Review by Maryanne Hannan
by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
PO Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
2009, 98 pp., $18.00
At the 2007 West Chester Poetry Conference, I attended a panel discussion on “Catholicism and Modern American Poetry.” One of the speakers struck me as bold in defining the operational intersection of her spiritual tradition and artistic imagination with the world. “Catholic poetry,” said Angela O’Donnell, “reflects and embodies a particular disposition towards the world. It is corporeal—perhaps even bloody minded, in its insistence upon an embodied, incarnate faith—it is grim in its acknowledgment of the presence and power of real evil in the world—and it is ultimately hopeful in its assertion of the meaning of suffering and in its persistent search for God even when he seems to be absent.” She calls this attitude “an Incarnational awareness.”
Associate Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University where she teaches English, Creative Writing and American Catholic Studies, O’Donnell has been willing, through her reviews and critical writings, to wrestle with the hydra-headed monster, “What is Catholic Poetry?” and describe at least a head or two. Now she has published her own first full-length poetry collection, Moving House. To my relief, she left both critical theory and religious dogma at the door.
Moving House ranges through a heady mix of topics against an autobiographical backdrop, the bleak days of O’Donnell’s childhood through the quiet chronology of a move in her maturity. The first sections contain poems of her Pennsylvania coal-town upbringing, the death of her father, her mother’s edgy widowhood, an arsonist cousin, her grandparents’ graves, gardens and warped floorboards. There is no excess sentiment, no confessional tugs to these poems—merely the most telling details to render the larger story.
The first specific reference to Catholicism occurs in “Other Mothers”:
Other girls’ mothers
didn’t like my mother,
grew green-eyed in the grocery,
cold-shouldered us at Mass
where she’d stay in the pew,
marooned, at Communion
A mother ostracized for her propensity to take on lovers and a weekly venue for this censure to occur might reasonably be expected to trigger anger against the individuals and institutions involved, but there are no traces of anger or references to the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. It just is.
The latter part of the collection, in which the title poem occurs, proceeds chronologically with the poet’s move from Baltimore to New York City and continues there to post-9-11. Throughout the book, houses function as containers of lives and spirits. In her grandmother’s home is “holy Mary on the western wall.” Home is the nexus of experience for the living, and now the poet must abandon the home where her children lived for another unknown existence. She will carry with her the home of her mind, truly portable. So many poems in this collection revolve around a deep, nearly personal relationship with figures from Anne Sexton, Andrew Wyeth, Dante to the ever-present Melville that it was a surprise to find out that “Reading in the New House” is not the same:
I find my mind
yearning for what’s lost
to me, all that’s left behind
My mind’s on fire,
my heart a lonely hull,
my gut a knot
these two eyes wells,
all thought distraught—
Many of these autobiographical poems appeared in O’Donnell’s chapbook, Mine. What gives them new life and even added depth in this collection is their placement alongside poems from her other chapbook, Waiting for Ecstasy, a collection of poems religious in tone and subject matter. The inclusion of such disparate material, arranged so that a poem about Maria Goretti and other girl martyrs coexists with a poem about making an apple pie, struck me as thematic, a bit of O’Donnell’s Incarnational awareness, invisible unity at work.
I experienced pleasurable jolts in the bold juxtaposition of these poems, never knowing what would come next. For example, a poem about her mother’s lover, “Blues Man,”
the kind of man
who’d walk in the house
and make the women cry,
but first we’d feed you, fry
the mess of fish you’d caught,
broil the frozen steak
is followed by a quiet meditation on the poet’s visit to the grave of Gerald Manley Hopkins, “Glasnevin Graveyard”:
Under rainy gray sky,
a soft day, as the natives would say,
you lie in strange earth
poet among the dead and dumb.
“Saints’ Lives,” listing all those gory-girl martyrs,
St. Agatha’s breasts, sliced and served.
St. Lucy’s mild eyes upon the dish.
And St. Cecilia succumbed, they say, singing.
is not too far away from “My Bonanza,” in which the poet professes her preference for
…. the ugly brother,
middle-son saddled with upright Adam
and pretty Little Joe forever
out-looking, out-talking, out-flanking you.
As different as the subject matter in these poems appear, they do share one reality: death. The Blues Man dies in a tragic car accident; Hopkins and the virgin martyrs are no longer with us obviously; and the occasion for “My Bonanza” was Hoss’ recent death. Throughout these poems, the separation of the living and the dead is sometimes as flimsy as “Grandmother’s Living Room” with
The frayed floral carpet
all that held us from a head-
long tumble down the mine-
shaft dug beneath the house long before.
What is under the earth, the thin porosity separating where we walk blithely on with where we might fall, is never far from the poet’s mind. She takes us to the mines where her father worked in “Touring the Mine,”
to a place untouched by sun,
unknown to night or noon
or cloud-scudded sky
and she takes us to grave sites, her father’s, grandmother’s, Hopkins’ as mentioned, but also Melville’s (St. Melville) and the great unknowns, All Souls and All Saints.
There are other less traditional graves. In the title poem, “Moving House,” the poet replaces a photo of the former residents of the home they are vacating (one of whom, might I add, succumbed earlier to cancer and his widow likely has followed):
… As I pack
the last of our belongings,
label boxes with a newly
I replace the smiling pair
in their slot behind the molding,
our own smiling selves
before the enduring hearth
slid in the crevice beside them.
This ritualistic burial requires some resurrection. It is there, but subtle. In one of the final poems set in a snowstorm, O’Donnell considers “The Meaning of Birds,”
What will fill their hunger,
stoke the flame of beating wings
when what lives lies buried
beneath the soft weight of white?
What mercy for the birds,
seed of sky and worm of earth?
The grace in my full hands
comes a cold, slow sleep.
There has been other evidence of spiritual angst—for example, “Waiting for Ecstasy,” which counterpoints the poet’s afternoon doing laundry with Saint Therese’ labors and of the burden of being, or “St. Henry,” in which the poet wishes to change lives with Thoreau for just one day. Despite this, the lost homes, the unreliability of accustomed pleasures, the ubiquitous grave where unfinished business must be confronted directly, Moving House is a serene, even joyful book. There is so little posturing in these poems that the simple honesty and balanced joy of ”Coming and Going” rings truest:
I’ve come into my beauty late
and won’t be staying long
and know that I must make of little
Time’s winged chariot rides again.
Finally, to return to my original questions. O’Donnell willingly embraces for herself the rubric “Catholic poet.” Many of these poems do draw on Catholic imagery and what could even be called Catholic superstition, but I would describe the poems as much catholic as they are Catholic. After all, orthodoxy has not yet caught up with St. Melville. However, and this is more to the point, the quality of her imagination and the willingness to live in a porous world is Catholic, as she defines it. Her refusal to dichotomize between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, as I understand the arrangement of the poems, is the most compelling argument for an incarnate faith.
I am left with only one question, perhaps of my own making. “Lies,” the first poem of the book, ends “We lived and died by stories in that house.” I know they are stories, but in what sense, I read the book wondering, are they lies? Other than its placement as the first poem of the collection, there is nothing else in the text to justify reading this as a post-modern undercutting of all that follows. Still to have the first poem of a collection signal “Lies” does pique my interest.
My own definition of Catholic poetry, not limited to Catholic poetry either, assumes an individual wrestling, albeit at the intersection of heaven and earth, with the question of what is a lie and what is not, what is the truth. Perhaps O’Donnell’s answer would be that nothing is a lie that points you in the right direction. Or perhaps this is a question I, not the text, am asking.
Maryanne Hannan has poetry recent or forthcoming in Christian Century, Christianity and Literature, Light Quarterly, Naugautuck River Review, River Oak Review, Stand (UK), and Windhover. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.