The rumour is true, poetry fans: Di Cicco is back. Until this new book, his career of ten books from 1975 to 1986¨resembled Rimbaud's: a spurt of brilliance and productivity, then silence. Both lived and wrote in a take-no-prisoners style. But here the analogy ends: while Rimbaud explored his heart of darkness, trading guns and ivory, Di Cicco's parabola aimed at faith. He lived in a monastery, and then was ordained a Catholic priest. While a surprise, this was not unprecedented in poetry. Gerald Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, and others like Margaret Avison, William Everson (Brother Antoninus) and T.S. Eliot had mid-life conversions. Di Cicco's new book, with Dennis Lee's lengthy critical afterword, reveals that he's returned to poetry. Included are 21 new poems, selections from previous books and some unpublished earlier poetry. A short review like this can't do justice to the extent and complexity of the Di Cicco opus. But while some themes persist a deep excavation of the past, a sense of loss, and the disjunction between heart and head one can summarize his early books as an ongoing argument within the poet. There is a symptomatic, relational shuffling of capitals: some poems use "i" and "god" while others elect I to address God. Searching for certainty or perhaps "grace," he tests various antidotes to the void¨romantic love, philosophy, contemporary science, poetry itself and finds them wanting. What Dennis Lee calls Di Cicco's poetry of the deep image imploded in his Virgin Science collection, where a vocabulary torn almost at random from physics, math, theology and philosophy built an obscure wall of graffiti. Then he found religion. "It is time to come home," he writes in the new poem "First Days"¨"You had your chance to be literary, if ever; to marry, have kids, be famous; this was the game, allowed, to show you its fruitlessness." How does the whole collection read? Some of the earlier work now seems repetitious and self-centered. If you delete "I", "heart" and "bone" little remains of some.
The stretch for ever more surreal images occasionally falls short; it's hard to work "rutabaga" into a serious poem. But most of the poems also make the take-your-head-off leaps and brilliant improvisational music that his best work offers. The new work is not impenetrably religious, but does seem less frenzied. If you don't know Di Cicco's writing, this book is a good place to start. For admirers, it's catch-up time. ˛