by Lisa Bonato
When Tree of August appeared in 1978 Mary di Michele was only 28, but was writing with the maturity of a much older woman. She already had a distinctive poetic voice which is evident in the title poem, "Tree of August." Here she spoke of a "spinster’s vocabulary," "the bread of loneliness," entrapment and being "thirty and unwed." She demonstrated a fascination for language and the skill for creating the memorable image, "Summer’s long tongue, a sun setting, licks the hills carmine" (28).
It takes years for a writer to find her voice; di Michele established hers with her first published poems. Here she explored some of her major themes: mother-daughter conflict, failed relationships and dual identity. She examined these problems through the discourse of dramatic monologue; the development of characters through the creation of voices. In Mimosa Di Michele could bring these people to life and give them their own voices because she had control of her own poetic voice. We may ask if growing up with the dual language experience of Italian and English gave di Michele an early basis for exploring the human voice in all its shades and intonations?
In her collection, Bread and Chocolate, the voice of di Michele as daughter is woven into a complex fabric of family personae including father, mother, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. The poem "Cara" introduces the daughter in a state of innocence, before she is 'fragmented’ by immigration, family expectations and patriarchy. "Cara" describes a photograph of an ideally beautiful three year old daughter which signifies the proper Italian girl whom she once was and was expected to continue to be. The photo creates a standard that di Michele feels she could never fulfill, and it remains as an emblem of the pain of conflict between the daughter and her parents:
This is the picture which has always dreamed
itself larger than my life.
My parents display it (more than half ashamed)
like a stuffed and decapitated fawn
accidentally killed in a hunt. (34)
The poem "The Disgrace" marks the daughter’s first menstruation and passage into womanhood. In this poem, the image of daughter as outcast is emphasized by contrasting her with the traditional woman of her family. Still a child, ten year old Mary reluctantly assumes her role as woman by being relegated to the kitchen with her mother and aunts; however, with her book in hand, she shows early signs of rebellion:
I am marking the day of my first bleeding
in red pencil in my work book.
I am ten years old.
Already they are plotting
a new and disquieting role for me. (39)
While children of both sexes are allowed to play outside together, in adulthood the men and women are divided into separate social circles with the men in the living-room and the women in the kitchen. Longing to be free from such limitations, Mary feels imprisoned in her new role:
On the first day I forgot to play,
I am cramped in the corner like a snail
climbing the wall by the stove… (37)
Surrounding her are the women in her family who gossip and exchange stories of family history, most of which are about the hardships of women. Mary’s status as an outsider is emphasized further in the story of the insane Aunt whom she was named after:
Maria Luisa, my father’s younger sister,
went mad in her sleep,
and tried to kill her elder sister, Chiarina,
with a knife, she cut her throat
in a hospital a week later
and I'm named for her, the consequences to be
revealed by my stars. (38)
Nevertheless, the status of outsider enables her to posses a unique and insightful perspective in her family and in the world. She observes that there is little difference between sexes in her family with the exception that men enjoy the power that patriarchy affords them:
They are similar stories as the women
but with authority, with the weight of the fist
and the cry of the accordion. (40)
Yet she emphasises that these men and women share a certain powerlessness since they "do not write their own histories" (40), and it is ironic that as an outsider turned poet, she gives voice to their "unwritten stories" (37).
The title "The Disgrace" suggests several meanings when it is translated into Italian, la disgrazia. It can mean misfortune or a bad fate over which we have no control. It can also mean shame or dishonour due to a scandalous act, one over which we should have control. And it is also applied to a visible handicap. Such a person can be referred to as a disgaziato in the sense of poor wretch. In this poem di Michele seems to be alluding to all three meanings.
Like the social divisions portrayed in "The Disgrace," the men and women throughout Bread and Chocolate are separated into public and private spheres. The principal themes in the father/daugther relationship are ones of absence and conflict. In Bread and Chocolate, di Michele depicts the father as head of the patriarchal family, who is rooted in the public world and is detached from his family much of the time. "Waiting for Babbo" is about the father’s estrangement from his daughter due to his long absence in Canada , while in "How to Kill Your Father" the daughter fantasizes about killing her father through her departure from traditional and patriarchal conventions. Representing a similar patriarchal authority in the public sphere, "The Primary Lesson," "Dormi Marisa" and "Outside the Circle" depict the cruel Catholic nuns whom di Michele encountered in school. Conversely, poems like "Ave" and "Pietà '78" portray a mother/daughter relationship that exists in an internal, more personal realm of nurturing and attachment. The words 'ave' and 'pietà' evoke images of the Madonna and it is significant that di Michele uses this religious imagery in titles for poems about her mother. The Madonna imagery in her mother’s portraits symbolizes sacrifice or martyrdom, but also power and fortitude. The poem "Ave" recounts the hardships of her mother’s life, but with recognition by the daughter that her mother is not powerless like the stereotypical immigrant woman. The intelligent daughter is an extension of her mother whose knowledge is of a different source, "the intelligence of hands [her mother's] / without books," (29).
In "Pietà '78" the image of the daughter, Mary, as outsider is juxtaposed alongside the figure of her traditional mother. Once again in the kitchen, the daughter, Mary, is reading Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (43) as her mother ritually labours over her Christmas baking; however, unlike her distaste for traditional womanhood in "The Disgrace," in this poem Mary regards her mother’s role with a certain reverence. In spite of her rebellion against duty and tradition, she maintains a connection with her heritage through her mother in "spaces that are long and filled" (43). Like the title of the poem, the mother/daughter relationship is expressed in terms of religious imagery:
…It[her mother’s house] is the only church I frequent,
the choir of household noises in attendance, the sermons
on money and weather, It is the only temple I honour
because there are still some things I hold fMartasacred:
the warmth of baking, its glow imminent in my mother's
brow as the light fans her hot face by the window, (43)
In this relationship with her mother, the daughter is split between her need for independence and her desire for the secutiry of tradition that her mother represents. While the feminist/intellectual part of the daughter finds solace in de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, her traditional self takes comfort in the sight of her mother working in the kitchen: "that part of my mind relaxes, / reassured by the routine learned off by heart, the simple / life" (43).
In the long poem, "Mimosa", from the collection Mimosa and other poems, the representation of the daughter as outcast and split subject is continued from Bread and Chocolate, but here it is divided into two symbolic personae, the sisters, Marta and Lucia. Like the Virgin Mary and the prostitute, Mary Magdalene, these two sisters represent opposite poles of values and behaviour, with Marta being the traditional, virtuous daughter, while Lucia is the rebellious daughter, called by her sister, "putane" (4), a whore. Their father, Vito, is satisfied with neither of these two extremes and feels that both daughters have failed to meet his expectations:
The good life gave him a house and money
in the bank and a retirement plan,
but it didn't give him fruitful daughters,
his favourite makes herself scarce
and the other looks like her mother. (3)
Exemplifying the schisms in the family, the poem is divided into three monologues, with the common thread being the rejection of cultural tradition by Lucia. The first section, written in the third person, explores the perspective of Vito, the father, while the latter two sections are the first person narratives of the daughters, Marta and Lucia. As a traditional woman who has little authority and knows little English, the mother is present in the poem through her daughters' words, but her own voice and perspective are strikingly absent. We find the voiceless Italian mother in the works of F.G. Paci, Marco Micone, and Caterina Edwards.
Although Vito has learned some English, he "keeps that tongue / in his pocket like a poorly cut key to a summer residence" (2) and so, his perspective must be translated through a third person narrator. Vito is portrayed as an aging patriarch who idealizes the old country and its traditions. To him, the family is sacred ground that has been sullied by the defiant actions of his daughter Lucia:
There is only one heaven, the heaven of the home.
There was only one paradise, the garden
that kept them litte children even as adults,
until one angel, Lucia, his luckless offspring
fell, refusing to share in his light. (1)
Although he is sentimental about Marta’s and Lucia’s childhood, Vito and his daughters share a relationship based more upon authority than love. Like the father in Bread and Chocolate, since Vito has worked long hours away from his family, there are feelings of alienation, "the estrangement like a border crossing" (2) between father and daughters.
In their respective monologues, Marta and Lucia contrast with one another and symbolize the two extremes of the split self in representation of the daughter. Marta, the traditional, compliant daughter, is a grade school teacher and lives at home with her parents: "but I know enough to risk nothing / to live where it’s safe / to have a job that’s secure" (4). Conversely, Lucia is a poet and a wanderer, who scoffs at tradition, and is described by her sister as: "…that gypsy / daughter, the bohemian, the cuckoo’s / egg in our nest" (4-5). Yet in each sister lies the repressed other half. Although Marta is the 'good’ daughter, she secretly envies her sister’s freedom of expression and, as a result, she spends much of her life in Lucia’s shadow. This is evidenced by the fact that much of her monologue is about her sister rather than herself. Marta experiences personal and creative freedom only in brief, clandestine moments, with the assistance of her accordion or her cosmetics: "Friday night when I'm going nowhere / and I'm alone, I play with my kohl / eye pencils and become Cleopatra" (10). Similarly, Lucia repressses parts of herself. Beneath her recalcitrant exterior is a traditional daughter who admits: "So much of my life has been wasted feeling guilty / about disappointing my father and mother / It makes me doubt myself" (13). Although there is no ultimate reconciliation between the sisters or within themselves, they are united on a certain level through their mother.
Maternal silence is evident in the family dialogue in "Mimosa", where amongst the voices of father and daughters, the mother, Alma, is not given an opportunity to speak. It is revealed that unlike her husband, Alma cannot speak English, "the language in which they [her children] dream" (2). However Alma is far from invisible in the dialogue: her presence is pervasive in the poem in that she is the family "mediator" and the parent who is able to communicate with her daughters. Through her active role in the family the mother has overcome the voiceless condition. Lucia states:
Most of the time I can't even talk to my father
I talk to mother and she tells him what she thinks
he can stand to hear
She’s always been the mediator of our quarrels. (13)
Although the two sisters, Marta and Lucia, are diametrically opposed in character, they share the lessons in womanhood taught to them by their mother. For the sisters, Alma is not a victim, but a woman who has survived the often harsh reality of being an immigrant mother. Marta states:
But I learn most about being a woman
from watching my mother, Alma,
I learn from her how a woman is made for love
and for cleaning house. (11)
While Lucia notes:
I learned to be a woman in the arms of a man,
I didn't learn it from ads for lipstick
or watching myself in the mirror.
I learned more about love from watching my mother
wait on my father hand and foot. (14)
The reshaping of maternal silence in the works of some ethnic minority writers is also realized through matrilineal images. Like di Michele, in reciting their origins these writers employ both myth and reality in a way that creates a place for immigrant women in history, literature and culture. Francesco Lorrigio cites the tracing of genealogy in Italian-Canadian writing as a means for writers to acquire the identity and language which produce an Italian-Canadian discourse:
To evoke origin is thus to originate discourse. Italian-Canadian literature can be "about" any subject, with different intensity and different sophistication. Voice, tone and talent vary. But in as much as it accepts itself as Italian-Canadian, as ethnic, it will reiterate, somehow, inside itself, one of the degree zero requirements of all literature: the acquisition of language. (1987, 61)
Thus in the historical sense, the expression of matrilineage allows these writers to record and recite the story of past generations of "'forgotten'" Italian-Canadian women who until very recently have been ignored in literary and historical studies. (5) Joseph Pivato notes that Italian-Canadian women writers are serving this historical purpose by giving ""a voice to these voiceless women and making this invisible population visible" (1986, 87). This telling of matrilineage demarcates the importance of the mother, particularly in the area of the transmission of cultural and family histories, which are largely unwritten due to the oral tradition of many Italian dialects. We may wonder what role the dialects of the Abruzzi-Molise region played in di Michele’s development of her own voice and the voices of her literary personae.
As these maternal images move beyond realism into the realm of myth and symbol, these writers are not denying history, but forming a necessary link with the past for themselves and the reader. Through mythical matrilineage, these writers are creating a literary discourse for "doubly" marginalized women. Writing about literature and gender, di Michele explains women writers' need for a connection between past and present in literature:
The need for literature as a conversation with the living and the dead is like the need to map ancestral family trees, to resist amnesia in our own lives, to refuse doublespeak and the rewriting of history even-as-it-happens by the media, to recognize that memory is history in the body, as the voice is poetry, is literature in the body. And we extend this history, this poetry, this our collective body, when we write it down, and we inscribe this history, this poetry, this body, when we read it. Aloud in our hearts. (1990, 106)
This type of mythical matrilineage has a strong presence in di Michele' work, Bread and Chocolate which is filled with depictions of her female ancestors, particularly her grandmothers. Di Michele portrays these women through distant yet almost religiously benevolent images of love, nurturing, pain and sacrifice. For example, in "A Strange Glance" di Michele writes of her paternal grandmother, interchanging the words "grandmother" and "love":
She was an octogenarian, love, a matriarch,
and her heart tracked for many miles
barefoot in its slow orbit in the space
of her chest.
Love knew the ivory limit
of her universe (10)
In another poem, "Bees and Chickens," di Michele writes of her maternal grandmother whose home was destroyed in the war and whose family left for Canada soon thereafter. This grandmother is a symbol of tragedy and sacrifice made by such women during and after the war:
My mother’s mother makes a grave picture
crouching before her hearth
sacrificing the wood in her arms
to the communal fire. (20)
By writing down the story of these forgotten people di Michele is recreating a lost history as well as giving voice to a group Anne Cornelisen has called "women of the shadows." (1976)
In exploring the second-generation daugther’s life after motherhood, di Michele’s narratives continue to assert a unique voice. The 1983 collection Necessary Sugar, marks a shift in much of di Michele’s writing from the perspective of the daughter to the perspective of the mother. Also evident in later works such as, Immune to Gravity and Luminous Emergencies, many of the poems in Necessary Sugar express a maternal sensibility through numerous physical images of birth, breast-feeding, the maternal body and the mother/daughter bond. Prominent in this collection is this theme of the unspoken physical and emotional connections between mother and daughter. Symbolizing this bond in "Dragons of Sullivan Street" is the symbol of an invisible umbilical cord between mother and daughter:
My baby slumbers above, bathed in her milk dreams.
There’s a long knotted cord running from my heart
to her navel, making me turn with her restlessly,
sense distress before it can reach her. (57)
Also significant to this portrayal of the maternal in Necessary Sugar is the intermingling of the concepts of creativity with giving birth and motherhood. In the poem, "Necessary Sugar" di Michele equates the birth of her daughter to the building of cathedrals and, in doing so, creates an image of the maternal that is deeply connected to creativity rather than set apart from it:
Giving birth I realized that men
build cathedrals in an attempt
to sculpt light,
you are the firefly
I collected between my legs. (38)
In her article, "Creativity and Motherhood: Having the Baby or the Book", Libby Scheier comments that mothering is beginning to surface as a prominent subject in Canadian women’s writing. She mentions di Michele, among others, as one of the women who are attempting to create a place for the maternal perspective in the mainstream of Canadian writing: "As women, we are trying to reinvent language that emerges from the reality of our lives, rather than reflect the perceived impressions of men" (1984, 11-12). Yet it is important to note that di Michele’s maternal language and discourse do not idealize motherhood, as some of her poems from this perspective address the painful side of being a woman. In "Poem for My Daughter" di Michele attempts to prepare her infant daughter for certain harsh realities in advising her to channel her pain into creativity:
I advise you to steel yourself
although there’s no escape from pain
you can burnish with it
like an iron in the fire. (51)
The multiple perspectives and voices that di Michele brings to her writing may not fit easily into feminist discourse. As Sneja Gunew has observed regarding the subject position of the woman speaker, "It is not just a matter of which 'I' but of what sustains the various 'I's.' What are the conditions of speaking?" (1985, 168). Gunew’s concentration upon subjectivity in the context of the theory of agency would appear to be an important point of intersection between ethnicity and feminism. Agency allows for the possibility of different positions and voices and for provisional positions which may change later. Some of these changes we have been able to trace in the poetry of Mary di Michele.
While language, voice and narrative form play important roles in the assertion of identity within the writing of minority women it is important to note that di Michele also openly identifies herself as an ethnic woman, as a mother and a daughter in her writing. In an interview she stressed her need to understand both immigrant and female identities in her writing,
I began to look back into my own immigrant experience, and as a result I found my voice. Dealing with that background was fundamental in my development as a writer in terms of my identity and my voice. Understanding my experience as an immigrant and as a woman was absolutely essential for me and my work. (1984, 22)
Cornelisen, Anne. Women of the Shadows. Boston: Little Brown, 1976.
di Michel, Mary. Tree of August. Toronto: Three Tress Press, 1978.
_____. "Conversations with the Living and the Dead," in L. Scheier, ed. Language in Her Eye. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1990.
Gunew, Sneja. "Migrant Women Writers: Who’s on Whose Margins?" in C. Ferrier, ed. Gender, Politics and Fiction: 20th Century Australian Women Novels, St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1985.
Loriggio, Francesco. "The Question of the Corpus: Ethnicity and Literature," in J. Moss. ed. Future Indicative. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1987.
Pivato, J. "Italian-Canadian Women Writers Recall History," Canadian Ethnic Studies XVII, 1 (1986).
Scheier, Libby. "Creativity and Motherhood: Having the Baby and the Book," This Magazine 18, 4 (1984).
Note: This essay is included in Mary di Michele: Essays on Her Works, ed. J. Pivato (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2005). Essay copyright Lisa Bonato (2004).
Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services