Quarantine Highway by Millicent Borges Accardi
Photo credit: Flowersong Books
we held onto as a kid disappeared
when people started dying
No one warned or told you about that…”
– Millicent Borges Accardi, Quarantine Highway
Quarantine Highway, Millicent Borges Accardi’s fifth collection of poetry, captures an array of emotions– anxiety, nostalgia, hope and disappointment– encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reading this collection, I was struck by an unexpected recurring theme: childhood hope. Poems like the one excerpted in the epitaph express the optimism we harbor before learning that death, all the more present during a global health crisis, doesn’t discriminate and that those we rely on will not always be there. “[T]he fear and uncertainty of the pandemic might cause people to long for a time when the world was a more innocent and trustworthy place,” Borges Accardi wrote to me in our email interview. This longing also results from isolation, a period of internal reflection brought on by the lack of external stimuli: “...I was locked up in a time capsule, where the only truth available was from the past,” Borges Accardi said. This distortion of time is another idea with which these poems contend.
“When you live in isolation…you realize that the past is exactly like ‘the now,’ and the future is also going to be the same as now,” Borges Accardi wrote to me. This concept of stagnation is present in lines like “we are like summer bugs, / trapped in a screen door.” Anxiety about time– losing it, wasting it, feeling overwhelmed by its forward momentum and yet perfectly still– is captured throughout Quarantine Highway. And yet, some, including Borges Accardi, found ways to make isolation productive. She told me she tried to make the most of her time in isolation, comparing it to a period of “incubation,” of “rebirth…change, regrowth.” However, she also posited that attempting to imbue this limbo with weight is a coping mechanism. About the poem "We Count Steps, Sweep Soreness," she writes:
Having a reason for suffering is what makes it bearable…It is the heaviness and weight that we believe in as protection…A door with no weight blows away. We are searching for a good reason that over a million people died…that the suffering made a difference.
Thus exists a hope that some triumph must come from pain. An optimism not unlike that of children, which is inevitably replaced with disappointment. Another version of this rude awakening presented in these poems is the shock faced by immigrants who are expected to silently assimilate, as in the poem “Darkness we are Having”: “...as if that is the darkness / that we are having, the state of being serene.” Optimism, according to Borges Accardi, “is often what brings immigrants TO America for a better life.” And in the
context of the pandemic, the truth of immigration to the U.S. is doubly harsh: “People who are against immigration found Covid to be an easy excuse to keep people out,” Borges Accardi wrote me. “We changed from having cultural differences to biological vulnerabilities.”
By entwining an immigrant experience, a longing for safety, and a world-shaking crisis, the poems in Quarantine Highway are as complex, fragmented as the era they immortalize.
Brittany Torres Rivera is a bilingual, Puerto Rican writer. She graduated from Florida International University with a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing in the Spring of 2021, becoming the first in her family to attend college. Brittany was awarded prizes in poetry and fiction at the FIU Student Literary Awards in 2020 and 2021. She is a Fulbright Grantee and is currently an English Teaching Assistant in Madrid, Spain.