A review of Still Pilgrim: Poems, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell

Reviewed by Maryann Corbett

Still Pilgrim: Poems
by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Paraclete Press, 80 pp.
ISBN 978-1-61261-864-7

I’m reading an advance copy of Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Still Pilgrim on Ash Wednesday, and I so wish I could say, “Here’s the book for your Lenten reading!” The only reason I can’t is that the book’s release date is April 1. So here’s the book for your Holy Week reading, especially if you order it now, and for your pleasure in faith-filled poetry any time you pick it up.

Like the best poetry collections, Still Pilgrim coheres absolutely. It has one theme, expressed in the book’s title and the title of every poem. And it sticks firmly to one form, the sonnet. O’Donnell’s take on the form, though, is like Pope Francis’s approach to pastoral care: merciful and generous and forgiving. Meters range from trimeter to pentameter, some of them tight and sprightly, others elastic, heterometric, even sprung, Hopkins-like. Rhyme schemes are many. Rhyming is tolerant of slants and assonances.

Each of the book’s four sections travels out from a complicated intersection of personal history, faith, poetry, culture both pop and high, and time, especially as embodied in the seasons. But the sections travel variously. All of them contain some poems about pilgrimage—like “The Still Pilgrim Revisits the British Museum for the First Time in Twenty Years,” which you can read here—whether the sites visited are religious or cultural or personal. The content of each section, though, leans a little toward an additional particular idea. The first section grapples mostly with the poet’s past, especially her childhood (see, for example, “The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother”), and the second with the experience of motherhood, even of adult children (“The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis”). In these two sections especially, the book is rich in the stuff of the lives of women.

The third section leans toward the various kinds of bodily suffering. There’s the suffering of one’s own aging: the daily dolor of insomnia, the night sweats of menopause. There’s also the pang of watching one’s parents advance toward death, and of meditating their absence. The book’s personal poems on this theme, like “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Story on the Feast of Frank Sinatra,” are some of its most challenging and unexpected.

The fourth section considers time more peacefully, in its regular passage in the seasons, whether they’re celebrated in the liturgy or in the kitchen, at the stove, in the frying of chops in oil (“The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner”). The whole is summed up in a satisfying epilogue “The Still Pilgrim Ponders a Paradox,” which you can read online here.

The poems do their work not only with meter and rhyme and description and metaphor, but with allusions to Wordsworth and Robert Lax and May Swenson and references to the writings of saints like Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. There is richness enough to benefit from repeated readings and to bloom further in the light of the book’s afterword. These are poems that “remember to sing and not to mumble,” if I may borrow from the words of Rhina Espaillat, another poet I admire. And to borrow again, these are poems that demonstrate that the stillness is the dancing.

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