A Review of
Still Pilgrim: Poems
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2017
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Reviewed by James Matichuk
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This review originally appeared on the reviewer’s blog.
Reprinted with permission.
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Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches English at Fordham University and is the associate director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. She has previously published seven poetry collections (in addition to publishing other books, articles, and essays). Her new collection of poems, Still Pilgrim showcases a steady faith and the journey of a woman through the seasons of life and liturgy.
The project was birthed after O’Donnell made a pilgrimage to Herman Melville’s grave, a few miles from her home in the New York. Melville had written of the passion of men going off to sea, but his grave plot in Woodlawn cemetery in the Bronx was in only one of ‘New York’s five boroughs not surrounded by water” (69). O’Donnell composed a poem, St. Melville, with these words, “Is this what you were called to still pilgrim,/to sleep beneath six small feet of earth?” (70). An old sailor interred in the earth, still but his work still lives on.
It is O’Donnell not Melville that dons the moniker Still Pilgrim in these poems (perhaps the poetic voice isn’t completely autobiographical, but I am willing to wager that she wears size nine shoes). All but one poem has “Still Pilgrim” in its title. Here is a random sampling: “The Still Pilgrim visits Ellis Island,” “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story,””The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Sees a Healing, “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” “The Still Pilgrim Describes How Heaven is.”
These poems are sonnets—metred with fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme—and are arranged fourteen poems in each of the four sections. The arrangement corresponds to the four seasons and is roughly shaped by the liturgical calendar. There are also prologue and epilogue poems, introducing and concluding this collection. The structure of tradition is juxtaposed against a contemporary life, the Still Pilgrim. More than once we hear the heal strike of her size nine pumps against the cobblestone of the pilgrim way. There are encounters between old and new and all the heartbreak and joy which comes through life’s journey. The tone is both serious and playful, at turns exuberant and sad. O’Donnell writes in her afterword:
The poems in this book aim to tell a story, albeit by means of glimpses and gleanings rather than continuous narrative. (This, after all, is more akin to how we experience and remember our lives. Continuous narrative is a form of fiction.) The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints,and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. (74).
I had not read O’Donnell’s work before and was caught off guard by these poems. The sustained character of the Still Pilgrim journeys through all life’s seasons, still a pilgrim from beginning to end. This is the double entendre of “still.” It is more than stationary, but it also means continual persistence. Like Melville in his grave, lying still but whose work still lives on, I hope to have much more encounters with the still pilgrim on the road ahead.
Note: Many of these poems were previously published in various journals. Here is a link to five of these poems as they appeared in The Christian Century, if you are curious what these poems are like: https://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/angela-odonnell