National Poetry Month 2021, Week Two: Elaine Ávila’s “Grandma’s Embroidery”

April 11, 2021

There’s a particular light one experiences on the islands of the Azores. A combination of atmospheric and environmental factors contributes to creating this light, including aspect of the sun, the way the sun’s rays cut through the ubiquitous cloud-cover and pervasive sea mist, the reflection off the surrounding sea and refraction through a sometimes-oppressive humidity that lingers, at various times of the day and the season.

Elaine Ávila’s FADO, published by Talonbooks.

It also depends upon the perspective of the individual—how they are feeling, what they are longing for, who they are becoming. You know it when you see it—almost I want to say, you feel it. And the variety and diversity of the light on the islands is remarkable: just as no two people can see things the same way, the way we experience island light will be as various as our very nature.

Luz insular,” Elaine Ávila calls it in her poem, “Grandma’s Embroidery,” describing it as “a light so/ particular, it floats,/ promising miracles,/ as if only somewhere else/ will relieve/ a thousand deprivations.” And in this sense, it has a double meaning: island light and an interiority of light, a light from within, a light that “should tell the truth,/ like Grandma’s embroidery.”

Better known as a playwright, Elaine Ávila is an American-born Canadian of Azorean descent, the granddaughter of one of the first photographers from Ribeiras on the island of Pico, who emigrated to America.

Ávila told me in an email that she first experienced this island light in her grandfather’s photographs. “They had this blurry light, looking like the ‘holy spirit,’ floating through the photos,” she wrote. “I assumed it was because his brownie camera leaked light, but when I took pictures in the Azores, I noticed that light shows up in contemporary photographs and in the sky when you are there.”

Her Azorean grandmother, also from Ribeiras, trained as a tailor and milliner. On her mother’s side, her heritage is mostly a mystery, a product of the hidden history of women who surrendered children for adoption in the days before Roe vs. Wade.

Ávila’s father was a mathematician who worked for NASA and her mother is a painter. This caldo of cultures and intriguing, enigmatic history makes for a rich broth from which Ávila draws in her poetry.

Her plays, which have a decidedly biographical and historical predilection, prompted the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to describe Ávila as “a wonderful writer, tremendously gifted, reliable and innovative.”

Her latest play, FADO: The Saddest Music in the World, is a musical following a young Portuguese Canadian woman “on a multicultural journey back to Lisbon’s meandering back alleys and lively cafés, winding through fados of resistance, emigrant fados, queer fados, in the hope of reclaiming her heritage and retrieving her own true song.” It has just been published by Talonbooks in Canada.      

Here is Elaine Ávila’s poem, “Grandma’s Embroidery”:

Grandma’s Embroidery

In full bloom

Grandma’s blue hydrangea

tumbles through space

shining, alone, overturned,

while Grandpa’s boat 

beckons, with sails of gold

unfurling on a white-blue sea.

She’s done it, broken the patterns

made something original

found American threads so brilliant

she can capture Azorean light.

In the Azores, we call it

“luz insular,” a light so

particular, it floats,

promising miracles,

as if only somewhere else

will relieve

a thousand deprivations.

Luz insular should tell the truth,

like Grandma’s embroidery.

If you leave

you may discover yourself

tumbling, overturned

out of proportion, alone

yet, able,

stitch by stitch,

to make Azorean light

dance.

—Elaine Ávila, used by permission of the author

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