Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Montreal Book Of The Dead - Mary di Michele (Vallum Chapbook Series #17)

Today's book of poetry:
The Montreal Book Of The Dead.  Mary di Michele.  Vallum Chapbook Series #17 - The Vallum Society for Education in Arts & Letters.  Montreal, Quebec.  2014.

The Montreal Book Of The Dead is a sterling little treat from the ever-strong voice of Mary di Michele.  di Michele is just a couple of years older than I am which is to say I have been around since her first book, Tree of August, which was published in 1978.

But it was the 1980 publication of Bread and Chocolate that turned me into a life-long reader and admirer of Mary di Michele.

Nothing has changed here, Today's book of poetry has all sorts of time for anything Mary di Michele writes.

The Unteachable

To be as if never born, Javier Marias
shows the dark back of time to critics, cats
and dogs, pronouncing how little of what
they are will last. Perhaps because I teach

what, I am told, is unteachable,
I want to defend scholars, remind the writer
that even this stone I kick is more assuredly immortal
than Shakespeare. We are all palimpsests

for genomes: writers, critics, and our pets.
Rumi was long-lived for a cat, seventeen years.
And many years have passed along with him,
yet still, raising my eyes from a book of poetry,

not scratched up by his jealous claws,
I might see him, in the periphery
of my vision, the striped gray fur turning
a corner. Disappearing.

Buddy was the first to teach me to love
dogs, to trust them with my hand, my heart
if not my muffins. What did I know?
I wanted a literary dog name, Bolden

from Coming Through Slaughter. Instead I was
given another way of being in the world,
away from the reading lamp, those long
evenings with him, ambling under stars,

walks in any weather. To be as if never
born. This cold Montreal spring, the run-off
iced over again, I am careful as I walk myself
across the park, not stopping to smell anything.


These poems are full of tender ghosts.

They are also so approachable that it is easy to miss how well crafted they are.  OK, that wasn't clear at all  --  what I mean is that di Michele knows her stuff.  These are poems that know how to act.

The Montreal Book Of The Dead is a long sighed-out love letter to di Michele's favourite city.  A tempered and loving elegy to the dead who swim in her memory.


Beacon shining from the top of Mount Royal,
a cross, unblinking under Capricorn.

Beaver lake is iced over. The ring
in his pocket stays in his pocket.

In the shadow of the red-tailed hawk, what's left
of a crow is now just tail feathers and wings

splayed out in the arms of a maple. To look
is to look away. Where the earth is flat we forget

we walk on a planet, but, from the view
at the summit, we remember

we are not alone, married and unmarried
alike for the stellar bridegroom,

orbiting above, astronaut or angel,
watches over us from the stratosphere.

In a flash, we see what he sees, the city
below from space: the mystery,

illuminated. This island city! This
island, Earth! Animal or mineral,

we all bow to the darkness,
we all turn in the light.


Mary di Michele has a type of quiet elegance in her poetry, this has always been the case.  It isn't easy to write with restraint - in di Michele's poems I would call this wisdom tempered with exactitude.

The Montreal Book Of The Dead is a fine chapbook.  It makes you want more.

Somewhere I Have Never Travelled

I arrived at the Canada-US border.
Flags fluttered though there was no wind.
Mine was the sole vehicle at the crossing.

I pulled up to a booth. Nobody
was there, I got out of my car
to peer behind the wicket: darkness

except for the blinking light of a phone.
I had my Canadian passport ready
declaring my Italian birth. The photo

didn't look like me. It felt strange to be
neither here nor there, neither coming
nor going. I arrived at the US-Canada border,

flags the only things moving.
The sun was low but I cast no shadow.


Mary di Michele

Poet, novelist, and member of the collaborative writing group, Yoko’s Dogs,Mary di Michele is author of eleven books including a selected poems,Stranger in You, Oxford University Press 1995, and the novel, Tenor of Love, Viking Canada, Simon & Schuster USA 2005. She lives in Montreal where she teaches at Concordia University. Her most recent books are The Flower of Youth, Pier Paolo Pasolini Poems, ECW Press, 2011, and with Yoko’s Dogs,Whisk, Pedlar Press 2013. Awards include first prize, CBC literary competition, the Air Canada Writing Award, and The Malahat Review long poem.

“Envisioning the passage of time under the “full and unwaning” moon of Mont Royal’s beacon cross, di Michele recalls her Italian immigrant parents in Toronto and her current life in Montreal. This sequence, a sort of decameron, written with her customary brightness and gracefulness of diction, concludes at a deserted customs office where no one wants to see her passport: the truly borderless place of poetry itself.”
     - Sharon Thesen

Mary di Michele
Discusses tradition and innovation and studying
creative writing at Concordia University in Montreal.
Video courtesy of: Concordia Creative Writing


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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