“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.