Monday, March 16, 2020

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's 'Andalusian Hours'

Cover Art

I last read and reviewed a work by poet, writer, and educator Angela Alaimo O'Donnell in March 2017; it was Lent, and the book was the luminous sonnet collection Still Pilgrim. Three years later, it is March 2020, once again Lent, and O'Donnell has published a new book, also a collection of sonnets, titled Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor (Paraclete Press, 2020). Publication dates may be purely coincidental but these two books share a number of attributes.

Both collections are monologues in the voice of a woman. In Still Pilgrim, it is the fictional, unnamed narrator whose experience of and stories about the mysterious, the profound, the joyful, the tragic, and the prosaic color her travels "upon the path/walked so many times before" ("The Still Pilgrim's Refrain"), the path of any woman as she gets on with childbearing and mothering, falling in love, dealing with illness, confronting loss. In Andalusian Hours, it is the voice of real-life novelist, essayist, and short story writer Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964), whose recitations of some of those same ups and downs of a woman's life, glories and tragedies, loves and losses, O'Donnell channels not only with deep understanding of O'Connor's short life and abiding Catholic faith but also with remarkable consistency of tone and deliberate attention to the speech rhythms, accent, and likely expressions of the Georgia writer. If, before reading Andalusian Hours, you listen as I did to any of the available online recordings of O'Connor's voice to fix its sound in your mind and ear, you will appreciate just how well O'Donnell captures the intelligence, sharp wit, and poignant self-remarking that O'Connor evinced. O'Donnell need not offer, though she does, a "Poets Apology" for her "brief trespasses on [O'Connor's] private mind", for "speak[ing] for [O'Connor who] . . . stands there silent" (page 122). The "devoted fan" that O'Donnell clearly is — she's a reader of all O'Connor's work and the writer of four books about her "boon companion" — erases any doubt we readers initially might have that she can render in verse the tongue of her "sister self."

The 14-line sonnet form common to both books, and with which O'Donnell admits she took some liberties to convey the rhythm of O'Connor's southern nasal drawl, is especially conducive to Andalusian Hours. As O'Donnell explains, the sonnet form gives "each poem structure and music"; helps to "convey the color and flavor of Flannery's articulations"; and "as container of her thoughts also pays homage to O'Connor's meticulous craft as a writer" (page 9). In fact, O'Donnell's own literary artistry is as much on display; were O'Donnell anyone but the esteemed poet and masterful sonneteer she is, she would not have succeeded in revealing us to ourselves in Still Pilgrim or in so subordinating herself to her Andalusian Hours subject that it is O'Connor the writer who comes vividly alive and remains so to the collection's end.

As "act[s] of imagination" — their narrators' as much as O'Donnell's — these two collections chart the territory of mind and heart and body. But while Still Pilgrim is the product of O'Donnell's singular imagination, Andalusian Hours draws on O'Connor's own writings, excerpts from which appear as epigraphs, thus evolving from the work of two fertile minds, two imaginations, which ultimately become one "lit from within," ultimately revealing a mind turned inward, a life reflecting on itself. Amid those reflections are more than mere glimpses into the woman who called herself "a country fool" ("Flannery & St. Thomas"), who was "fond of fools / and freaks in part because I am one" ("Flannery's Folly"). What also stands out is that "vision of the self [that] hide[s] within" ("Flannery's Tattoo"): the "lonely soul" ("Flannery's Note: Dear Maryat") who knows "what it is to burn low with no / one seeing the quiet glory / you are" ("Flannery's Fire"); the sinner who has "courted the Seven Deadlies" and been "led into temptation" ("Flannery Comes Clean"); the woman in love who was not loved back and spent "years [waiting]  for the fire to go out" ("Flannery in Love, Take II"); the writer who "always did want to be famous / ever since [her] chicken-raising days" ("Flannery's Talent"); the dreamer who got to visit Europe but couldn't wait to get back, vowing, "Next time I leave by box or croaker sack" ("Flannery's Pilgrimage"); the eschatologist who can admit to herself that "[a]ll the holy / water in the Church wouldn't whole or heal me" ("Flannery's Dread"). In short, Andalusian Hours is a portrait fully imagined, fully painted, sonically just right. Until the appearance in the Epilogue of "Poets Apology," it is O'Connor alone, storyteller, pen pal, fame-seekeer, and misfit, who has our reading eyes and listening ears. The voice of O'Donnell doesn't, in fact can't, intrude.

Another feature that the two collections share is delineation of time and place. I described Still Pilgrim in my earlier review as "[b]oth an incomplete biography of a pilgrimage, the one we all begin the same way . . . and a still-to-be-finished autobiography of the Still Pilgrim herself. . . ." Time in that collection is ongoing, being lived. In Andalusian Hours, biography and autobiography are necessarily circumscribed — O'Connor no longer is alive — yet time is revisited through the writings (The Habit of Being principal among them) that O'Donnell quotes to set each poem's theme or mood or tone. Movement within and through time over a day is contracted, limited to the liturgy of hours in which O'Connor narrates the poems as O'Donnell has seen fit to organize them "in keeping with the pattern of Flannery's life at Andalusia"*: Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, Matins. It was a life, O'Donnell explains, "as deliberate and predictable as [that] of a consecrated monk" (page 9).

But time and its corollary, place, are expansive, too, existing as they did for O'Connor when she was alive and as they do in the imagination — O'Donnell's, a reader's — capacious enough to encompass the whole of O'Connor's biography (or, because the poems are monologues, autobiography) as gleaned from and re-viewed through dated excerpts from letters, novels, stories, or essays that made O'Connor's reputation "as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century" (page 7).

Time can be brief or used up on O'Connor's porch; a reader can linger over a poem or move from one to another in the collection, even in no particular order, whenever the reader desires, until the reader reaches the collection's end. Moreover, though O'Connor's actual time on earth is past, in Andalusian Hours it re-runs its course over both day and lifetime and gets re-experienced, first through an epigraph that often conveys some telling autobiographical details, and then a second time in a poem relating some thought or event that could or might have occurred in Andalusia, that place that "is a world of its own," a door to a "rich" interior life characterized by dualistic thinking, as well as a door to the hereafter, where time is an eternity. One way to think about this, perhaps, is to consider how time re-presents itself in the series of humorous and poignantly expressed sonnets about O'Connor's true and unrequited love, Erik Langkjaer. Our first introduction to that topic is in Lauds, early morning prayer time; we return to it at Terce (the third hour of the day, or 9:00 a.m.) and then again at None (the ninth hour, or midafternoon, 3:00 p.m.) and Compline (evening or end of day, before retiring to bed). Truth and wisdom emerge over the course of time spent thinking about Langkjaer but neither relieves the stronger feelings of desire and loneliness that remain forever present.

At "Andalusia," we come to understand, once O'Connor arose and "took the Georgia light" ("Flannery Rising"), she made of time her work of reading and writing, with no particular concern to disrupt the predictable routine she tended to practice: "Long as I have my hands and my sight / I can work. I don't ask for length of days, / just enough to do what I was meant to" ("Flannery's Gratitude"). Perhaps this concept of time and place and imagination is nowhere better represented than by this poem concluding the section titled Compline:

Flannery Considers Andalucia at Andalusia

My home is named for a place I've never seen.
Red clay and white pine seem tame beside
the long kill of bullfights, erotic thrill
of Flamenco flaming across the bare floor.
Regina and I go to Mass. Then I write
stories about the world I know. I fill
pages with places I have been before,
places where I feel some sense of kin.
I don't see myself traversing so far
on this bum leg and this crumbling hip
just to find out what's in a name. All the same
if I could arrive by train or by car
I might make the trip. I might know then
what Andalusia has to do with Jerusalem.

O'Donnell's is a brilliant, highly readable collection of 101 poems. It invites us to make room to imagine ourselves making a pilgrimage to Andalusia, where we sit on O'Connor's porch and travel through O'Connor's 39 years of life, all of us destined "to go, leave / this life for the next" ("Flannery In Extremis"). After all, the road O'Connor traveled, like the path on which Still Pilgrim found herself, was and is our own.

* "Andalusia" was the O'Connor family's farm. It was there, O'Donnell notes (page 8), that the writer lived a "life in exile" because of her disability (she suffered and died from complications of lupus).

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, Ph.D., is a poet, essayist, memoirist, and professor of English, Creative Writing, and Catholic Studies at Fordham University. She also is associate director of Fordham's Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her many books include the biography Flannery O'Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith (Liturgical Press, 2015) and The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor, a "book of hours" (Paraclete Press, 2012). In addition to Still Pilgrim and Andalusian Hours, O'Donnell's poetry collections include  Lovers' Almanac (Wipf & Stock, 2015), Waking My Mother (WordTech Communications, 2013), and Saint Sinatra & Other Poems (WordTech Communications, 2011). Her work can be found in numerous periodicals, anthologies, and magazines, such as The Christian Century and America.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell on FaceBook and Twitter

Note: I received a copy of O'Donnell's collection from Paraclete Press for review purposes.

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