August 21, 2017
till Pilgrim, a new collection of poems, reads like a story. Fordham professor Angela Alaimo O’Donnell's narrator—the title's “Still Pilgrim”—is a strong, no-nonsense woman who, in the first poem, “Prologue: To Be a Pilgrim,” instructs us about the journey we’re about to take. Wearing her “best black heels” that “ring the stones,” she tells us
To be a pilgrim own what you own,
stuff it in your clutch, lug it in your tote,
all the heavy history you’d like to lose
nestled up against your dead mother’s shoes.
This captures what it is like to be a woman today, intently moving forward while carrying so much. This woman is both fiercely loving and fiercely independent, shouldering responsibility, stories, and burdens along with love, but knowing when to put them down and go her own way. In “The Still Pilgrim Invents Dawn,” speaking about the sun, she “holds him in her wind-chapped hands./She shoulders him like a child,” but at the end, she “salutes the blue and shades her eyes/and turns her back and goes.”
The narrator talks a lot about mothers’ strength: “In a world of rain, she was our ark.” These mothers aren’t just clichéd heroines; they are also snide and practical to a fault. In “The Still Pilgrim Considers Home Economics,” an impoverished mother jokes, “I wonder what the poor people are doing/tonight?” And in a poem about the Annunciation, she commiserates with Mary, saying, you “dismiss him with a quiet ‘yes,’/and we get back to business,/the floor unswept, the house a mess.” The women in the poems are all women to learn from: “This dish she taught me how to make,/this wine I drink, this bread I break.”
O’Donnell’s Catholicism is evident throughout the book. In a poem about Pentacost, the whole world, both animate and inanimate, speaks: “Doorbells chimes, metal railings ring,/a tune in every creature and every thing.” O’Donnell also has some unvarnished takes on Jesus and the disciples in “The Still Pilgrim Considers Christ’s Table Manners”: “Christ saw it all. He had a seasoned eye./Watched them bolt ripe plums and spit the pits.” “The Still Pilgrim Ponders Metaphor” could have been an easy dismissal of faith, but instead, the struggle behind the words comes through painfully:
No matter how astute
your mind, you must let your heart be burned,
torch every bit of sense you’ve ever learned.
One needn't be Catholic to enjoy these poems. “The Still Pilgrim Considers a Hard Teaching,” talks about the need to cherish the world, “the world, ever ancient and ever new,/not just love it, but act like you do.” That stern admonition goes right to the heart of both belief and action.
O’Donnell clearly loves wordplay. Hers are always poems first, though, with striking lines and fresh ways of seeing the ordinary. She talks of ice skaters “scoring the sky of the world below,” and of the motion and emotion of running: “her size nine feet never lose their grip-/and-give as they kissed and fled the earth.” In “The Still Pilgrim’s Thoughts on Rising,” she describes morning as a “mercy of birds,” as if inventing a new word for a flock. She describes the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall in Washington, D.C. as a “dark grave wake” with double meanings for each word: “dark” for both the wall's color and the emotion, “grave” as both the adjective and the place where the dead's names are etched, and “wake” as both a wave washing over the spectators and a celebration of the dead.
Every poem is a form of sonnet, with variety coming from a mixture of rhyme schemes, meter, and exact or slant rhyme. In a few places, the metrical variations seem unnecessary, and in “The Still Pilgrim Recreates Creation,” the “pinot/merlot” rhyme on the off syllable seems disruptive, but only because the rhymes and lines leading up to it are so wonderful: “I’ll call this volcano, she said/as the pot bubbled up, thick red.”
“The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story”—this poem blew the top of my head off. The insistence built into the trochaic first line, the repetitions, the double meanings of “cold, smoked, and blue,” and finally, the brilliance and simplicity of the iambic pentameter lines—I loved this poem.
Find the fish you need to kill and kill it.
The Moby Dick of your life. The one who
keeps running away with your line. Chill it
on ice, then eat it cold, smoked, and blue.
This is the way you have your way with it
after it’s had its way so long with you.
O’Donnell explains in the afterward that the persona of the “Still Pilgrim,” encompasses “the discipline of sitting still even as the world moves through and around her.” Still Pilgrim is a pilgrimage, led by an engaging woman in size nine shoes. I urge you take the journey.