Poetry

Poetry Sunday: 'Swinging Open,' by Millicent Borges Accardi

One thing that makes that voice authentic is that the details it observes are so convincingly and vividly rendered, firing all five senses. In the image of the rabbit, for example, we see those “hutches, waiting, covered” and feel their menace, also feeling the rabbit’s heartbeat and the fragility of its neck under our thumbs. We hear the crack when the neck breaks, and we smell and taste the “[hot] stew” its body will make. The poem offers the scents of lemon and fig trees, the strains of a mandolin, the sensation of pressure and release when the tablecloth is snapped at the end.
In the persona of the boy, the speaker imagines shaving for the first time and learning to kill rabbits for food. In his body, she shoots a rifle and lives in a desert climate where there are “lizards and prairie dogs.” “No Ellis Island” is a compressed way of letting us know the boy’s ancestors were immigrants, not by way of Ellis Island (like the speaker’s ancestors, perhaps the mask slipping a bit here?) but smuggled “in a ship’s barrel.” As the boy, the speaker recovers memories that are mostly positive—“plump summer evenings” and adults replete with hot stew and wine—but threaded throughout with the deadly knowledge that razors cut, necks break, and those rabbits are doomed.
A shift in tense from past to present signals the second turn in the poem, the one beginning with line 19’s phrase “Back home.” This “father,” in contrast to the one who taught the boy the technique for quickly killing the rabbits, now “sits, pushing / carrots around on a paper plate,” an image evoking nursing homes and connotations of old age and diminishment that contrast bleakly with the vibrant details that came before.
In the penultimate stanza the author performs one more persona tour de force and becomes, for two brief lines, the rabbit we saw at the beginning of the poem: “My own core small, warm, and safe, / beating rapidly.” Of course the boy would identify with the rabbits, kept almost like pets in the misleading safety of a hutch, feeling a sense of security mingled with terror, and conjuring the archetypal childhood where the two exist in balance and sometimes even feel “delicious.”
The mechanics of “Swinging Open” are deceptively simple: short lines organized into 12 non-rhyming and non-metric couplets. As I’ve mentioned before in this column, short lines actually slow things down by making the eye or voice pause slightly at the end of each one. Here, the effect is of a slow unwinding of memories, a richly embossed tablecloth unfolded and smoothed out onto a long table, a meal enjoyed until at its end the linen is picked up and shaken out, and we take our leave. The image that closes “Swinging Open” (that was fun to say!) does what Heather McHugh once told me all good poem endings should do: feel inevitable at the same time they open into something larger. That feeling of openness is, of course, also reflected in the poem’s title. Yeats said the ending of a poem should be like the click of the closing lid of a well-made box, but I prefer to think of it as a threshold crossed or a door swung shut—and the poem escaped beyond it and into the wide world.]]>

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. October 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Rebecca, thank you again for the choice of a wonderful poem and seminar. I look forward to Sunday and these special conversations with you. I especially appreciated the information that “as Picasso famously reminds us, art lies to tell a greater truth”.
    Pat

    Reply
  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. October 23, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Rebecca, thank you again for the choice of a wonderful poem and seminar. I look forward to Sunday and these special conversations with you. I especially appreciated the information that “as Picasso famously reminds us, art lies to tell a greater truth”.
    Pat

    Reply