Monday, June 14, 2021

'Love in the Time of Coronavirus': A Review

Cover Art

Lockdowns and isolation. Uncertainty and fear. Suffering and grievance. Death and loss. Hope and faith and love. Poet Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's recently published collection Love in the Time of Coronavirus: A Pandemic Pilgrimage (Paraclete Press, 2021) addresses these subjects and more, from the most quotidian ("In Which I Consider My Wardrobe", "Indoor Exercise") to the religious and spiritual ("Palm Sunday", "Good Friday"), from working outside her classroom ("Wherein I Teach Literature Remotely") to waxing philosophical ("Transience").

Written in O'Donnell's signature sonnet form, the collection lends itself beautifully to its four-part (year-long, seasonal) structure, each part consisting of 14 poems, with a final 57th poem, "The Prayer", in an Epilogue. The structure creates a sonnet cycle or sequence that allows O'Donnell to inform her experience of the pandemic in its many and varied aspects, emotional and otherwise. The parts track more than a year during which O'Donnell — indeed, all of us — could go nowhere and yet "arrived where we don't want to go[,]" ultimately having to accept that once "[t]he train's on the track[,]" / It only runs forward" ("Wherein We Realize This Is Not Temporary"), as the poems themselves move us through the chronicle of O'Donnell's own journey. 

As personal meditations charting universally experienced effects of the pandemic of 2020-2021, the poems take us readers, in the same cyclical way our calendar does, through holidays (St. Patrick's Day, Shakespeare's 456th birthday, Halloween) and holy days (Easter, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany), even a national election wherein we voters aim to "fill in the ballot" and "feed the machine" in the [h]ope where we're going is not where we've been" ("Election 2020").

If one poem speaks 

[. . .] of stars, how far they were and how long
it took their light to reach our river path,
how long after it dies a star's light lasts [,]
~ "Super Moon"

another renders a scene that makes clear that everything that ever seemed normal has turned upside down:

The world is burning and we don't have a clue
how the fire started, when or where or who
lit the match [. . .]
[. . .] Every city and street
is a ghost town now. We haunt our own dreams.
The world as it used to be only seems — [. . .]
~ "The Fire"

O'Donnell's, as are our own during the past 15 months of the pandemic, are the very real feelings of the "inexorable defeat" of day piling "upon day upon day" ("House Arrest"), of longing "to go to the beautiful places" while resident in the "gray prison" that her house becomes ("Cabin Fever"), where "getting through each day becomes an art" ("Days of Hibernation") and "[n]othing is as true or certain as it seems" ("Relapse") but that "rogue wave of sadness" ("Locus Amoenus") that comes as "[c]ontagion rides on the cold blue air" ("All Hallows Eve") and the virus, in resurgence, leaves another place empty at someone's table — more than 600,000 places, eventually, as the pandemic's anniversary comes round.

Yet, even in this most devastating of circumstances, when "[t]the world's gone insane" ("Our Emmaus"), the poems urge us to take

[. . .] the tentative step, the listening
for the crack in the ice, the inkling
that the world will once more hold our weight. [. . .]
~ "Anniversary"
and give us reason enough to "bless the day that dawns on us" ("Pandemic Prayer"). 
Turning her attention to life outside her windows — "the children's voices in the park", "the pair of geese as they take flight" ("The Virus Begins to Abate"), the birds that "worship daylight's power" ("Four A.M.") — O'Donnell both reclaims and proclaims what sustains us: hope and faith and love.

[. . .] Open the windows [. . .]
to let in the breeze that blows sweet & long,
through the red maple, the cherry, the birch,
their branches clamoring with light & love,
days full of sunshine [. . .]
Now is our moment. [. . .]
No matter how leaden our hearts might be
let's lift them up. Let's let ourselves see
the courage of birds, each rose, every tree.
~ "May Song"

As in her other rewarding collections, including last year's Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O'Connor (Paraclete Press, 2020), O'Donnell, a professor at Fordham University and Associate Director of Fordham's Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, instills her poems with her mastery of craft and, with wisdom and deep appreciation for life, allows us to take strength from them.


My other reviews of Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's poetry collections:


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