Flannery O’Connor would be ninety-one years old, as of March 25, 2016, had she survived the disease that killed her slowly for 13 long years, leaving her dead at 39.

She grew up strange—an only child in a large extended family, a Catholic girl in the Protestant South, an unconventional student the convent school nuns didn’t like. (The feeling was mutual.)

She collected chickens for company—taught them tricks, sewed them clothes, and kept a lookout for “freaks” who lacked a wing or an eye or, better yet, a head.

She learned to write fiction, honed her extravagant style, and made her way to New York City. She wrote, “Were it not for my mother, I could easily resolve not to see Georgia again.”

She boarded a Southbound train for Christmas vacation, and when she arrived she resembled “a shriveled old woman.” Full blown lupus had set in. She was home to stay.

She wrote for two hours every day for the rest of her life. On death’s door, she hid her manuscript under her pillow so the nurses wouldn’t take it away.

She died at the height of her powers, leaving behind 32 short stories, two novels, a dozen (plus) essays, and hundreds of letters. All of this is genius, and she’d have written more, had she not been brought to an abrupt and abiding halt by the mortal illness she lived with and died by.

Who knows what kind of life she might have led without it, without the pressure and the threat, without that Sword of Damocles hung above her head each morning as she sat at her manual typewriter, pounding away, telling stories like her life depended on it?

Sickness made her bold.

She had to believe in herself. She didn’t have the luxury of doubt, of lying around and whining about her lack of a Guggenheim. She didn’t have time.

She was brilliant in the most ordinary ways. She told terrible stories about everyday life, stories people don’t want to hear—yet we read them hungrily, as if they contained news we need.

She used the speech of country people—the “folks” she lived with—shaped by limitation, yet somehow eloquent and elegant, full of grit and grace. They talked like poets and didn’t know it. But she surely did.

She was funny, always seeing the awkward angle of a thing—those thick glasses a joke, for her vision was keen—and she made us see it, too. We begin reading a story, put our Flannery goggles on, and suddenly the world is transformed—strange things seem normal and normal things odd. The drift and depth of the simplest thing—a bratty cat, a lady’s hat, a new tattoo— always comes as a shock, a truth we forgot we knew.

She lived deeply, felt powerfully, twigged and kenned and saw down into life. She told us things that surprised and sanctified, scarified and satisfied, all at the same time.

She gave us a vision and a vocabulary—taught “the terrible speed of mercy”—glimpsed a God of grace who measures and pours it out prodigally and in astonishing ways.

She looked in the mirror of her characters’ souls—saw her own slim virtues and her own broad flaws—and faithfully watched them fall and founder and, sometimes, rise.

She believed in our journey to the Father of Souls, in the dragon who sits by the side of the road, waiting to devour us.

She wrote, “No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell.”

She also wrote this: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” In her most famous story, a murderer speaks this horrific-hilarious line with reference to his victim. But, like any piece of wisdom, it could apply to any of us, including the author of the story.

Flannery O’Connor was a good woman because there was someone there to shoot her every minute of her life—call it The Misfit, call it the dragon, call it lupus, call it death.

She wrote with a shotgun cocked and aimed at the bullseye of the heart, and she didn’t flinch.

She was no saint. She was like us—only brilliant and brave, full of stories that were true.

She was holy in a way she never knew. Like the rest of us—me and you.

My new biography, Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith, will be published by The Liturgical Press.  http://www.litpress.org/Products/3701/flannery-oconnor.aspx

This essay originally appeared in AMERICA, March 28, 2015 issue.

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The Sacrament of Story



I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.”

Herman Melville wrote these words to his fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne upon finishing his novel Moby-Dick. These are also the words I whispered to myself as I finished a memoir I have been writing for the past two years, “Mortal Blessings.” Let me hasten to acknowledge the vast gulf that separates me from Melville. Moby-Dick is brilliant—a masterfully written tale that is larger than life. My book, on the other hand, is small, an ordinary story about ordinary people. Nevertheless, his words came to me, and I instantly recognized two elements our very different literary projects have in common—transgression and confession. For better or for worse, we have both disclosed to readers our inmost thoughts, our private histories and, ultimately, our mystery.

Melville’s story is cloaked in fiction, his attitudes toward nature, society and God attributed to the characters in his tale. This is the sleight-of-hand novelists enjoy, permitting the writer the illusion of invisibility. In his remark to Hawthorne, Melville admits that he has transgressed—confessed his atheism, dared the God of the universe to show himself, blasphemed against the Christian vision—but since these fearful words emerge from the mouths of others, he escapes unscathed.

In memoir, there is no such subterfuge. The subject of my book is my mother’s last illness and passing. It chronicles her final 48 days as my sisters and I tended to her, our deathbed witness, and our waking and burial of her. Few details are left out. No names are changed to disguise identities. The book is as bald and direct as Robert’s Rules of Order. Here is where the potential for “wickedness” enters in. In being faithful to fact, particularly our difficult relationships with our difficult mother, I have violated my family’s—and especially my mother’s—privacy. Granted, I have shown the book to my siblings, and they have given permission for its publication. But the person whose blessing I most desire I cannot query, for she is no longer with me. Here I think of another writer, Mary Gordon, who writes, chillingly, in her memoir, “She is my mother, and she is dead. She is at my mercy.”

The genre of memoir, as we know it, is a product of our era. Just as we love reality television, we value “real” stories over invented ones. In my hopeful moments, I believe we hunger for sad facts about the lives of others because it stirs our compassion. We feel some kinship with them, and we feel less alone in dealing with disaster. In my cynical moments, I believe we are voyeurs, savoring accounts of suffering because they assure us we are not as bad off as others. Most days, I know the truth lies between these extremes. Thus, writers of memoir participate in an enterprise that is as high-minded as it is unsavory: telling our stories because they must be told, appealing to our readers’ best and worst instincts.

Melville’s formulation speaks to me in its clear connection between the transgressive nature of writing and its sacramental function. He admits to feeling shrived by his novel, and I have similar feelings about my memoir. The central theme of “Mortal Blessings” is the sacramental practice we unconsciously observed in my mother’s final days. As we cared for her failing body, enacting the corporal works of mercy, mundane tasks took on supernatural significance—bathing her each morning seemed a form of baptism, feeding her each evening a species of Eucharist.

We also invented sacraments: painting her fingernails celebrated the sacrament of Beauty, helping her converse with friends on her cellphone created the sacrament of Community and wheeling her through the nursing home corridors enacted a sacramental pilgrimage. We’d stop at X-ray, Imaging, Physical Therapy—stations along the Way to Eternity. Even the act of writing the book constituted a sacramental practice—a Confession, yes, but more than that, a restitution.

“Mortal Blessings” has enabled me to compensate for my failures as a daughter and to absolve my mother for her failures as a parent. Paradoxically, it is through my “wicked” book that both of us emerge not “spotless,” as Melville claims for himself—but, better than that, forgiven.


This essay first appearing in AMERICA magazine, November 25, 2013. http://www.americamagazine.org/issue/sacrament-story

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Crossing Irish

As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. This was a convenient circumstance, since I wasn’t. (My Irish name is my husband’s gift to this Sicilian girl.)

IRELAND_Galway Bay_Angela & Brennan

Then I grew up and fell in love with poetry—English poetry first, then American poetry, and then, finally, fully, fatally, I fell in love with Irish poetry. The yearning of Yeats, the wicked wit of Kavanagh, the heart and heft of Heaney—all of them spoke to me, or rather, sang to me, in voices that were at once distinctly their own and also the collective voice of their common clan. It was then that I wanted in.

This itch to be Irish only got worse when I visited Ireland for the first time. Once our plane set down on Shannon’s tarmac (holy ground), once we got in our rental car and started driving across the glorious West of Ireland, I recognized the landscape as though it were my own. Irish poetry—with its deep rooting in the past, its mists of memory, its hard love of the hard land—had claimed me, planted in me the bizarre belief that I belonged to Ireland. I felt a sense of homecoming I’ve felt in only one other place in the world—Sicily, my true ancestral island from which my grandparents emigrated 100 years ago.

Though Ireland & Sicily might seem to have little in common—one ruled by rain, the other sun—they share much: a rich history of miraculous happenings; a penchant for saint-making; a fierce pride in their separateness, their exiled state; a wild & wonderful language that makes ordinary English and Italian sound strait-jacketed, tied-up, and tame.

As a child, I never wanted to be Irish. Now, as an adult, I do (oh, I do).

Happily, as a poet, I’ve found a way to claim this invented identity—or, at least, to imagine it—through poetry. The poem that follows belongs to a series called, “Crossing Irish,” a suite of poems I wrote five years ago during another visit to that Island of the Blessed. Since March belongs to the Irish, I’ll be publishing all 12 poems at Artists Without Walls along with photos chosen by AWOW editor, Charles Hale–one a day, in anticipation of the great Feast Day of St. Patrick. The first poem appears below, and the link to the whole series is posted at  the bottom of the page.

For all of you Irish readers out there, I hope this Italian-American wannabe’s work might not seem presumptuous. For all of you non-Irish readers who are also lovers of Ireland—well, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.


Our Aer Lingus flies through Irish skies,
and I know I’m not at home
well before my feet touch the Tarmac.
Filing into Shannon, we take our places
in the long line of Irish ex-pats
whose cousins left as hopeful as they arrive.
Here I am clear extra, exotic
by Irish measure, if not New York’s,
my dark hair and olive hands a sign.
You don’t look Catholic, says the ex-priest
who left Queens and his cassock behind
for this spot at Hughes’ bar, An Spidéil.
Italian—or Jew—what’s the difference?
says the glint in his Irish eye.
Nothing of you begins here, where we do—
his American accent stronger than mine,
me with my traitorous poet’s ear
who loves all music better than my own.
At two weeks’ end, I’ll speak with a lilt,
the song of the Island sown in my dreams,
my foreign heart more native than she seems.

This essay and these poems were originally published at the Artist Without Walls Blog: https://www.artistswithoutwalls.com/tag/angela-alaimo-odonnell/


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New Year’s Eve Poem

Janus Face

The turn of the year is Janus-faced.  We look forward as we look back, loathe to part with the past, yet eager to imagine the future. The poem below, from my book Moving House (2009), was written nearly a decade ago to express my ambivalence about a particular year in my life. But as I revisit it today, I realize it might be true of any year in any one's life.  I offer it today as a meditation--on all we leave behind, on all we will receive--a felt moment at a still point in eternity.

New Year’s Eve Poem
This is the year of accomplishment,
the accomplishment of loss.
Those old pots accumulated
in the kitchen cupboards,
the teak table with its one broken leg,
the moldy sofa in the basement,
all hauled out, heaved overboard,
so much stuff bobbing in our wake.
This is the year of sloughing off,
a house, a street, a city,
a parish and three schools,
good friends and better enemies,
our burden eased and softened,
the same old song no more.
This is the year of sowing
gathered seed into good ground,
the hard work of plowing furrows,
of dipping hands in the bulging sack
and flinging all we have to the wind
again, again, again till the arm aches
with effort that was once used to ease.
A lonesome occupation and a true.
This is the year of careful watch
for the least little sprout,
the small smile of love,
the brief word of praise,
a sky that promises sun and ready rain,
the glad sacrifice, the accomplishment of gain.
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‘Now, if you’ll only attend, Kitty, and not talk so much, I’ll tell you all my ideas about Looking-glass House. First, there’s the room you can see through the glass—that’s just the same as our drawing room, only the things go the other way.’

–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

And moving thro’ a mirror clear / That hangs before her all the year, / Shadows of the world appear. / There she sees the highway near / Winding down to Camelot.

–Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott

 I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately  / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike. / I am not cruel, only truthful‚  / The eye of a little god.

–Sylvia Plath, Mirror

Mirrors have long been associated with magic.

The word “mirror” shares an etymology with the word “miracle,” both derived from the Latin mirari meaning “to wonder at, to admire,” thus grounding this common object in the supernatural. In folklore tradition, mirrors serve as instruments for casting spells, conjuring ghosts, and telling the future. A mirror can turn a person into a prophet, enabling him or her to receive visions (mostly unwelcome ones) unavailable by means of ordinary seeing. The mirror acts as a threshold, as liminal space joining the mortal realm to the immortal, the visible to the invisible, the world of the living to the world of the dead.

In poetry, as in folklore, mirrors are accorded enormous power. The mirror is a ready-made medium and metaphor, an image whose role it is to replicate and beget further images. It is, in short, the perfect trope for the function poetry serves. Art presents us the world as it is—as Hamlet famously instructs us—“holding a mirror up to nature.”  Yet the world that the poem–and the mirror–gives us is inevitably distorted, an image of the thing rather than the thing itself. Both poems and mirrors “Tell all the Truth,” as Emily Dickinson insisted, but they “tell it slant.” Inevitably, then, we cannot fully trust either, but must learn to live with ambiguity and duality, the idea of the true and the not-so-true yoked together so thoroughly they can’t be separated.

This duality of mirrors and poetry is both pleasing and perplexing. Alice in Through the Looking Glass is enchanted by the unfamiliar appearance of the familiar room she sees in the mirror. It is the same room, but with a difference, a place that is old and new. “The Lady of Shallot” is doomed to observe the events of the world outside her solitary room through the agency of a mirror; the cold glass interposes itself between her and life, distancing her from a reality she cannot touch, damning her to live in a world of shadows rather than one of flesh and blood. Her mirror is her curse, and it is her blessing.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The chief charm of the mirror and the poem is the power of multiplication, of creating the illusion of two (or more) when there is but one. The poem is akin to the mirror in its capacity for incantation.  Poetry is devoted to repetition as surely as mirrors are committed to reflection.  Consider the rhymes in The Lady of Shallot, its insistent a, a, a, a, b, c, c, c, b pattern an aural analogue to the mirror-mediated life the Lady leads. There is practically no sound in the poem that is not echoed.

This doubling is troubling, for it sounds like a spell, language arranged for the purpose of foretelling the future, or for revealing ominous aspects of the present that presage disaster.  It is also thrilling, filling the ear with lines that lodge themselves in memory and speak of mystery, echoing the rhymes and rhythms of our own bodies—heartbeat, respiration, systole, diastole.

This doubling is dangerous. According to ancient magic, a mirror can draw the soul out of one’s body and damn one to a death-in-life of itinerant wandering through a maze of appearances. Consider the myth of Narcissus who falls in love with his reflection and drowns himself in attempt to possess that unattainable other self he sees.

The mirror doubles us, and it also devours. In Sylvia Plath’s poem, the mirror is given its own voice wherein it confesses— creepily—“Whatever I see I swallow immediately,” suggesting its rapacious and irresistible nature. (It is worth noting that when mirrors speak, they rarely have cheerful things to say.)

Poetry: Mirroring the Unseen

For all of their analogies, poems differ from mirrors in their ability to go beyond, or rather pierce through, appearances to get at the reality that lies unseen inside them. In his poem, “Personal Helicon,” Seamus Heaney creates an alternate version of the Narcissus myth, describing his childhood compulsion to look down wells in search of his own reflection. The wells, however, are dark, so the young poet-in-the-making has to find another way of seeing what truths they may hold.

What draws him to the wells is the sound, their echoes which “gave back your own call / with a clean new music in it.” The man becomes his childish self again, in the act of discovering who he is and what his vocation will be, and confesses at the end of the poem, “I rhyme / to see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

This is, finally, what good poetry does. It enables both poet and reader to discover their essential identity—to see one’s self through sound, paradoxically enough—to call into the darkness and listen to the music and mystery of human being. Undistracted by the eye, the ear lets us hear what we most need to know. And though it’s true that the selves our poems reveal are partial, at best, “slant” versions of us, echoes rather than our sound itself, they reflect aspects of the soul, a part of who we are the mirror cannot touch.  Poetry is true magic and true miracle beside which the mirror looks like the cheap trick it is.

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I have been on pilgrimage this spring and traveled with boon companions.  I’ve kept late nights with Dorothy Day, toted Thomas Merton on the train, chuckled with Flannery O’Connor over her tales of kindred freaks, and got lost with Walker Percy in the cosmos.  They’ve come with me across the country, tucked in my over-packed bag—from Boston to Austin, Florida to Minnesota, Manhattan to the Bronx.  No matter that all four of these fellow pilgrims are dead, for the books they left behind have rendered each a perpetual Lazarus, resurrecting the writer with each (re)reading.

Moreover, I’ve had the pleasure of reading these writers in community.  One of the joys of teaching is sharing powerful, life-changing books with my students.  Each spring semester, I ritually invite the men and women in my American Catholic Studies Seminar to accompany me on this literary pilgrimage.  From January to April, we read Seven Storey Mountain, The Long Loneliness, Wise Blood, and Love in the Ruins. Together we trace the steps of young Merton as he becomes an accidental pilgrim in Rome, haunting her churches and devouring her art; we sit with Day in the dark of prison and walk beside her through the gritty streets of the Lower East Side; we follow O’Connor from rural Georgia to the literary metropolis of New York, and follow her back to Georgia when illness condemns her to a life of exile; we accompany Percy as he discovers his vocation to be not doctor of the body but physician of the soul, trading his Columbia M.D. for the considerably less prestigious role of Catholic novelist.  We conclude the course by reading Paul Elie’s literary biography of the Fabulous Four, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, the narrative of “a journey in which art, life, and religious faith converge.”

The students learn from Elie that the lives of these four contemporaries were interwoven yet never physically intersected.  Instead, their moments of connection occurred through acts of imagination. They were all engaged in the same project—the pursuit of meaning in a chaotic and fallen world, and the search for God in a world that denies his existence.  Each carried out this search by means of the word, writing the stories of their own lives, both directly, in the form of essays and memoirs, and indirectly, in the form of fiction and poetry.

As fellow Catholics, they were members of the same brother- and sisterhood, the Mystical Body of Christ.   They shared in common the idea of the word being born of the Spirit and, also, of the Word (or the Logos) as sign of God in the World.   For them the act of writing was sacramental, inspired by the Spirit in the same way the disciples were inspired to speak in tongues.  They believed that through the use of mortal materials (pen, ink paper), writing connects the ephemeral with the eternal, the material with the spiritual, the human with the divine—to disclose what St. Ignatius termed, “God in All Things.”   While it’s true they never met in person, clearly they didn’t have to.  United by this ambitious, counter-cultural project, they already knew one another in a deep, essential way.

The discovery of this “virtual community” of writers is thrilling to my students.  Saavy users of social media, they have discovered that technology-driven attempts to create community often foster alienation instead.  The cumulative effect of seeing endless pictures of Facebook friends traveling, going to parties, and having fun tends to make one feel deprived and depressed.  Instead of the false bonhomie of FB, they sense in this “School of the Holy Ghost” genuine community, one founded on shared faith and vocation, and shored by sacrament and sign rather than posts and status updates.  They also realize that the “church” formed by these four wisdom-seekers is not unlike the shared community we have formed in our own classroom.

On the last day of the semester, we observed a final spring ritual—I asked the students to identify which of the writers each felt the strongest connection with.  As the conversation moved around the table, I was touched by the poignancy of their responses.  Through the agency of the imagination and the power of the word, each had discovered a deep kinship with one of these four fellow travelers whose skin we’d lived in for a while.  The final student concluded the class by quoting the best lesson Thomas Merton had taught him: “Friendship is the most important thing, and it is the true cement of the Church built by Christ.”   Then we parted friends, our time together having come to an end.  We resumed our separate journeys beyond the classroom door, together and alone, with Merton, Day, O’Connor, and Percy walking beside us.

Photograph by Gerard Caccappolo.

Blog originally published at AMERICA magazine, May 9,2013.



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Seeing Red



Johnny: “In time you’ll see that this is the best thing, Loretta.”

Loretta: “In time you’ll drop dead, and I’ll come to your funeral in a red dress!”

— Loretta Castorini to Johnny Cammareri after he breaks off their engagement.

From Moonstruck, by John Patrick Shanley,


Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

–Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus


“Rose, where did you get that Red?”

–Chip Wareing, Fifth Grade, PS 61, New York City


Red has been roiling around in my head the past few weeks, and it’s no wonder.  We’ve just got through February: heart-month, love-month, Saint Valentine’s month, all abstractions given visual power through association with that most vibrant of colors.

February Red  is a paradox.  It makes sense that here, “in the bleak mid-winter,” against the backdrop of gray skies, bony branches, and dun snow, we crave this color.  The eye delights in the flash of the cardinal amid the oak’s “bare ruined choirs,” the reckless poinsettia blooming long past Christmas, the red of the horizon as “sunset fadeth in the west.”  Our winter hearts are starved for red, and we consume it greedily.

Red speaks to us directly, without the agency of words.  The most incarnational of hues, it is the stuff we’re made of.  Elizabeth Bishop, in “The Fish,” after she captures her prize, imagines “the dramatic reds and blacks / of his shiny entrails,” knowing they are the colors of her own.   Red, she nearly says, is the language of the flesh.

Red is Power, the nerve and the verve to speak your mind.  The soprano of the opera, the first violin of the orchestra, the Madonna of the feste, the lead in the play, the star of Broadway—red is the One who won’t be ignored, the One who insists she not be missed.

Red has a voice: “Beware anger, passion, warfare.”   As Sylvia warns (with her fiery red hair) rising from the gray ashes, “I eat men like air.” Red is the release of energy that can create or destroy, and there is a strange beauty even in its destruction.  (I think of the famous beginning of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—the powerful images of the green jungle exploding in clouds of red fury against the turquoise sky as Jim Morrison sings ominously, “This is the end.”)

Red is the explosion of life that gives the lie to death; thus, Loretta’s threat to do the deed: wear a red dress to her former boyfriend’s funeral.  What better way to say “I’m very much alive and very glad you’re dead” without ever speaking a word?

Red is Miracle, talisman and charm.  I think of the celebrated “girl in the red coat” in the film Schindler’s List—an innocent child who is the only bit of color in a world of black and white.  She is the life force the Nazis are bent on destroying, her red coat marking her as keeper of the sacred flame.  The viewer’s (red) heart aches for her survival, knowing it is bound up with our own.

Red is Desire. Thus the schoolboy’s urgent question, “Rose, where did you get that Red?” He longs for a piece of that beauty (don’t we all?) and needs to know where in the world he can find it.

The Rose, of course, stays silent—

his question hanging in the air—

speaking our desire,

staving off despair.

(Think Loretta’s red dress.)

(Think Sylvia’s red hair.)





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Ash Thursday


“Ash Thursday” happened by accident, like most poems. It’s also true.

One evening in February, two years ago, I left my office at Fordham University in the Bronx earlier than usual. I had been invited to give a poetry reading down in Greenwich Village at The Cornelia Street Café, a marvelous venue on whose storied stage the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and other such artists of the beautiful had performed. Even though the café is only 15 miles away from campus, it would take me over an hour to get there in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t want to risk being late.

I had looked forward to this for weeks. I would be reading, along with several other poets whom I didn’t know but whose work I admired, all of us having poems published in the new issue of Tiferet, a beautiful interfaith journal. As a Catholic writer with a continually-evolving sense of the role of the religion I was born plays in my poet’s imagination, I have long been fascinated by this intersection of faith and art. The opportunity to read my “Catholic” poems alongside those by Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist poets was a delightful prospect. I felt honored to be invited to the feast.

I made my way across campus as darkness began to fall along with a light snow. I climbed into the driver’s seat of my car, and, as is my habit, moved to adjust the rearview mirror. It was then, as I caught a glimpse of my reflection, that I saw the heavy, black cross traced in ashes in the middle of my forehead. I had forgotten—today was Ash Wednesday and, like many of my colleagues and students at the Catholic university where I worked, we had lined up at noon Mass to mark the beginning of the season of Lent and to be marked by our mortality.

In fact, because so many of us had been marked, and because I had been looking at those crosses all day in my classes and in my department—some of them lightly made, the suggestion of a cross, some of them crude and stark—they had become the norm, invisible to my notice after a few hours. I had not even seen my own, until this moment, and was interested to note that it was the darkest I had seen all day.

My interest, however, quickly gave way to concern. Was it really possible that I was about to walk into the Cornelia Street Café, located in one of the most militantly secular neighborhoods in the world, and read my poems to a potential roomful of Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews wearing a medieval-dagger-hilt-of-a-cross emblazoned on my forehead? My initial response to this hypothetical question was “Not on your life!” My secondary, guilt-ridden-Catholic response was, “Of course you will.  Why even ask the question?”

W.B. Yeats once famously stated that poetry does not arise out of the arguments we conduct with others but out of those we conduct within ourselves—never did this observation seem truer to me. There was no clear answer to this sudden conundrum and no obviously correct choice for me to make. The Catholic inside of me argued that one ought to wear the sign of one’s faith with pride—even though, ironically, the ashes are supposed to be a sign of humility. That, in fact, to hide that sign might be interpreted as a denial of the Faith. On the other hand, the Poet and the Citizen of the World inside of me both suggested that the symbol I loved, that I took for granted as a central truth in my own belief, has also served as a source of pain and suffering to many peoples in the world. The cross is a scandal, true, but it serves as such to the Christian in a very different way than it does to the Jew in our post-Holocaust world or to the Muslim whose ancestors endured the Crusades long past but not forgotten. My marching into an interfaith poetry reading with this potentially incendiary symbol temporarily tattooed on my face might be misconstrued as a sign of smug triumphalism as readily as it might be seen a symbol of repentance and piety.

I was deeply troubled by the choice I clearly had to make—and make soon.

Cradle-Catholic that I am, it makes sense, I suppose, that both the poem—and this essay—should take the form of a Confession. Bless me, reader, for I have sinned: I washed the cross from my forehead. Though I knew that I might justly be accused of faithlessness, cowardice, and complicity with a culture that views Catholicism with suspicion and prejudice, I chose to wipe away that outward sign of my Faith rather than trouble the hearts and minds of my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. After all, I reasoned (wheedled and cajoled), my poems have “Catholic” written all over them. I lay claim to that identity without reservation in the words of my poems and in my speech—I saw no need for an outward show of the symbol that is deeply branded in my heart and so plainly evident in all that I write and say.

I even had scriptural justification for my decision: the Ash Wednesday reading I had heard earlier in the day reminded me (as it always does) of the disturbing disjunction between the public parading of ourselves as observant Catholics (getting ashes being the equivalent of receiving a gold star) and Christ’s warning in Matthew 6:1 regarding the behavior of the hypocrites who parade their fasting and acts of penitence before the synagogue and the city: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Clearly, my mind was at ease with this decision, but my heart was not. Thus began the poem written down the day after, “Ash Thursday.”

Poetry is an argument, says Yeats. Yes. “Ash Thursday” does not attempt to reconcile the contraries. At the end of the poem, the arguments on both sides (implicit, rather than explicit) still stand, as they inevitably must.

Poetry is a way of being of two minds at the same time, Robert Frost once said (and I paraphrase). In its imaginative space, one submits to the purest fact of human existence—the knowledge of the limitations of our knowledge. Instead of exerting one’s reason (a highly overrated human attribute) to arrive at a definitive answer to unanswerable questions, poetry permits us, in Rilke’s terms, “to live the questions.”

I cannot ever know the rightness or wrongness of my actions described in my poem.  I like to think that, as the De La Salle Brothers say, I do “live Jesus in my heart, forever” and that my decision was somehow the consequence of that way of living, rather than a denial of it. But I cannot know for certain whether even this is true.

The one thing I do know is this: Ash Wednesday is a day that comes and goes, but “Ash Thursday” will be always with me.

                                               ASH THURSDAY

Ashes didn’t stay

on my forehead yesterday.


A heavy cross, a black brand,

marked me mortal Wednesday


despite my accidental hand

smearing palm on my palm,


scent of fire and scent of clay.

They clung to me all day


till I knelt at the sink

paused at the brink

and washed them away.


Last night, as I walked

to the Village café,


saints poured,



out of Guadeloupe’s doors.

Still my sinner’s heart soars.


Poem & essay published at RELIEF magazine, June 2012.


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The Semester Begins: Falling in Love


I am a teacher of Poetry.

This means that several times a year I walk into a classroom, the seats filled with Bright Young People between the ages of 18 and 22, and try to make them fall in love with poetry. This, I admit, is a challenge. Poetry is difficult to define and defend—and past the age of 8, is difficult to learn to appreciate.

To read poetry, we need to cultivate a mode of reading that is less frantic than the hunt-and-gather method instilled in us by content-driven disciplines (not to mention daily life), to discover how to be patient with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to give ourselves permission to read for the pure pleasure of it.

As W.H. Auden once observed, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” A poem exists for its own sake, and the experience of the poem—for both the writer and the reader—is its only reason for being. It won’t earn you a grade, it won’t get you a job, it won’t even buy you a latte.

“So what’s the point?” my busy, practical, and brutally-honest students often ask.

“Exactly,” I answer.

And so the courtship begins.

The first step towards falling in love, of course, is the cultivation of friendship. And so I have to convince my students that poetry—and the poets who write them—are friends worth getting to know. My strategy here is simple: I trot out the smartest, handsomest, wittiest, most engaging poems (and poets) I know, invite them into the room with us, and let them talk.

Who could resist Shakespeare whispering, “When my love swears that she is made of truth, / I do believe her though I know she lies.”

Who would ignore young John Keats as he ponders his own impending mortality (at age 23) when he confesses “Then I stand alone upon the shore and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.”

Who doesn’t laugh, albeit ruefully, along with John Gay, when he inscribes upon his own tombstone, “Life is a jest, and all things show it. / I thought so, once. And now I know it.”

Who does not grieve, with Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she regrets her bygone youth and beauty, confessing, “What lips my lips have kissed, and where and why / I have forgotten.”

Who does not yearn, with W.B. Yeats, for a return to the paradise of childhood as he dreams aloud, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.”

Who does not comprehend, along with Elizabeth Bishop, the unassuageable agony of loss, even as she bravely claims, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

Who could resist Emily Dickinson’s injunction, “Tell all the Truth, but tell it Slant,” Robert Browning’s invitation, “Grow old along with me. / The best is yet to be.”

We are charmed.

Not just by the words, but by the outrageous beauty of their arrangement. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once offered this homely definition of poetry as “the best words in their best order.” The poems we fall in love with contain words that are ordinary enough (love, life, lips, kiss, woods, sleep), but poetry makes them new by making them into music. Poetry is newspaper talk turned Jazz, corner-bar kvetch-and-gossip gone Bach, daily domestic dispute ascending into opera. Poetry sings—so much so that John Keats thought poetry a genre that occupied a space between music and visual art, partaking of both yet belonging to neither.

In my (hypothetical) classroom, after my students have delighted in the discovery of these poems—shouts of Where have you been all my life? all-but-audible in the room—our next step is to make them our home-boys and –girls. We need to be at ease with them, to lay claim to the poems, somehow—and what better way to do that than to memorize them—to eat their words, breathe them with our own breaths, speak them with our own tongues, mimic their rhythms with the beat of our own iambic hearts.

At this point, our relationship to the poems has become sensory, physical—one might say incarnational. (And the words were made flesh and dwelt within us.) We have entered into communion with them and they have become part of us through a strange, new kind of eucharist. Thus, we have arrived at the final stage of passionate friendship, intimacy.

My students (at least the game ones) have fallen in love with poetry. I know this because they no longer ask “What’s the point?”—and they no longer worry about what Poetry is. Instead, they’ve begun to recognize it when they hear it.

I’m reminded of Louis Armstrong’s quick and clean response to an interviewer who once posed the daunting question, “What is Jazz?”: “Man, if you gotta ask, you’ll never know!” Somehow, now, these students know.


I’ve confessed that I am a teacher of Poetry. I should also confess that I am a poet, for this condition allows me a second perspective from which to see poems—as writer and reader, as giver and receiver, both.

This means that several times a week I sit down with a blank piece of paper and play at making poems. I use the word play instead of work as it conveys the paradox of poetry as the exercise of freedom in the face of constraint.

Play suggests the challenge of discovering ways to subvert the rules of the game, even as we observe them—to figure out how to use limitations to our advantage.

Work, on the other hand, connotes duty, dullness, and drudgery—none of which has anything to do with poetry. (The final—fabulous—lines of Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” describe and enact the dynamic of poetry-as-serious-play better than any I know. They also serve as his epitaph: “Time held me green and dying / though I sang in my chains like the sea.”)

Though I’m sure there are writers who make poems in solitude and silence, I don’t. In fact, I’m talking most of the time. I do this, partly, so I can hear what the poems are saying and whether or not they sing. I also do this to remind myself that when I write I am with someone.

W. H. Auden once said that poetry is a way of “breaking bread with the dead,” and he’s right. All of the poems I’ve ever fallen in love with—and all of the poets who wrote them, dead and alive—are in the room with me as I write. They are informing the language I choose to use, the music of my lines, and the timbre of my voice, even as they stretch the limits of my vision. They are the Company I keep, and in return for their long and good companionship, I offer them my own poems.

Finally, speaking, singing, and listening to my own poems serves to remind me of the constant, yet invisible, presence of The Reader, whoever he or she may be. Just as surely as there are readers who fall in love with poetry, there are poets writing poems with the specific purpose of wooing them. I know this because I am one of them.

Robert Frost once said of the process of writing poetry, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” He might also have added, “No love in the writer, no love in the reader.” Within this dynamic, poetry becomes a gesture, a set of signs and symbols expressing the shared humanity of reader and writer—concepts expressed through the material substances of book and ink, paper and pen—and so aspires to the condition of sacrament.

Any effort to define Poetry (with a capital “P”) in an exhaustive way is doomed to fall short, and this brief essay is no exception to that mighty rule. One reason for this inevitable incompleteness is that Poetry (like Love) is an abstraction, whereas true poetry (like true love) is found in the flesh-and-breath experience of it. Given this, it somehow seems fitting that I must finally resort to poetry to elucidate Poetry, and close this meditation with a poem I wrote some years ago when asked to define what Poetry meant to me.


“I feel that the Godhead is broken up like bread at the supper,
and we are the pieces.”
–Melville, Letter to Hawthorne, Nov 17, 1851

I’m a Sicilan woman
and my poems say mangia!

I want to feed you
bread and wine, fruit and feast,

blessed and broken words
to chew, chew, chew.

I want you to eat them
purely for pleasure,

to put your lips around p,
crack k’s with your crowns,
roll l’ s across your taste-budded tongue,

to swallow sweet & easy
the meal of your life.

For it is what your body craves,
your heart sorely wants,
what your gut loves.

It is lies & truth, death & life,
sweet/sour, adazzle/dim,

what you have always
and have never known.

It is itself and you besides,
every thing & no thing at all.

It stuffs you full and leaves you
heavy, hungry, starved for more.

It makes you glad.
It troubles your sleep.

It is my body & my blood.
Here. Take. Eat.

Poem from Saint Sinatra & Other Poems.
This essay was first published at TWEETSPEAK POETRY (http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2011/09/12/what-is-poetry-falling-in-love-1/ and http://www.tweetspeakpoetry.com/2011/09/21/what-is-poetry-falling-in-love-2/)

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New Year’s Meditation

New Year's Meditation

The year begins & Christ hides hushed

in the brambles and in the brush,
in the long shadows on the long street,
in the creases of the faces that I greet.
Dryad of my back yard,
Apollo of my morning,
bell tones hefted heavenward,
musk of hardwood burning,
my wild hand that guides the pen,
my tame heart that wilds when
all cries Christ! and Christ! again.
O beauty, O fast friend,
your touch upon my parchment skin,
youngs it new. The year begins.

Poem by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, published in Christian Century, January 8, 2013.

Image by Edward Byrne, http://photographyjournal2013.wordpress.com/.

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