encapsulating exactly the person she is in this specific time and place. It’s a manifesto of her survival and her identity in response to the pandemic, and its existence will demonstrate how to be led back to a place of safety.
Alex Carrigan (he/him; @carriganak) is an editor, poet, and critic from Virginia. His debut poetry chapbook, May All Our Pain Be Champagne: A Collection of Real Housewives Twitter Poetry (Alien Buddha Press, 2022), was longlisted for Perennial Press’ 2022 Chapbook Awards. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Barrelhouse, Sage Cigarettes (Best of the Net Nominee, 2023), ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), and more.