Bicycle Thieves

By Mary di Michele

Bicycle Thieves
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A masterwork from one of Canada’s most important poets

Referencing the post-war neorealist film by Vittorio De Sica, Mary di Michele’s Bicycle Thieves commemorates her Italian past and her life in Canada through elegy and acts of translation of text and of self.

The collection ... Read more


Overview

A masterwork from one of Canada’s most important poets

Referencing the post-war neorealist film by Vittorio De Sica, Mary di Michele’s Bicycle Thieves commemorates her Italian past and her life in Canada through elegy and acts of translation of text and of self.

The collection opens with a kind of hymn to life on the planet, sung from the peak of that urban island, Montreal — an attempt to see beyond death. The book moves into a sequence of poems described by Sharon Thesen as the poet “envisioning the passage of time under the ‘full and waning’ moon of Mount Royal’s beacon cross, recalling her Italian immigrant parents in Toronto and her current life in Montreal [. . .] a sort of Decameron.”

Thesen’s description is apt for the collection as a whole, which moves into the poet’s autobiography — in search of catharsis through literature — and pays tributes to poets who have been part of the literary landscape di Michele now inhabits. Bicycle Thieves is poetry as time machine, transcending the borders between life and death, language and culture.

Mary di Michele

Poet, novelist, and member of the collaborative writing group, Yoko’s Dogs, Mary di Michele is the author of 12 books. She has won numerous awards, including the Confederation Poets Prize and the Malahat Review’s Long Poem Prize, and has appeared on shortlists for many others. Mary has been living in Montreal and teaching at Concordia University in the creative writing program for more than 25 years.

Excerpt

LIFE SENTENCES (An Autobiography in Verse)

 

1

The past is that far

country you emigrated from

as a child.

 

2

A-bomb day —

not even Stevenson would’ve traded

his birthday for yours.

 

3

Mamma says don’t touch

the iron; you’re quick to learn

the meaning of hot.

 

4

Surprised by the burning

bite in the beauty of a rose-

red radish.

 

5

Mamma hits you

with — what was it — a frying pan

for writing with your left hand?

 

 

6

You’re Shirley Temple

dancing in the piazza, but nobody

locks you in the closet.

 

7

If gypsies snatch children,

why does your mother dress you up

as one for Carnevale?

 

8

“Pull down your panties,”

trapped in the stairwell, you do it

so he’ll go away.

 

9

Evenings gallivanting

with Pappa, you learn to pee

squatting at urinals.

 

10

At the shooting range

Pappa wins you a kewpie doll

dressed in pink feathers.

 

11

Gone a year in America,

who is this man, and where is

your real father?

 

12

If hell is hot

then heaven’s not, you might as well

move to Canada.

 

13

Maria Luisa’s

too hard to say so teacher renames you

Mary.

 

14

Life sentence:

you buy The Prisoner of Zenda at Coles

for ten cents.

 

15

Shameful

how you let him touch you there

until you pee.

 

16

The thing you do

for a stick of Doublemint gum,

the thing!

 

17

Double your pleasure

double your fun, Double-

mint gum!

 

18

Sixty-four shades

of Crayola, staying within the lines

feels safe.

 

19

God’s stuck on the roof

of your mouth, you daren’t peel back

the wafer with your tongue.

 

20

Catechism was taught first thing on the curriculum at

St. Thomas Aquinas elementary school . . .

 

Your inmost thoughts will

all be exposed on Judgment Day —

you’re afraid to think!

 

21

Reading the Narnia

story, you want to eat it too —

Turkish delight.

 

22

It’s a mystery,

when you dig up the mouse,

there’s no body, no bones.

 

23

Not true,

your brother says you were just

too afraid to look.

 

24

Twenty-three cents saved,

you and your brother run

away from home.

 

25

Twenty-three cents buys

two chocolate bars, three gum balls,

hungry, you go home.

 

26

Your mother starved in a concentration camp during

the Second World War . . .

 

For spending your savings

on comics, Mother hits you

with a bread loaf.

 

27

Atomic warning system drills:

everybody ducks and hides

under the desks.

 

28

They announce it

over the PA: President Kennedy’s

been shot.

 

29

Who are you really

when your birth certificate’s

written in pencil?

 

30

Writing

nose so close to the page, teacher says

you’ll need glasses.

 

31

In grade five you know

the boy who hits you with your Oxford Concise

loves you.

 

32

At ten you have breasts

Philip pokes with the pointer

to see if they’re real.

 

33

You pronounce your name

Dee-mee-shell as if it were,

though it’s not, French.

 

34

You visit relatives

in Cleveland who have changed

their name to Mitchell.

 

35

(Not) surprisingly

your first job’s a page

in the library!

 

36

Your first paycheque

buys that blue silk blouse

with pearl buttons.

 

37

In high school

you stay home sick a lot and hit

the marsala.

 

38

Among the offspring

of Jewish doctors you’re known

as Miraculous Mary.

 

39

Shame in Dostoevsky

Dimitri’s feet, Brother Andre’s corpse

starting to stink.

 

40

“Get your nose

out of that book and wash the dishes,

dust the furniture!”

 

41

“Why go to university

when you can teach grade school

or get married?”

 

42

According to Pierre Bayard’s theory:

to every book you read you bring your idea of the book,

to every story you read you bring your story . . .

 

War and Peace is

that food fight in the kitchen —

ketchup on the wall.

 

43

Working at A&W

you don’t see the moon landing

broadcast in real time.

 

44

In the age of Twiggy

you’re size eighteen but hip

dressed in a muumuu.

 

45

You much prefer

food to sex, it doesn’t

bite back.

 

46

La Belle Dame sans Merci —

you learn to speak the language

of the dark muse.

 

47

Everywhere

and nowhere, the white

whale.

 

48

In the crystal ball

you’re shown great fame while in life

grateful obscurity.

 

49

All the professors

have British accents, so cool,

so post-colonial.

 

50

Ruth and Carlo,

you only ever have

two friends.

 

51

You read loudly

scenes from Women in Love, not knowing

they’re about sex.

 

52

He’s as pretty

as Paul McCartney; love, love me do . . .

he does not.

 

53

The A+ student

skips lectures to read standing up

in the library stacks.

 

54

No actor,

you’re stuck on props for Six Characters

in Search of an Author.

 

55

There’s no satisfying

hunger for that grilled cheese sandwich

with Christ’s face.

 

56

Miss Lanciano —

you read a poem as your talent

and come in fourth.

 

57

Like Bartleby

the Scrivener, you would prefer

not to . . .

 

58

Offering you a ride

the guy in the Porsche yells he’s doing you

a favour.

 

59

Your life’s soundtrack:

short people got, short people

got no reason to live . . .

 

60

Not deserving love

you marry the man who doesn’t

love you.

 

61

It’s a girl —

giving birth you feel truly female

for the first time.

 

62

You’re an editor

at Toronto Life accepting poems

by the inch.

 

63

Divorce —

the chef’s knife is his and wants

sharpening.

 

64

One by one

your husband’s friends come to give you

what he would not.

 

65

Poems about birth

shut men out, you’re told

death’s universal.

 

66

Your daughter falls out of the stroller and bashes her nose . . .

 

you were a baby

when Mamma tripped, she didn’t

push you down the stairs.

 

67

The eighties —

David Byrne in his big white suit;

you in your skin.

 

68

Obasan absolves you;

it’s not yours, it’s Old Man Gower’s fault,

Naomi!

 

69

You tack up bedsheets

for drapes still Mother no longer calls you

a gypsy.

 

70

Tenure —

is it that golden gate shutting

against your writing?

 

71

The poems that come

most easily to you are written

by someone else.

 

72

Leo like Napoleon

you’re shorter than your stature and suffer

stomach pain.

 

73

You and your daughter jump out the train window.

After the Brighton disaster Via Rail implements

procedures in case of fire on its passenger lines . . .

 

Reading Neruda’s

“La Muerte” on a burning train,

living to reread it.

 

74

Poems and semicolons

always on the next page;

vast vistas . . .

 

75

Bonjour, good day,

comment ça va;

how goes it?

 

76

Don’t write

what you can shout; write what

shuts you up.

(after Yannis Ritsos)

 

77

Your sister; your daughter;

then one Christmas your father

overdoses on Tylenol.

 

78

Every weekend

he dances with his wife, the man

you declined to marry.

 

79

An antique bust

serves both as bookend

and your hat stand.

 

80

Moonlight also

glows on the tarnished silverware —

that’s why you write.

 

81

Mamma says: “Salute

la tua figlia”; Pappa says: “I would

but I’m not here.”

 

82

Capable

the word you use in your mother’s eulogy feels

no small praise.

 

83

Your mother’s blouse

in the memory box, does it still

smell faintly of her?

 

84

Out of Alzheimer’s

comes your father’s warning:

“Don’t you be a soldier!”

 

85

Emptied

of meaning words fill up

with themselves.

(after Yannis Ritsos)

 

86

I like to hear the sound

of form, and I like to hear

the sound of it breaking.

(Frederick Seidel)

 

87

Your madeleines are

Chiquita bananas Pappa would bring

home from work.

 

88

Mi manca l’italia

but when you return it’s as if you’d never been

born in that country.

 

89

Faulkner wrote: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

 

Even the sunlight

warming your face now is

from eight minutes ago.

 

90

Mary, you can’t go

back to yesterday, you were

a different person then.

 

91

Old friend

when did you start speaking of yourself

in the third person?

 

92

At sixty-six

you’re still doing the moonwalk

to warm up.

 

93

Aging —

walking the dog past a mirror

you recognize the dog!

 

94

Words —

all the windows in the house are

frosted.

 

95

Swatting the half moon

on the calendar, what good are

those new glasses!

 

96

Dear Pappa,

I (always) remember your birthday,

not your death day.

 

97

This living hand, now warm and capable

again and again, longing to take yours,

John Keats.

 

98

Twenty-five autumns

in Montreal, still the question,

where’s home?

 

99

Oqurum,

the only surviving word of Khazar,

meaning: “I have read.”

 

100

One hundred sentences

just to say you’ve been on Earth —

however briefly!

Reviews

Bicycle Thieves concerns itself with memory and reflection, and with examining the scale of a life from the perspective of one’s 60s. The highlight of the book is ‘Life Sentences,’ a marvelous sequence of reflective haiku that accumulate to represent a life.” — Quill & Quire, starred review

“Wonderful poetry! Robert Lowell would be thrilled to discover himself so beautifully encased in another’s language. Mary di Michele exudes an air both exquisite and tough.” — Joyce Carol Oates, Numéro Cinq

“The poet presents Montreal as more than an identifier or a signal post. Throughout the collection, much like Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler’s use of one of Canada’s most iconic cities, di Michele makes Montreal her own musical style, chorus, refrain, and harmony.” — Prism International

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