Mine, by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Finishing Line Press (Georgetown, Kentucky), 2007
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Mine is set in the Wilke-Barre-Scranton area of Pennsylvania, played-out coal mining towns in the northeastern region of the state. The book’s cover is a photograph of O’Donnell’s Sicilian grandmother, Rosaria Mantione Alaimo, dressed in black. To her left is a clearly determined beautiful young girl, her daughter, O’Donnell’s Aunt Kate; and directly in front of Rosaria, a six year old boy, O’Donnell’s father, Charles Alaimo, sheepish, optimistic, his necktie loose, his mother’s firm hand laid gently on his shoulder. They stand on the porch of the Pittston Coal Company house they lived in. O’Donnell’s grandfather, Gregorio Alaimo, was a miner who had died just a few months before the photo was taken. The year is 1932.
Cesare Pavese, the great Italian poet, wrote “my image was the story itself.” Indeed, O’Donnell’s images, like the cover photograph of her marvelous collection, stripped of obfuscating rhetoric, embody through her language, concrete and impressionistic at once, the poignant stories of her Italian forebears she weaves into her poems. The word, mine, in the context of this volume, has terrific valence: the literal mine that put bread on the Alaimo table, but inevitably took her grandfather; the fierce claim (mine) that the poet and her various speakers have on the past, and their loved ones; and finally all that O’Donnell so fearlessly mines as she delves deeper and deeper into the murky subterranean vein of ancestral lore, ultimately her own story, for the fuel that drives her poetic impulse.
“Grandmother’s Living Room” is a stellar example of the kind of excavation that characterizes Mine. In the poem, children romp “in the cavernous dark / of grandmother’s living room. / The frayed floral carpet / all that held us from a head- / long tumble down the mine- / shaft dug beneath the house long before.” There is a precarious delicacy at play here, the notion that at any moment the house, along with children, will be subsumed, sucked into the bowels of the earth, the same earth that so ironically bears the house upon its back and yields the coal by which they live. The grandmother is a kind of hostage, a silent sacrificial lamb, holding on doggedly, faithfully, to this life that threatens at any moment to literally swallow her and her family: “The mines her life. / Our life … / Out of them had come what we were, / hauled up at cost too steep to speak …” Yet it is O’Donnell, who risks the considerable emotional cost, with grace and indomitability, to break the silence in her poems. She refuses to shrink from the mine, which functions throughout this volume as a wonderful metaphor for the past, but instead ventures into it and makes it her own through language, transforming the dark ineffable into the shimmer of poetic triumph.
O’Donnell writes with great economy and lyric intensity, often employing a compressed rhyme and off-rhyme, which lends a musical intensity, and even weight, to her poems: the ballast and gravity of coal, “smoke and soot,” “slag heaps,” and more than anything the passionate heft of the Italian immigrant heart.
In the pounding syllables of remorse, but not regret, [this] book invoke[s] a sacramental sense of place, the dank glory of small industrial towns pocketed with hushed Italian immigrants looming on the margins like old black and white daguerreotypes. Thankfully, at those same margins, O’Donnell, in [her] operatic, sweet and jarring childhood, unknowingly apprenticing as poet, took brilliant note of everything.
Reviewed by Michael Hugh Lythgoe
Poet and Fordham U. professor, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, has been known to sing as part of her public poetry readings. She has also had some of her poems set to music by two composers in Baltimore. Her songs rise from an Italian immigrant family background, full of loss and coal dust, dug out of the Pennsylvania mining world. Her words reveal a dark beauty, a truth of lives laboring in black, cold nights, fired by prayers and a music she recreates with rusty shovels, “the sluff of slippers across the kitchen” echoing Johnny Cash lyrics (“Northern Nights”), recitations of litanies of Italian family names found on grave stones visited on Sunday afternoons.
The poems in MINE are mostly elegiac in tone, lyrics of family, of a home life, of rituals, of landscapes in smoke, of hard love. There are poems for her mother who took lovers when she was made a widow:
Young ones. Dark ones. True ones,
the kind that came back,
parked their cars in the drive,
and slept in our house
night after night after night. (“Other Mothers”)
There are also poems of a daughter remembering a lost father and of a mother now raising her own sons. Inspiring and well-wrought, O’Donnell’s poems are witty, dusted with humor, dark at their roots. One of her mother’s boyfriends is remembered in a vision of a musician who sang “blue” songs and drove a rusty Mustang into a bitter-sweet , burning wreck:
Too young, too risky,
too married, and too free
for a widow with three
daughters and two grown sons.
Her stanzas ring with good sounds, driven with a regular rhythm, perfect for conveying her bluesy theme, hinting at death cheated by a song:
I watch you stride slow
away from the burning wreck.
You don’t hear us calling.
You’re singing as you go. (“Blues Man”)
O’Donnell’s literary strengths are more than musical. She writes strong narratives informed by striking, smoking imagery, using the language of digging, mining the Underworld for black truths; lives recovered in her story-poems are retold–an arsonist cousin (“Fool’s Art”), a living room over a mine shaft, where the poet remembers “holy Mary on the western wall / suffering her sword-pierced heart” (“Grandmother’s Living Room”). Her scenes are rich with literary allusions, such as this nod to Dante’s INFERNO in the same poem:
Never did we move the ground
that lay beneath our feet.
No lost souls rose to guide us
through the winding world we conjured.
No matter how loud we shouted.
How wild we danced.
Or this one in “Dante In The Kitchen”:
The dinner hour approaches,
Ugolino gnaws on the head of Ruggieri.
My children ask for hamburgers,
The red flesh fashioned, ready-
Wrapped in measured portions,
And stored in the coldest depths of the freezer.
Such a wonderful choice of words: “measured portions” of a poetry, stored in a poem reminiscent of cold depths (keep emotion at a distance, under control) but hot as a literary hell. She concludes her poem with a meditation on how her mother’s world and her professor’s world seem to combine with Dante’s Underworld in her deep imagination:
Our worlds do not mesh,
Mine and Dante’s,
Anywhere better than here
In this waning afternoon place
I glide across the linoleum
In my gilded, lead-lined apron,
Light the flame on the broiler,
And breathe the hot heat.
The Italian-American poet bows to her ancestors and cooks for her family. How nourishing is the art she serves us. Angela O’Donnell’s poetry joins the spirit of Charles Wright, a poet who is also informed by Dante’s literary landscape. But she can find the transcendent that Wright finds elusive. She also questions crevices, explores mine shafts, glides over dangerous landscapes, shines her miner’s lamp into the holes of the human heart, believing it is her “task to stir these still waters of her family’s past.
Shall I lie down beside them, one by one,
and breathe the breaths that rise from them like
and lay lash on lash, cool cheeck on cheek,
wade deep into their sepia waters?
Once there no music could call me back.
No season’s bargain, no lover’s tender lyre.
No toppled towers flaming in the distance.
No one’s daughter. No one’s mother. No one’s wife. (“Waking The Children”)
So beautiful. So contemplative. O’Donnell’s poem here is post 9/11. She teches in NYC. She knows the landscape, the city-scape. But her poetry is heated with a power that comes from the core of our earth, made palpable in a language that is reverential for soul-making. Those who know her readings at the UMHB Writer’s Festival know she is obsessed with MOBY DICK. She closes this collection with a tribute to lasting art which she admires. Her words are also a fitting comment on her own art, at once striving for now and for the eternal.
These marks, too, hieroglyphic,
A language of eternity and once. (“Tattoo”)
This review appeared in the Jan 2009 Vol 13 issue of WINDHOVER (A journal of Christian Literature).
Michael Hugh Lythgoe, the reviewer, is a contributing editor of WINDHOVER. He is also the author of a collection of his own poetry, HOLY WEEK (ISBN: 978-1-4257-8264-1)