There are many kinds of stranger and strangeness in Mary di Michele's Stranger in You (Oxford University Press, 92 pages, $12.95 paper). There is the strangeness encountered when we explore identity, as in "Born in August" or "Cara". A stranger may look out at you from a mirror or the eyes of someone close to you, as in "Mimosa". Places serve up strangeness; in the Alaska of "Manifestations of Ice",
to the stature of sunflowers while violets
remain the size of peas.
And language itself, its meanings entangled with place and identity, is a mystery, its possibilities waiting to be opened. In "Rilke Sentire," the lovely, long poem that ends the book, the narrator walks the reader through Duino:
You discover a wooded path called Rilke Sentire following the cliffs. You thought "sentire" meant "to listen"; you didn't know it was also a path. It is a linguistic coincidence: in Italian the angel of the elegies whispers that to listen is also a way to walk.
These ways of exploration-listening and walking-recur often in this collection, which spans approximately twenty years of work. A Selected Poems acts as a kind of retrospective, allowing the reader to accompany the poet through the years, through themes and interests, life stages, changes in how the poetry is made. For anyone who hasn't read a great deal of di Michele's work, this is a fine place to start.
One pleasure to be found in Stranger in You is reading the fine Chilean poems that appeared in Luminous Emergencies (1990). "The Afterlife of Shoes" is a poem that lingers long after you read it, its compressed stories haunting, its final, questioning lines echoing:
In this poem, the dead speak and the official is tolerant.
Which of these miracles will you believe?
Throughout Stranger in You, the poet poses questions, suggests possibilities, providing nothing as pat as an answer, always exploring. This engages the reader and makes the poems feel alive, restless, in motion. Near the end of "Rilke Sentire", the narrator asks:
What's mystery when it's all around you? Not home?
The response is a build of detail and careful observation. The reader finishes, turns to a blank page, wishes for another of di Michele's new poems.