Poems Against Paralysis

What Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Sonnets Can Do

“To be a pilgrim you must be a killer / of myth, a new invention of desire. / Every pilgrim is a truth-teller. / Every pilgrim is a liar.” Thus ends the first poem in Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s book-length sonnet sequence, Still Pilgrim. These lines, and the book as a whole, revel in paradox, in surface contradictions that mask a deeper reconciliation. How can the pilgrim be both a truth-teller and a liar? Doesn’t a pilgrim follow old desires, old paths and ways, rather than invent new ones? Thinking of the book’s title, can a pilgrim even be still? To be a pilgrim, after all, is to be on the move—to be a wanderer, a peregrine.

Or is “still” here used less as an adjective (describing a lack of movement) than as an adverb (indicating that a situation hasn’t yet ended: the person is still a pilgrim)? In an Afterword, O’Donnell explains that the phrase “still pilgrim” came to her unbidden, “arriv[ing] like a gift,” and then suggests that the preceding sonnets be read as an attempt to unpack the phrase’s many meanings—its balancing of stasis and movement, quietness with questing.

The sonnet is itself a perfect form for such an exploration. Structurally, the sonnet demands movement: shifts in argument and complications of emotion. In the Petrarchan sonnet, a form O’Donnell uses frequently in Still Pilgrim, the poem is divided between an octave (an eight-line opening stanza) and a sestet (a concluding six-line stanza), with a volta, or turn, in between. The volta is the site of change, where the poem—its argument, its images—must strike out in new directions.

A good sonnet is always dynamic, always moving; it must end in a different place from where it began. Yet, if the sonnet is known for anything, it’s for its structural regularity, its unchanging form: always fourteen lines, organized according to specific patterns of rhyme and stanza division. Shakespeare put it best: the sonnet is “A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” The sonnet is both static and mobile, absolutely contained yet freely flowing. It is itself a still pilgrim.

O’Donnell shows just how versatile the liquid container of the sonnet form can be. In “The Still Pilgrim Addresses Father Solstice,” for example, she shows how the stable form of the sonnet can accommodate, make interesting and meaningful, sudden thematic or imagistic jumps. The poem opens with the speaker addressing midwinter, that “black mass of the year” that “bless[es] the fox, the skunk, the probing mole, / all those creatures who hunch from the sun.” The assonance of “probing mole,” the internal almost-rhyme of “skunk” and “hunch”—sounds hop and skip, migrating from one line to the next.

A good sonnet is always dynamic, always moving; it must end in a different place from where it began.

When we get to the volta, the turn between the opening octave and the closing sestet, O’Donnell enjambs lines 8 and 9, running the sentence across the white space of the stanza break:

“What’s done is done and cannot be undone

except for this. Slow light in its slow rowing
across the sea of space from star to star
glides back home, the evening sky glowing
longer each night.”

There’s an absolute break between these two stanzas. Indeed, once we’ve moved across the white space of the break we’re in entirely new territory: where the first stanza emphasized darkness (“Small day of the dark, black mass of the year”), the second half moves towards the light (“the evening sky glowing”), as “Father Darkness” paradoxically proves “light’s power.”

And yet, despite this shift in imagery and tone, there is that enjambment, that syntactical unity. The sestet has moved on from the octave thematically, yet the opening stanza is still present in the second at the level of grammar: “except for this” only makes sense when we refer back across the white space to “What’s done is done and cannot be undone.” O’Donnell shows how the sonnet, in its play of stillness and movement, serves as the perfect poetic form for the solstice—a single, still moment of the year that also points forward to that which comes after it: “the evening sky glowing / longer each night.”

Still Pilgrim is filled with similar moments of formal invention. In “The Still Pilgrim Reinvents Shakespeare: For My Husband of Thirty Years,” for instance, O’Donnell rewrites Sonnet 73, using neither the Petrarchan nor the Shakespearean form but something altogether different. Where Shakespeare began his poem, “That time of year thou mayest in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang,” O’Donnell writes, “That time of year thou mayest in me behold / the clear conviction we’ll never grow old”; where Shakespeare begins with an abab rhymed quatrain, O’Donnell goes with an aabbcc rhymed sestet, though she retains the Shakespearean concluding rhymed couplet: “I’m twenty again, and you’re twenty two. / And each red sun comes up for me and you.”

If you’re a nerd for poetic form, as I am, there’s consistent pleasure to be found in almost every poem—an interesting decision to enjamb here, a surprising internal rhyme there. If you’re not, there’s still plenty to enjoy. In her Afterword, O’Donnell talks about stillness as a theological “virtue—one that we must cultivate, both physically and mentally,” one that enables us to be “detached, receptive, open to mystery.” Still Pilgrim pays particular attention to the sacramental mystery, to how materiality might point towards, and make present, that which is beyond it. In many, even most, of the poems here, things of this world radiate with God’s grace, as in these lines that bring together the culinary and the Eucharistic:

“For ashes, flour upon my head.
For prayers, the rise of scented smoke.
My mother, who is five years dead,
lives in this meat, these eggs I broke,
this dish she taught me how to make,
this wine I drink, this bread I break.”

Or in lines that recall a mother’s undressing and show us a young daughter “rapt in her rite,” seeing the scars of the maternal body as an incarnated sign of love: “five pregnancies leaving their mark. / In a world of rain, she was our ark.”

O’Donnell loves language, obviously, and her poems suggest that, if we’re still and quiet before it, language will reveal its mysteries to us:

“Not just love the world, but cherish it—
from the Latin, carus, to the French, cher—
meaning dear, meaning costly, beloved—
meaning hold to your heart, handle with care,
this world, from Old English, weoruld,
meaning human race, meaning age of man,
this world, meaning life on earth, in this place, 
meaning all of us, here, now, if you can—”

Still Pilgrim has several writerly patron saints, others who have come before and who, by handling language with care, have taught O’Donnell to handle the world with care. In “The Still Pilgrim’s Homage to Robert Frost,” the speaker thanks Frost by alluding to several of his poems (“Birches,” “Home Burial,” “Design,” and others) before this concluding couplet, which itself echoes “Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” and “The Gift Outright”: “These woods will never be the same. / To make them ours is why you came.” O’Connor, Levertov, Wordsworth, and Eliot also come in for thanks. In fact, Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday” provides the book an epigraph and a plea that sounds in many of its individual poems: “Teach us to care and not to care, / Teach us to sit still.”

This is a collection of movement and stillness, of the body and the spirit. It teaches us, like Eliot, to sit still, but it also asks that we allow ourselves—our minds and our language, our spirits and our eyes—to roam: “The eye loves color, a deeper blue / than any sea it can drink. That’s why / it wanders, wonders, casts and scans, / a desperate restless urgent thing.”

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period was published last fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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