Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, Lovers’ Almanac: Poems. (Resource Publications)
Perhaps no topic has energized poets more than love. In her most recent collection of 54 poems, divided into five numbered sections, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, widely respected for her poetry of faith, tackles the varieties of love ranging from the spiritual heights of Agape (“where you and I have stretched our souls”) to the desires of the body (Eros), that “empty vessel urgent to be filled.” Also included are poems that lead to “the lashings of your rocky heart.” The opening line of “Wardrobe Advice” contains O’Donnell’s mantra about the heart, the spirit’s emblem and the flesh’s talisman—”Thumb the gentle stem. Careful of the thorns.” Readers will find both fragile stems and ouchy thorns in Lovers’ Almanac.
But O’Donnell includes poems about other types of love, familial love, or what the Greeks called Storge, such as “Putting My Sons on My C. V. ” and “Angelus” where she hears her “mother’s echo.” Poems about nature abound as well—the changing seasons in the corona of sonnets that begins the collection, a “Villanelle for the Solstice,” the fierce and then subtle colors of the “westing day” in “Sunrise in Sicily,” and the flights of birds, especially the hawk, that wing through the Almanac. O’Donnell’s mastery of these diverse poetic forms adds to her achievement in charting the way love originates, captivates, and, on some occasions, sublimates.
Lovers’ Almanac is lavishly allusive, intensely intertextual, as if O’Donnell were paying tribute to centuries of saints and poets who have written about love while at the same time making ample room for her own voice that guides the collection. Epigraphs as maps to writers who have influenced O’Donnell are everywhere. In fact, Lovers’ Almanac opens with lines from the early Scottish Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens on the lovers’ moon to Czeslaw Milosz on the transitory nature of love to St. Augustine on falling in love with God’s infinite beauty to St. Paul’s seminal pericope about a higher love—”Love never fails.”
Lovers’ Almanac might be seen as a collection of poems on poems. No less than ten of O’Donnell’s poems carry epigraphs from a diverse cadre of poets, including A. E. Stallings, Stanley Kunitz, W. H. Auden, Thomas Merton, Dante, and, most centrally, Hopkins, whose work lies beneath, in O’Donnell’s diction and syntax. In fact, “Hawk in the Bronx” is a Hopkins-esque portrait of this “pure bird / minor miracle of air” whose feat “escapes those who live too low. / Twice blessed is he to know / the saint’s sweet rapture / impossible to capture.” Memorably, there, too, are poems about Emily Dickinson and Slyvia Plath, both of whom have steadily influenced O’Donnell. Though living in a cloistered world, Dickinson sealed her “wild thoughts” about love in envelope poems while in “Sonnet for Saint Sylvia” (originally published in Valparaiso Poetry Review) we hear about a woman whose “heart was untrained for distance” and so
She sought the darkest places she knew—
the basement, the oven, the grave.
There she could be brave.
Having written a concise but insightful biography of Flannery O’Connor, it is not surprising to see O’Donnell include a poem echoing the grotesqueries that saturate O’Connor’s fiction, such as “women with bad hearts / & ice-picks for eyes.” Perhaps the quintessential woman lost in/for love, though, is Eurydice and in her “Song” O’Donnell characterizes her as “being the sought and the seeker” and addresses her—declares “loving the touch of your own skin, no wonder you invented him.”
In one of O’Donnell’s most carefully crafted poems—”Reading Crusoe on the Metro North”—she deftly links Defoe’s novel to her ride on the New York subway. “Manhattan slides by, another island” leads to symbolic journeys for Defoe and O’Donnell. But while Friday “taught [Crusoe] love,” the Englishman was even “more alone / than he’d been after the first wreck, / himself become one more island.” Eliding from Crusoe’s isolation to her own, O’Donnell concludes with these epiphanic lines:
My cell phone is full of ghosts,
I do not erase them.
It is my wild hope that
it will one day ring
and the names of the dead
will flash across the screen
cross over the divide
that slices land from land,
sure as this train
on which I and Crusoe ride.
Entering Defoe’s novel, she enters her own past where ghosts still live in her cell phone and who, she hopes, will “cross over the divide” just as she is crossing on this “daily train / to the solid Bronx.” Time, space, and technology coalesce. In this superb example, O’Donnell’s power as a poet shows us love in places and ways previously unimagined. That is no small accomplishment.
If O’Donnell is indebted to a tradition of verbal icons (symbolized by epigraphs), then Lovers’ Almanac is also powerfully ekphrastic. Beginning with the cover image of Antonio Canova’s 1789 marble of winged Cupid preparing to kiss and restore Psyche to life, Almanac helps us to visualize the juxtaposition of eros and mystery. In fact, almost every poem in Almanac is in some way ekphrastically linked to the Canova sculpture. In “On Botticelli’s Annunciation,” O’Donnell depicts what happens when the spiritual/angelic enters the physical world weighed with all of its expectations and tropes. Come to tell Mary of heaven’s plan, Botticelli’s Gabriel for O’Donnell bears his “thigh thick beneath his satin robe,” but when he sees the Virgin’s “sudden arm” extended, the angel’s “rehearsal song” sounds “as if his theme weren’t love but rape.” Yet in the space “between their outstretched hands / [we see] salvation in a single glance.” O’Donnell enters that space as well, recording for a post-lapsarian world the liminal world between mystery and eros.
A different type of mystery surfaces in “On Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun” where a “Thin-ribbed, full fleshed” woman “confronts the day / as if some truth were offered new.” Astride a swath of sunlight in her bedroom, the woman is enveloped in paradox for O’Donnell: “What she sees we will never know. / She stands so naked and so clothed.” The poem, like Hopper’s painting, interrogates readers about the epistemology of their gaze—what exactly does the woman love about herself, the morning, the sunlight, the unfolding day, the world outside her dreary bedroom. While not on specific paintings like Hopper’s or Botticelli’s, other poems in Almanac also explore the relationship of spirit and flesh foregrounded in Canova’s marble. For example, in “Cana Blessing,” “Christ comes to touch these young lovers here”; and in “Unfallen,” high-wire artist Philippe Petit believes he “kissed the world’s abyss, / [and] charmed the wind into thinking / he had wings he could ride.” O’Donnell explores the quest for transcendent love through a dazzling assortment of events and signifiers.
All in all, Lovers’ Almanac is an ambitiously successful book that explores the sometimes vexatious, sometimes exquisite relationships between love’s mysteries and its passions. The ultimate victory of O’Donnell’s Almanac, though, is that it helps to define the loves that define us.
Philip C. Kolin is a University Distinguished Professor (Emeritus) at the University of Southern Mississippi and editor of Southern Quarterly.