Review (Poetry): With the Keenness of Time (Bicycle Thieves by Mary di Michele)

…Maybe time is not / an arrow after all but a whirling / storm about to touch down (“The Possibility of Time Travel”)

Mary di Michele’s consistent search through place and time continues in her latest collection, Bicycle Thieves, as do particular images.

Thirty-seven years ago, di Michele’s Bread and Chocolate (1980) was published, and in it a poem called “1952.” The poem lyrically describes the photograph we see on the cover of Bicycle Thieves. The poem and her current book’s cover attest to the desire to know what shaped her parents, her self. “1952” tracks a migration and in it we glimpse a man and a woman and hints of a puzzle. This puzzle is further explored in her latest collection.

In “The Bicycle Thief,” di Michele shares birth-place images and vivid sketches of her father – in youth and old age. She captures a return visit to Lanciano and regrets that she cannot go back in time as well as place, to a time “before / the World War, seen the boy my father was / before his father betrayed / a barefoot son / and sold his bicycle.” A patina of love and loss and change loosely covers section one – The Montreal Book of the Dead – like a sheer veil lifted in a breeze.

The middle section – Life Sentences (An Autobiography in Verse) – is comprised of 100 three-line stanzas. In them, a life passes by, nuanced with detail, yet like an illusion. Whereas in section one, the emigration is physical – place to place – in section two it is the lived past:

The past is that far
country you emigrated from
as a child.

It is the past of the poet under a sharply focused magnifying glass where she peers intently at that small enlarged circle, moving the magnifier across memories and through time. The cautionary voice warns: “Mary, you can’t go / back to yesterday, you were / a different person then” (#90). But Socrates suggests that an unexamined life is not worth living.

Di Michele, like Lorna Crozier (What the Soul Doesn’t Want, reviewed July 21 2017), poignantly holds a lens to the past, focusing it on both joys and sorrows in a search for its essence, for meaning. Di Michele’s poems explore the particulars of her life (of an immigrant child, of the mystery of parents, of the curious mind). They create a portal, a bridge that gives voice to universal experiences recognized by her readers.

In the final section – After – we find influences of di Michele’s reading, but even here, she takes us to a specific place and time that is hers. My favourite poem in Bicycle Thieves is “Evening Light” (After Umberto Saba); she tells us:

Moon rise.

                             In the street it’s still
day though dusk’s rapidly descending.
The young don’t notice, they’re busy
texting, faces lit up
by the screens. They have no idea
about death, how in the end, it’s

what helps you live.

And here we have it all: the observation and insight, the sense of time’s movement, the lyrically perfect words and flow.

Since Mary di Michele’s first book (Tree of Life, 1978), she has been honing her poetic skills, the writing becoming sharper, the insights keener. It’s hard to imagine what will come next – after Bicycle Thieves – but already I want it.

11a Bicycle Thieves cover LR-1

Available through your local bookstore or online: Bicycle Thieves

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