Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday Muse: 'Still Pilgrim'

Every pilgrim is a truth teller. 
~ from "Prologue: To Be a Pilgrim" in Still Pilgrim

Still Pilgrim Cover Art

How fitting that Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's new poetry collection Still Pilgrim* (Paraclete Press, March 15, 2017) should appear during the season of Lent, which calls on observant Christians to enter a 40-day period of quiet self-reflection — in O'Donnell's words, to "own what you own, [. . .] all the heavy history you'd like to lose" ("Prologue"); thereafter, to walk Jesus's own path toward renewal through death and resurrection. Celebrating the "moveable feast" that is Easter, we travel through this time as if pilgrims, sometimes painfully slowly, sometimes in joy, perhaps in solitude, even loneliness, at times in profound sorrow, yet ("still") persistent, because we know what reward awaits us at the end of the "long and level road", when we affirm our belief in the mystery of the incarnate, living Word.

Both an incomplete biography of a pilgrimage, the one we all begin the same way — "with no map, no stick, no wheels" ("Prologue") and with no known end date — and a still-to-be-finished autobiography of "The Still Pilgrim" herself, the collection's female persona to whom and in whom action and experience necessarily accrue, this collection of 58 luminous poems is distinguished by O'Donnell's complete command of the sonnet form**, her trademark lyricism, and her ability to reveal us to ourselves. Though silent, we are The Still Pilgrim's co-travelers; like her, exposed to the mysterious and profound (the sacred?), as well as the ordinary (the profane?), in a place where the "invention" of dawn,  the reciting of Beatitudes, the recounting of "[a]nother Annunciation", the imagining of the Eucharist, even the poetry of Heaven itself can impel us forward "like a race horse" ("The Still Pilgrim Runs") as we attend to the prosaic: preparing dinner, dealing with insomnia, getting directions. The ordinariness of the poems' details about The Still Pilgrim, such as her complaint of aching feet in her "best black heels", are what makes our identification with her possible. Her stories and experiences — from getting up in the morning, to childbearing and mothering, to falling in love — are ours, too, and not only for as long as we sojourn with her; we know what it's like to run "like a woman catching fire" ("The Still Pilgrim Runs"). And even if we have "need to leave" her side for a time (to put down our reading), we know we can return to resume the pilgrimage, to again "set foot upon the path /. . . walked so many times before" ("The Still Pilgrim's Refrain").

Throughout Still Pilgrim, O'Donnell invests that ordinariness I mention with meaning we co-pilgrims might overlook, because this is a Still Pilgrim who is alive and glorying in life***, despite having to deal with a "bubbled up" pot spewing "thick red sauce [. . .] all over / the pristine stove" ("The Still Pilgrim Recreates Creation"), or getting a diagnosis that makes it difficult for her "to tell / what was cloud and what was light, / what was water, what was sun. [. . .]" ("The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis"). Whatever she must confront, The Still Pilgrim can perceive and accept as "[a]nother blessing", "the moment [to] still dream of [. . .]" ("The Still Pilgrim Sings to Her Child"): an "ugly stump" becomes "[m]y birch [. . .] full of birds who sing" ("The Still Pilgrim Considers Two Birches"); the joy of a son setting off on his own is "worth /the pangs I felt" ("The Still Pilgrim Moves"). She is, this Still Pilgrim, thanks-full, and having "learned to love this world", can "[s]ing [even] mourning in the key of praise" ("The Still Pilgrim Gives Herself Driving Directions").

Arrayed over four beautifully conceived and well-organized sections, O'Donnell's Still Pilgrim poems demonstrate so much of what I admire about her poetry: her keen sense of the music of language, her playfulness in deploying words, the exquisite clarity and consistency of tone and meaning she achieves, her deft use of traditional form (her facility for contemporary sonnets spanning a range of expressive voices might have no equal), her deep understanding of and appreciation for her faith (and its attendant religious customs and practices), and especially her talent for uncovering compellingly human and universal truths about women and women's lives.

So many poems in Still Pilgrim can be singled out for praise. Still, a poem I come back to repeatedly, perhaps because it is suffused with such love and tenderness, is the following, which O'Donnell has dedicated to "my husband of thirty years":

The Still Pilgrim Reinvents Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayest in me behold
the clear conviction we'll never grow old.
When new green leaves hang from all the trees,
when boughs of blossoms bring us to our knees,
when bright birds fill the choir stalls and sing,
our slumped hearts wake and warm to spring.

In you I see the sky, such tender blue,
your fine eyes colored the same deep hue.
The world that lies about us here and now
a miracle that's taken place somehow.
It's happened before. What's now was then.
There's only beginning and no true end.

I'm twenty again, and you're twenty two.
And each red sun comes up for me and you.


"In you I see the sky. . . .": Love, after all, is what endures. Even as we are lost in our "broken kingdom", love can be found again, if we but break the bread and drink the wine and pray our way back home.

My commentary on Still Pilgrim is based on my receipt from the publisher of an advance electronic copy of the collection.

* O'Donnell plays wonderfully on the word "still" and its numerous meanings. Note that unlike the collection's title, whose exact meaning for the reader is opaque, each poem's title carries the word "The", letting us know the poem is about the persona for whom and in whom the poet's words accrue meaning within an exacting and formalized structure.**

** Do not neglect to read O'Donnell's wonderful Afterword, which is replete with felicitous discoveries for the reader.

*** Consider this in the context of the meaning of Easter.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell is a poet, essayist, memoirist, and Fordham University professor. Among her poetry collections are Lovers' Almanac (Wipf & Stock, 2015), Waking My Mother (WordTech Communications, 2013) and Saint Sinatra and Other Poems (WordTech Communications, 2011). Her poetry, which is widely published in esteemed literary periodicals, also can be found in the excellent Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women (Kasva Press, 2016; read my review), an anthology edited by Charles Ades Fishman and Smita Sahay. O'Donnell also is the author of the memoir Mortal Blessings (Ave Maria Press, 2014; read my review), Flannery O'Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith (Liturgical Press, 2015), and The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor (Paraclete Press, 2012). Her articles can be found in numerous periodicals, including The Christian Century and America magazine.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell Website

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