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Debriefing the Rose

by Mary di Michele

In her new collection, Montreal poet Mary di Michele explores how we can often feel a stronger connection to writers or artists of the past than to people in the present. Di Michele effortlessly travels from one time to another and interacts with literary figures such as Wang Wei, Hart Crane, Rilke, Baudelaire, and Sappho.

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, the poet begins with a personal exploration of an ended relationship and finishes with the wonderful long poem “My Hart Crane” (originally included in her collection Stranger in You), which compellingly describes Crane’s final days before he committed suicide by jumping off a ship. It ends with these lovely lines:“It wasn’t that I couldn’t/swim but that I had never before aimed/so high. I didn’t plunge to drown, I leapt/to fly.”

The second section contains a series of invitations. My favourite is “Invitation to Read Wang Wei in a Montreal Snowstorm.” Here, the poet questions the success of her life in a consumer society when juxtaposed against the Chinese poet’s more modest philosophy. Such a poignant self-analysis is far more compelling than the long, intellectually remote poem about Rilke (in 18 parts) that follows.

The final section, in its exploration/celebration of Sappho’s life and work, is the least successful. Di Michele attempts to retrieve the Greek lyric poet from the slander of male writers and academics who have, over the years, rewritten her life to place her within a “traditional” sphere of heterosexual desire. At its best, feminist revisionism can present fresh insights. At its worst, however, it can become clichéd. Unfortunately, despite di Michele’s obvious passion for her subject, many of the Sappho poems fail to rise above a predictable rail against patriarchy and male writers.

While not all of these poems are successful, di Michele is clearly a serious poet whose best work achieves a happy marriage of imagistic clarity and poignant investigations into the artistic life.