Toward a Brighter Place
Review by Kelly Cherry (originally published in America on February 22, 2010)
By Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Word Press. 98p $18 (paperback)
O’Donnell’s book begins in recollection of her childhood home in Pennsylvania mining territory, a place so grim and dark and claustrophobic that in her first poem she links it to the ancient tragedy-ridden House of Atreus and Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In “Touring the Mine,” we learn about “the tight-lipped men/ our fathers” who “split rock in the dark,” the author’s father among them. In “Looking Back” she writes touchingly, “we fled again—…refusing to be buried in that place/ as you, in your quiet grace, did not.” The soft off-center rhyme of “place” with “grace” is a mark of O’Donnell’s careful craft.
Grouping poems in seven sections, she leads us from this unspeakable (those men are tight-lipped) devastation and a poem, ironic and powerful, about “the crucified before Christ” (“The First Art”) through poetic songs celebrating saints of the church and the saintliness of artists and the homelier saintliness of family, friends, neighbors and community to a less constricted realm in which possibility and autonomy play a salvific role. The book’s journey is indeed, as the title suggests, one of “moving house” from a dark to a brighter place—though one might also read the title as an epithet for the world, which is, of course, a moving house.
“December Roll Call” lists three “saints” in a row: “Merton, holy soul on fire./ Juan de la Cruz, in love with desire./ Mozart, martyred by music.” Here again, the avoidance of a triple rhyme is itself musical, a Haydnesque surprise. And then we have the folks who are perhaps not exactly saintly but who bear an iconic meaning, such as Hoss in the poem “My Bonanza,” based on the old television show “Bonanza.” Here, Hoss is the poet’s “bonanza,”
The big dumb ox-of-my-dreams
Your brotherly touch sweet and true
as the blue of your downcast eyes
that said you, you, you are the one.
We take our saints, then, where we find them, hoping perhaps to find ourselves in them or, rather, embraced by them.
At the same time, the poet’s light self-mockery in “My Bonanza” renders her accessible, all the more human in her quest for emotional and spiritual freedom. O’Donnell sometimes literally sings her poems at readings: that strikes me as both suitable (to the poems) and fetching (for the audience weary of rhetoric).
Before her book reaches its end, the poems “move house” to New York, where O’Donnell now teaches at Fordham University. In “Amtrak #86” she and her family are
where Vermeer’s blue girls
pour milk and weigh pearls,
his windows spilling Delft light
across the Met’s white walls,
where bluer skies arch high
across the space where the Towers
trimmed and tacked
and, once, were felled by fire.
But this is bravado, for the speaker sees that “my own moon face/ greets me ghostly in the glass” of the train window. She is still herself, plunging into a new environment but aware of real limitations. And in “Reading in the New House” she recognizes in a book about elephants the sisterly consciousness that crosses species to express a love of home, as if she were both elephant and free woman. As we do when we move houses, she both anticipates and laments.
In a brave poem in the last group, O’Donnell returns to the burning towers of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finding in that holocaust an image of “stigmata,” arguing that God loves even “this world/ of fireball and ash.” Yet these final poems, because they take in new breath, new lives, are buoyed by compassion to supply that splendid balance I mentioned above. Snowflakes in a snowfall are transfigured to “Flecks of light from heaven./ Splinters of struck stars” (italics hers).
In such snow and wind, “What mercy for the birds?” she asks. It is a profoundly distressing question, but readers will recognize that the poet who asks that question already feels within her a necessary mercy and will respond in kind.
by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Review by Maryanne Hannan (originally published at Rattle.com on March 10, 2010)
At the 2007 West Chester Poetry Conference, I attended a panel discussion on “Catholicism and Modern American Poetry.” One of the speakers struck me as bold in defining the operational intersection of her spiritual tradition and artistic imagination with the world. “Catholic poetry,” said Angela O’Donnell, “reflects and embodies a particular disposition towards the world. It is corporeal—perhaps even bloody minded, in its insistence upon an embodied, incarnate faith—it is grim in its acknowledgment of the presence and power of real evil in the world—and it is ultimately hopeful in its assertion of the meaning of suffering and in its persistent search for God even when he seems to be absent.” She calls this attitude “an Incarnational awareness.”
Associate Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University where she teaches English, Creative Writing and American Catholic Studies, O’Donnell has been willing, through her reviews and critical writings, to wrestle with the hydra-headed monster, “What is Catholic Poetry?” and describe at least a head or two. Now she has published her own first full-length poetry collection, Moving House. To my relief, she left both critical theory and religious dogma at the door.
Moving House ranges through a heady mix of topics against an autobiographical backdrop, the bleak days of O’Donnell’s childhood through the quiet chronology of a move in her maturity. The first sections contain poems of her Pennsylvania coal-town upbringing, the death of her father, her mother’s edgy widowhood, an arsonist cousin, her grandparents’ graves, gardens and warped floorboards. There is no excess sentiment, no confessional tugs to these poems—merely the most telling details to render the larger story.
The first specific reference to Catholicism occurs in “Other Mothers”:
Other girls’ mothers
didn’t like my mother,
grew green-eyed in the grocery,
cold-shouldered us at Mass
where she’d stay in the pew,
marooned, at Communion
A mother ostracized for her propensity to take on lovers and a weekly venue for this censure to occur might reasonably be expected to trigger anger against the individuals and institutions involved, but there are no traces of anger or references to the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. It just is.
The latter part of the collection, in which the title poem occurs, proceeds chronologically with the poet’s move from Baltimore to New York City and continues there to post-9-11. Throughout the book, houses function as containers of lives and spirits. In her grandmother’s home is “holy Mary on the western wall.” Home is the nexus of experience for the living, and now the poet must abandon the home where her children lived for another unknown existence. She will carry with her the home of her mind, truly portable. So many poems in this collection revolve around a deep, nearly personal relationship with figures from Anne Sexton, Andrew Wyeth, Dante to the ever-present Melville that it was a surprise to find out that “Reading in the New House” is not the same:
I find my mind
yearning for what’s lost
to me, all that’s left behind
My mind’s on fire,
my heart a lonely hull,
my gut a knot
these two eyes wells,
all thought distraught—
Many of these autobiographical poems appeared in O’Donnell’s chapbook, Mine. What gives them new life and even added depth in this collection is their placement alongside poems from her other chapbook, Waiting for Ecstasy, a collection of poems religious in tone and subject matter. The inclusion of such disparate material, arranged so that a poem about Maria Goretti and other girl martyrs coexists with a poem about making an apple pie, struck me as thematic, a bit of O’Donnell’s Incarnational awareness, invisible unity at work.
I experienced pleasurable jolts in the bold juxtaposition of these poems, never knowing what would come next. For example, a poem about her mother’s lover, “Blues Man,”
the kind of man
who’d walk in the house
and make the women cry,
but first we’d feed you, fry
the mess of fish you’d caught,
broil the frozen steak
is followed by a quiet meditation on the poet’s visit to the grave of Gerald Manley Hopkins, “Glasnevin Graveyard”:
Under rainy gray sky,
a soft day, as the natives would say,
you lie in strange earth
poet among the dead and dumb.
“Saints’ Lives,” listing all those gory-girl martyrs,
St. Agatha’s breasts, sliced and served.
St. Lucy’s mild eyes upon the dish.
And St. Cecilia succumbed, they say, singing.
is not too far away from “My Bonanza,” in which the poet professes her preference for
…. the ugly brother,
middle-son saddled with upright Adam
and pretty Little Joe forever
out-looking, out-talking, out-flanking you.
As different as the subject matter in these poems appear, they do share one reality: death. The Blues Man dies in a tragic car accident; Hopkins and the virgin martyrs are no longer with us obviously; and the occasion for “My Bonanza” was Hoss’ recent death. Throughout these poems, the separation of the living and the dead is sometimes as flimsy as “Grandmother’s Living Room” with
The frayed floral carpet
all that held us from a head-
long tumble down the mine-
shaft dug beneath the house long before.
What is under the earth, the thin porosity separating where we walk blithely on with where we might fall, is never far from the poet’s mind. She takes us to the mines where her father worked in “Touring the Mine,”
to a place untouched by sun,
unknown to night or noon
or cloud-scudded sky
and she takes us to grave sites, her father’s, grandmother’s, Hopkins’ as mentioned, but also Melville’s (St. Melville) and the great unknowns, All Souls and All Saints.
There are other less traditional graves. In the title poem, “Moving House,” the poet replaces a photo of the former residents of the home they are vacating (one of whom, might I add, succumbed earlier to cancer and his widow likely has followed):
… As I pack
the last of our belongings,
label boxes with a newly
I replace the smiling pair
in their slot behind the molding,
our own smiling selves
before the enduring hearth
slid in the crevice beside them.
This ritualistic burial requires some resurrection. It is there, but subtle. In one of the final poems set in a snowstorm, O’Donnell considers “The Meaning of Birds,”
What will fill their hunger,
stoke the flame of beating wings
when what lives lies buried
beneath the soft weight of white?
What mercy for the birds,
seed of sky and worm of earth?
The grace in my full hands
comes a cold, slow sleep.
There has been other evidence of spiritual angst—for example, “Waiting for Ecstasy,” which counterpoints the poet’s afternoon doing laundry with Saint Therese’ labors and of the burden of being, or “St. Henry,” in which the poet wishes to change lives with Thoreau for just one day. Despite this, the lost homes, the unreliability of accustomed pleasures, the ubiquitous grave where unfinished business must be confronted directly, Moving House is a serene, even joyful book. There is so little posturing in these poems that the simple honesty and balanced joy of ”Coming and Going” rings truest:
I’ve come into my beauty late
and won’t be staying long
and know that I must make of little
Time’s winged chariot rides again.
Finally, to return to my original questions. O’Donnell willingly embraces for herself the rubric “Catholic poet.” Many of these poems do draw on Catholic imagery and what could even be called Catholic superstition, but I would describe the poems as much catholic as they are Catholic. After all, orthodoxy has not yet caught up with St. Melville. However, and this is more to the point, the quality of her imagination and the willingness to live in a porous world is Catholic, as she defines it. Her refusal to dichotomize between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, as I understand the arrangement of the poems, is the most compelling argument for an incarnate faith.
I am left with only one question, perhaps of my own making. “Lies,” the first poem of the book, ends “We lived and died by stories in that house.” I know they are stories, but in what sense, I read the book wondering, are they lies? Other than its placement as the first poem of the collection, there is nothing else in the text to justify reading this as a post-modern undercutting of all that follows. Still to have the first poem of a collection signal “Lies” does pique my interest.
My own definition of Catholic poetry, not limited to Catholic poetry either, assumes an individual wrestling, albeit at the intersection of heaven and earth, with the question of what is a lie and what is not, what is the truth. Perhaps O’Donnell’s answer would be that nothing is a lie that points you in the right direction. Or perhaps this is a question I, not the text, am asking.
by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Review by Barbara Crooker (originally published at The Pedestal, April 2010)
In this, her first full-length collection, Angela O’Donnell explores the theme of “home,” not in a cozy, Hallmark-y way, but in delineations as sharply etched and striking as the cover art, “Inferno on Dumbwater Creek.” (Margie Crisp, 2002) There is the home of childhood, built on the bones of the past, and the seams of coal her Italian immigrant forbears mined. There is the home of the Catholic church, both the church of the present, and the historical one. There are the literal homes of her adult life, the house in Baltimore, and the one in a New York City suburb. There’s the house that Poetry built, where she nails up tributes to her heroes in both poetry and prose: Shakespeare, Dante, Melville, Thoreau, Sexton, Hopkins. And the House of Art, where Manet, Wyeth, Vermeer, and Munch decorate the walls. Her sense of the past is deep as bedrock, as is her sense of faith, a rare thing in this post-modern age.
Some of the ways these themes develop is through the senses: the sense of the past: “I find my mind / yearning for what’s lost / to me, all that’s left behind (“Reading in the New House”), as she explores her family heritage, the hardscrabble life of a coal town, the gritty self-determination of her immigrant grandparents, the dark beauty there, where coal dust and loss are irretrievably mingled. She doesn’t light her poems in the false glow of nostalgia, but rather, the hard blue of bituminous, looking at her father’s long silence, quick anger, early death, her mother’s sometimes inappropriate boyfriends (“Blues Man”), her arsonist cousin, the loss of community moving from Baltimore to start again in Bronxville. . . . the sense of art history: on a train heading north, “where Vermeer’s blue girls / pour milk and weigh pearls, / his windows spilling Delft light / across the Met’s white walls” (“Amtrak # 86”); the sense of deep time, of being in two places at once. . . . the sense of being Catholic, with poems like “Jesuits,” “Saints’ Lives,” “November Visit”(“All Saints, All Souls, / the chrysanthemums call”), “Blessing” (with its central image of the alabaster statue of Mary who “stands straight / in the arched niche . . . / her infant son slung loose against her hip.”); her depiction of secular saints: St. Melville, St. Edvard [Munch], St. Henry [Thoreau], St. Ahab . . . . the physical senses, manifested in the sensual pleasure of cooking: “slicing celery, / paring the last apple into a pie, / rolling out the canvas of crust, / mincing butter into hard white bits.” (“Making”)
Some of the other ways she embodies these themes is through her elegiac tone and her finely crafted language, which seems to be mined from the core of the earth. For example, in writing about the coal town where she grew up, she describes slag heaps where “culm dumps rise camel-backed /against an ashen sky,” and the breaker looms with its “black apertures.” (“Breaker”). Here, there are “coal-black nights,” where “the furnace coughed deep in the cellar” and “our father rose in the iron cold.” (“Northern Nights”) O’Donnell has a keen ear for gritty sound: “the chunk / and swing of the metal door unhinged, / the steady thrust of the rusty shovel / graveling against the binful of coal.” (“Northern Nights”) And then she hears something softer: “the sluff of slippers, “ mother’s voice “calling us to hot milk at midnight,” // to slip on coats and scarves and hats and gloves.”(“Northern Nights) The l’s and s’s lull us to sleep, too.
In a different poem, the l’s echo like miners’ picks. Taking a mine tour, which is “like Disney World, only true,” she sees “earth’s hull and hammer- / struck walls of oily coal.” She has a musician’s sense of rhythm: the coal, which was “heavy and inert, / once above the surface / . . . leapt to light and heat.” (“Touring the Mine”)
Later in the book, the mother, a young and merry widow, is revealed through carefully chosen diction, as the mother who didn’t wear aprons or bake bread, but instead, who “slipped on stockings / stepped into heels, and went to work // late evenings,” who wore a “black mantilla / shadowing her black eyes.” (“Other Mothers”)
In other parts, the language hints at the liturgy: “inviting each to the feast that would follow.” (“Manet’s Oranges”) “She places a wafer upon her tongue / . . .and swallows softly / this new world’s body.” (“Grandmother’s Pears) “St. Melville” is “a still pilgrim.” (poem of the same name) In another poem, we have “water, the color of wine / bread of spume and spurl, Christ striding in the waves every morning.” (“Lost and Found”) “Waiting for Ecstasy” marries sorting the wash to St. Therese of Lisieux: “Our clothes writhe like the damned.” In “Annunciation,” O’Donnell writes about the human story behind the divine conception: “No husband’s touch, just a rush of air // and a poem she’d never heard / singing in the silence.”
O’Donnell’s poems sing with the pleasures of language. She has taken up her pick, put on her miner’s helmet, and has descended into the shaft of the past, finding these gems of poems, and bringing them to the light, where they shine and shine.
Moving House: Poems
By Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Reviewed by Peggy Rosenthal (Originally appeared in Christian Century on May 18, 2010)
A subtitle for this collection of expertly crafted verse might be “A Memoir in Poetry.” Angela Alaimo O’Donnell has arranged the poems so that they loosely follow the chronology of her life. First come the dark memories of a grimly loveless childhood in the coal-mining region of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her father was a miner, and in “Late Elegy” she says to him, “No poems for you, my father. / I was always too afraid. Your quick anger, your dark days.” After her father’s death, her mother brought home a series of overnight lovers, ignoring the children’s craving for “peanuts, chips, mints, / small signs she’d remembered us” (in “Other Mothers”). The poem “Grandmother’s Living Room” gives a powerful sense of O’Donnell’s childhood, lived literally and figuratively atop open mine shafts that might at any moment collapse.
Yet there’s a restraint and nuance in all these poems, no matter how bleak the memories. “Late Elegy,” for instance, starts with a play on T.S. Eliot’s famous line from “The Waste Land,” that “April is the cruelest month.” O’Donnell’s elegy for her father begins “April is the kindest month” – “kind” because her terrifying father died in April. But by the poem’s end she is missing him: “hoping to find you quick again, my father.”
Life in death; death in life. This is O’Donnell’s delicate balance throughout the poems of Moving House. I know of no other poet so immersed in human mortality yet without the least morbidity. The boundary between mortal and eternal life is porous for this poet, and it is at this boundary where her poetic imagination is comfortably placed. Several poems are set in graveyards; ghosts populate her poetic landscape. “December Roll Call” names some of the famous dead –Merton, Juan de la Cruz, Mozart –those “who left behind the brief life / crossed soft that blind border.”
O’Donnell is Catholic, and I sense throughout her poetry a strongly envisioned belief in the communion of the saints –that Catholic sensibility of connectedness with the dead, of a continuum between those of us now walking the earth and those who have moved beyond. The volume’s title poem evokes this through a beautifully chosen image. As the poem’s speaker packs up to move out of her house, an “old photo fell / from the closet crevice,” a photo of the previous owners smiling happily in the days before cancer and death overtook them. Wondering what to do with this photo as she packs, the poet finally replaces it in the crevice, identifying with its poignancy: “our own smiling selves / before the enduring hearth.”
Though death remains a present reality throughout Moving House, as the poems move into moments of O’Donnell’s adulthood much of the darkness dissolves, and she offers images of a brighter, fulfilled family life. The poems about her sons are particularly touching given O’Donnell’s own painful childhood. We share her grateful joy at simply watching her sons play baseball outside the window (in “Staking Claim”). The poem asks “Can I wish me a blessing?” and we eagerly assent. In “Waking the Children,” she is beckoned by her sons’ idyllic sleep-world to “wade deep into their sepia waters.” Here is another borderland, but one that doesn’t require loss in the crossing over.
Even in fulfillment, however, O’Donnell’s poetic vision embraces loss. The book closes with “New Year’s Eve Poem,” in which loss and gain are characteristically balanced: “This is the year of accomplishment, / the accomplishment of loss.”
I’ve noted that the poems of Moving House follow a loose chronology of the poet’s life. But there is more to their arrangement than this. One of the arts that must bring great delight to a poet compiling a volume of her verse is the art of ordering the poems. O’Donnell is a master of this art. She juxtaposes poems so that they pick up each other’s images and motifs. It is as if the poems themselves are placed in conversation, with the space between them inviting the reader into another dimension of reflectiveness. And so the whole of Moving House is definitely more than the sum of its individual parts, as insightfully crafted as each part – each poem – already is.
Moving House: Poems
Reviewed by Philip C. Kolin (Christianity & Literature, Spring 2011)
Moving House is Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s first-full length book, though many of the 49 poems here appeared in her earlier chapbooks Mine (2007) and Waiting for Ecstasy (2009). Like the titles of these, Moving House resonates with a multitude of meanings residing inside the word house–corporality, physical dwelling, family heritage, psychic geography, poetic text, literary kinship, burial plot, and heavenly home. Though written for the most part in taut, compressed lines, her poems read more like conversation between the poet and her earlier selves or between O’Donnell and her audience invited to share the intimacy of memory conferring meaning, whether in a domestic space or a shrine. Divided into seven untitled sections, Moving House charts her spiritual journey from the coal mining region around Wilkes-Barre and Scranton to Baltimore and finally to Fordham where she is the Associate Director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. On her journey we tour the various houses in which O’Donnell links the eternal to the temporal, the mystery of the incarnation. Rooted in a theology of loss and gain, her poems physicalize the spiritual but also spiritualize the physical. Deftly weaving the metaphors of scripture into poems about the quotidian world of the flesh, O’Donnell brings us closer to the divine. In “Grandma’s Pears,’ for instance, she describes the old woman paring and eating the “Sweet, sinewy fruit” from her garden: “She places a wafer upon her tongue, / works it with her gums, / and swallows softly / this new world’s body, / her yard full of pearls of great price” Here is an example of the “language of eternity and once” (“Tattoo”). Structurally appropriate, too, the first poem in Moving House is titled “Lies” while the last is “New Year’s Eve Poem”; between cruel illusions (a consequence of living in a postlapsarian world) and the birth of a new year (resurrection) lie the epiphanies O’Donnell discovers and discloses.
The early poems focus on her dark memories of a bleak childhood filled with the “black smoke rising from the mines” (“Touring the Mines”) where her Italian immigrant ancestors labored. Everywhere the air is dowsed with sulfur, a consequence of the mining community and O’Donnell’s psychic trauma. From the “darkened parlor” of the house where she grew up, we hear about a malfunctioning “furnace that coughed deep in the cellar” (“Northern Lights”). In one of the most harrowing images, she recalls that when she visited her grandmother, “The frayed floral carpet / [was] all that held us from a head- / long tumble down the mine- / shaft dug beneath the house long before”; she feared that the “weight of her play” on “warped floor boards” could “plunge us straight into Hell’s own doorstep” (“Grandmother’s Living Room”). From this childhood fear of hell, she portrays family members, some of whom evoke scenes from a Flannery O’Connor story. Cousin Junior was “an arsonist/who set himself on fire” (“Lies”) until “he blazed by his own light” (“Fool’s Art”). In a sadly sardonic inversion of The Wasteland, O’Donnell professes that “April is the kindest month,” for that is when her angry and terrifying father died. Sadly, there will be “No poems for you, my father / I was always too afraid” (“Late Elegy”). Her mother dated a “Blues Man”–“Gravel-voiced boyfriend / … lean hipped broad grinned, / easy like a brother, / the kind of man / who’d walk in the house / and make the women cry,” but he is tragically killed in a car accident. Her friends’ mothers, though, “didn’t like my mother, / grew green-eyed in the grocery, / cold-shouldered us at Mass” (“Other Mothers”). O’Donnell’s genealogy of loss is succinctly summed up in the poem “Lies”: “we lived and died by the stories in that house.”
Not surprising, many of O’Donnell’s “houses” are elegiac, graveyard poems about the canonized as well as the less noble dead. “What lives lies buried,” she writes in the “Meaning of Birds,” a powerful testimony to the sacred belief in the communion of saints and the promise of resurrection. In “Kind Ground,” she lovingly describes a grandfather who “doted on the roses / rising out of Grandma Salvi’s grave”; it is the “Kind ground of an old man’s exile, / he coaxed from it olives and figs. / Despite the deep winters, the alien / snow he stirred in it / what stirred inside of him,” Perhaps this is another instance of O’Donnell’s meddling with Eliot who smells lilacs in the land of the dead, but, as elsewhere, she skillfully maps the journey within. In “November Visit,” the season of “All Saints, All Souls,” she contemplates that it is “Time to walk awhile / … we who remember / in ghost glimpses / … the lost timbre / your shining eyes.” Wishing her loved ones to return, she cautions “Avoid the nettles / and the briar patch / that would bleed you back into bodies,” a transformation echoing Donne’s wit in the Songs and Sonnets. The grave site is not always a kind and private place in Moving House. While traveling ‘Amtrak 86,” she observes how the dead “lie in neat rows” juxtaposed to “junkyard heaps of plastic play houses, / door-less cars teetering at the top.”
In several poems, O’Donnell reverently visits the graves of canonized writers who have helped her construct her moving house. In “Glasnevin Graveyard,” she honorsHopkins, in “St. Henry” it is Thoreau, and at St. Edvard’s shrine, she pays obsequies to one who had to “suffer as we all must for kind and kin.” Lamenting the expanse of spirit confined to a mortal charnel house, another moving house, O’Donnell bemoans the fate of “St. Melville,” forced to “sleep beneath six small feet of earth” after creating vast seas, and that “Old fire-lover, Jehovah-hater” in “St. Ahab” whose “weapon” was a “poetry of dread,” But in “Saints’ Lives” and “Jesuits” she turns the world’s sorrow into sanctification. Even in these poems, though, O’Donnell does not spare readers the agony of their sacrifice, e.g., “St. Agatha’s breasts [were] sliced and served” while “St. Lucy’s mild eyes [fell] upon the dish.” Referring to their martyred flesh, she playfully casts them as “girls all aglow with one desire / painted bright in hues of red and blue.”
As the above, and many other examples demonstrate, O’Donnell’s poems are the product of wit as well as wisdom. In “Druscilla’s Dance,” Salome’s sinfully venal sister’s “painted toes strapped into her sandal met the magma first.” In “Glitter makes everything better [sic],” she likens the temptation in Genesis to a woman entranced by the devil’s bling. “Prometheus discovered fire / Eve discovered glitter / Bright baubles on the tree / the diamond in the serpent’s eye” In a less pungent vein, O’Donnell shares an easy friendship with Dante as she prepares dinner (“Dante in the Kitchen”). As she busies herself with teapots, Coca Cola cans, frozen meat, lighting a broiler, and adjusting her apron, O’Donnell injects gory vignettes from The Inferno–e.g., “Simoniacs … boiling in pitch” or “Ugolino graws on the head of Ruggieri”–and concludes: “Our worlds do not mesh / Mine and Dante’s / Anywhere better than here.” Two decades earlier, playwright Adrienne Kennedy wrote about a similar literary friendship in She Talks to Beethoven. But what makes O’Donnell’s Moving House so surprisingly cohesive is that her style accommodates a variety of genres, or variations of a genre, be they eulogies, lyrics, meditations, or satires.
No less to her credit, Moving House proves that O’Donnell is a poet of careful pitch as well as sense. Her poems cry to be read aloud as she orchestrates them with alliteration and assonance. When her father tries to fix a rebellious furnace, “We’d hear the turn of the handle, the chunk / and swing of the metal door unhinged.” As the “Blues Man” boyfriend drinks Scotch, the “ice would swish and ring / against the glasses,” Hearing her sons play baseball, O’Donnell captures the sound of leather against leather in these lines: “the slap of the ball / in the glove’s deep pocket” Standing on “cliffs / above the boulder-smashing sea” in “Inis Mor,” O’Donnell discovers “Words flung against the wind / the wind flung back” another image that verbally and visually evokes the spiritual and the physical forces at work in her poems. There are many rooms in O’Donnell’s Moving House, and I congratulate her on taking us on a virtual tour of their soundly constructed architecture.