Read Any Good Books Lately?

As a matter of fact, I have: Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim: Poems (Paraclete Press, 2017), for one.

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Angela and think the world of her, as a person and as a Catholic artist-intellectual. I’ve also read (and frequently reread) everything that I’m aware she has written. But I hope that doesn't preclude my being honest about her work, so let me say boldly that  Still Pilgrim, a 58-sonnet sequence, is her best work yet. I wrote a review which was just published in Adanna, Issue 7, 2017. Some excerpts from the review provide a good summary:

    In this collection, O’Donnell takes up the challenge of probing the tensions and insights in the oxymoronic persona of a “still pilgrim,” using the stuff of her own life…
    Unlike the traditional Pilgrim’s Progress, O’Donnell’s contemporary pilgrim need not advance under the rubric of steady improvement, yet develops in her own way from one section to the next. Rather than negotiating a larger universality as the allegorical hero Christian does, this pilgrim, clothed in particulars, manages the same. Many of O’Donnell’s poems play off Catholic-Christian references, as well as familiarity with literary figures, Keats, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost and, of course, Flannery. To enjoy the subtleties, the poignancy and even the humor of this book, readers need to share the pillars of O’Donnell’s spiritual-cultural-intellectual world, but not her dogma. 

Still Pilgrim: Poems
By Angela Alaimo O'Donnell

I reviewed another book by the well-known Irish-Catholic poet Micheal O’Siadhail, One Crimson Thread (Bloodaxe Books, 2015) for the first issue of Presence: Journal of Catholic Poetry. It very honestly chronicled the last year or so in the life of Brid, his wife of 44 years. My review provides, once again, a summary:

The book opens, as all good books do, in medias res. While Bríd has suffered from PD (Parkinson’s Disease) for years, her husband admits that something worse has now intruded, “I stammer it: Dementia.” This, the result of all his prayers? “I ask and ask but do I ask in vain? / Have I received a stone instead of bread.” He interprets this as the true separation, “Unravelling our long-ravelled crimson thread. / My Bríd have you begun to take your leave?” Thus, in the first poem, O’Siadhail, a Catholic, sets up what is to follow: the possible severing even in life of their sacramental oneness, the gradual leave-taking necessitated by death. God is part of the equation, but God is not part of the separation. 

One Crimson Thread, like Still Pilgrim, consists entirely of sonnets. Maybe it is a self-selected group, but it seems to me that a lot of Catholic poetry is formal. Why, I always wonder. When I asked a friend’s opinion, she speculated that a sense of order, akin to the medieval great chain of being, still prevailed as part of our faith.  If so, the sonnets being written today have quite a challenge. It is not obvious in this blog, but I’m generally not a fan of sonnets. Or maybe I am and don’t realize it. Reading the work of these two poets, who fill formal vessels with longing and disorder as only sonnet masters can do, I certainly become a fan.