Saint Sinatra and Other Poems
reviewed by Miho Nonaka
Angela O’Donnell’s deliciously sassy poems are born of her deeply Catholic imagination. A professor of English and the associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, O’Donnell builds a house of saints, canonized or not, including some who have never been associated with sainthood in the traditional sense of the word.
To begin with, what qualifies Frank Sinatra as a saint? “St. Sinatra” is a tribute to the irresistible charm of the blue-eyed crooner, who turns girls into devotees by singing “a true tune we know and can’t carry.” He is the “Hoboken Hero of Eros,” and readers may find themselves part of those who plead with him in the final couplet, “Pray for us, Sinner.” The volume’s cover art shows, against a golden backdrop of traditional saints, Sinatra’s mug shot from the time he was arrested on a morals charge in 1938. Despite his shady past, the brilliance of Sinatra’s performance makes him a holy vessel, worthy to intercede on behalf of the believers in his art; it endows him with the power to “Sing us alive.”
In its playful content and swing-jazzy form, “St. Sinatra” is an alluring entrance. O’Donnell sorts her saints into six sections (“Sisters,” “Brothers,” “Speaking in Tongues,” “Seeing Through Not with the Eye,” “Holy Ground” and “Household Saints,” with a poem of “heresy” ending each section). O’Donnell’s selection ranges from canonical saints like St. Catherine of Siena (or, more casually, St. Kate); biblical characters like the practically minded St. Martha, begrudging her sister’s time at Jesus’ feet; legendary artists like St. Vincent (Van Gogh), painting the world in whorls of colors; to literary giants like St. Melville and even his villainous hero, St. Ahab. Part of what makes this collection so daring is the poet’s clear refusal to draw conventional boundaries between good and evil, body and spirit, secular and religious arts, the beatified elect and the unblessed mediocrities. The book even includes Mozart’s nemesis, “St. Salieri.”
Saint Sinatra and Other Poems is also a celebration of the sensual pleasure of poetry. The entire volume is marked by the distinct joy O’Donnell takes in the sound and rhythm of language. In the concluding poem, in which she calls the reader to “crack k’s with your crowns / roll l’s across your taste-budded tongue,” we hear the voice of a female poet whose creations beckon to readers with a hearty “mangia!” And so we do. We lip-synch along with Edna St. Vincent Millay (“What lips my lips have kissed and where and why / are lips my lips have missed, and so I try”) and enjoy the fine rhymes and taut rhythmic structure found in a number of O’Donnell’s poems like well-defined muscles.
The deftly crafted sonnet that opens the “Household Saints” section is an ekphrastic poem inspired by a charcoal drawing by Margie Crisp, “Inferno on Dumbwater Creek,” which also happens to be on the cover of O’Donnell’s debut poetry collection Moving House. The dramatic description of a burning house is followed by the responses (or lack thereof) from things that are present on the scene: the moon, the windows, the clouds. The image of a collapsing house provides a viable counterpoint to the poetic structure of O’Donnell’s book, which enshrines both orthodox and unorthodox saints. The house could symbolize one’s past and present homes, the architectural arrangement of a poetry manuscript, a house of God, even the Catholic Church. The poet’s fiery imagination seems to cleanse and bring new life to stagnant, calcified notions of faith and art.
The debated link between faith and art occupies much of “The Conversation,” a long six-part poem placed in the book’s middle. It is based on the final meeting between Thomas Merton, the iconoclastic Trappist monk and author, and Czeslaw Milosz, the acclaimed Polish poet and political exile. This open-form, quote-driven poem doesn’t showcase O’Donnell’s sonic mastery, and despite the title, the collage of quotes does not synthesize into a conversation but portrays the two great minds talking past each other. Still, a scene of such “minds” joining for a night of a fleshly feast is artfully rendered.
What underlies this scrumptious dinner is the tension between the maker and the made, the singleness of the universal faith and the delightful multiplicity of the world. If the art of verse-making calls the poet to become, indiscriminately, legions of people and things of this world, are we to call it a work of demons or angels?
As we exit O’Donnell’s eclectic house of saints and unique hagiography, she leaves us with what’s more a puzzle than an answer. The final poem, “Poet’s Heresy,” pronounces poetry “lies & truth, death & life,” “every thing & no thing at all.” The end of the poem adopts eucharistic language: “It is my body & blood. / Here. Take. Eat.” Is poetry equal to sacrament? The gravity of such a notion is best understood by those who have tried their hand at writing poetry. No matter whether the verse is about saints or devils, writing it is an act of giving oneself away, though not without artifice, disguise and awareness of one’s limitations. What comes out of the poet is and isn’t real.
O’Donnell’s collection of poems provides a Walt Whitman of menus, mirroring her serious engagement with the corporeal essence of Catholic imagination and its symphonic appetite. Its variety is pleasurable and challenging. It is also an act of faith.
Peggy Rosenthal| AMERICA, OCTOBER 17, 2011
Saint Sinatra and Other Poems
By Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Angela O’Donnell’s new collection of poems is a lives of the saints—of a sort. Nearly every poem is a tribute to a particular saint, but not all are officially canonized in O’Donnell’s own Catholic tradition. Yes, Teresa of ávila, Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis ofAssisi are here. But O’Donnell also boldly proclaims many saints of her own, including the biblical Eve, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney and of course the book’s title saint, Frank Sinatra.
In calling these people saints, O’Donnell—a professor of English at FordhamUniversity—is not being heretical (though heresy does play an intriguing role in the volume, as I’ll discuss below). Rather she is conceiving of sainthood in its core New Testament sense of a “holiness” (hagiasmos in the Greek) that is available to anyone. The early church, as reflected in the Epistles, referred to all members of the new Christian community as hagiotes. The Letter to the Ephesians, for instance, is addressed “to the saints who are inEphesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
What so interests O’Donnell about saintliness that she would write poem after poem on the topic? I think she wrote them in order to explore from the inside the texture of what holy living might mean. Sometimes her vision is consistent with our usual concept of saintliness. Take the marvelous sonnet “St. Vincent,” which rings changes on Van Gogh’s statement that “the best way to know God is to love many things.” But then there is the deliberately shocking poem “St. Eve,” which imagines the biblical Eve in her exile complaining to God, even partially blaming him for her inadequacies: “Ever a disappointment,/ I grew breasts/…/You cut me in two./ I take half the blame.”
Words like this border on heresy; and it is this borderland that O’Donnell chooses to explore in the six poems whose title begins “Heresy,” one closing each of the book’s sections. “Heresy #1” details the mutilations of several female canonized saints, tortured and killed for what their eras defined as heresy. Silently, implicitly, the poem condemns the male treatment of these faith-filled women, and this condemnation is perhaps the poem’s own heresy. In Heresy #3, “St. Ahab,” the primary heresy is the very naming of Moby-Dick’s dark protagonist as a saint. But further, as this fine poem proceeds, all of us are implicated in the angers and hatreds that are Ahab’s very being. “You are us, you heartless martyr,/ we are you through and through.” The final couplet is chilling: “How we bless our horrors with abstraction./ Vengeance. Justice. In Ahab’s Holy Name.”
Another reflection on life’s dark side is “Heresy #5: St. Hawk and St. Shrew.” The poem describes the interrelated God-given roles of the two: the predator hawk and its prey, the shrew. The three-line inter-rhymed stanzas end with a challenging vision of the interweaving of evil and good, weakness and strength, and art itself:St. Shrew’s the hard and lesser part, though dying gladly takes more art. St. Lucifer and Christ watch and weep.
O’Donnell experiments with rhyme schemes in many of the volume’s poems, and in a sense the book’s overarching theme is poetry itself. The long, six-part poem “The Conversation,” perhaps my favorite in the book for its brilliant play in the service of a profound vision of life and art, imagines the final meeting between the great poet Czeslaw Milosz and the monk-mystic-poet Thomas Merton. O’Donnell’s poem incorporates not only many of their own words but also lines from other poets, all in a grand conversation celebrating the glory of loving this world and of loving poetry. But is poetry of God or of the devil? Pondering the question without finally answering it, the poem lets its speakers characterize a poet on the one hand as speaking “the language of angels,” and on the other as “A houseful of demons speaking in many tongues.”
The volume’s final poem, also its final heresy, continues the conversation about whether poetry has a divine or demonic—or merely human—source. This “Poet’s Heresy” has an unnamed female poet uttering her desire to feed us with language’s lusciousness: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.
Poetry, she goes on, “is lies & truth, death & life/ …/ what you have always/ and have never known.” Finally, the poem closes by making explicit its vision of poetry as eucharistic:It is my body & my blood. Here. Take. Eat.
Is this heresy, to claim poetry as sacrament? I think not. Language is as incarnational as Christ himself, the Word made flesh: O’Donnell’s whole volume suggests this. She wants in this collection to help us rethink our concepts of holiness, of incarnation, of divinity and humanity intermixed, even of heresy. So she offers for our consideration—indeed as food for thought—a range of representations of all these concepts. Like any fine poet, she will not give answers. Rather, she invites: “Here. Take. Eat.”
Peggy Rosenthal’s books include The Poets’ Jesus and Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s “Saint Sinatra”
In his letters, the Apostle Paul usually addresses the churches, such as the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica. In his letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians, Paul speaks to the “saints.” Peter speaks to “God’s elect.” But while different terms are used, all are generally understood to mean the people – the living people – who comprised the churches in these cities. When Paul wrote to the saints in Ephesus and Philippi, he was not addressing people who had been recognized and canonized as something special and different after their deaths. And so too today, in most of the Protestant traditions (Anglican and Episcopal being obvious exceptions), the terms “saints” refers to the living, breathing members of the church.
And then there’s Saint Sinatra.
I have to say that I laughed when I saw the title of this collection of poems by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. I’ve never really considered Frank Sinatra a saint, even in his early singing career when young women (like my mother) swooned over those famous blue eyes. Yet his poem, the title poem, leads this volume. And it should.
It is a collection that is at once serious and humorous, focused and yet playful. It speaks to and about saints who are both familiar and known for being saints (like “St. Kate,” or Catherine of Siena), as well as those who are not – like St. Ikaros, the mythical Icarus who flew too close to the sun. And O’Donnell includes a variety of literary figures to populate her saintly domain here – like St. Seamus (Heaney, the poet), St. Melville and St. Hawthorne, St. Edna (Vincent Millay) and St. Emily (Dickinson).
The idea here seems to be that these figures are all saints, have all been found worthy of sainthood, be that for singing, writing, painting (Van Gogh and Turner) and even playing the saxophone (Clarence Clemmons, who played with Brice Springsteen.)
The poem entitled St. Seamus, for the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, is a kind of praise and giving thanks psalm, and is an indication of how O’Donnell has written and organized her poems.
For years I’ve knelt at your holy wells
and envied the cut of your clean-edged song,
lain down in the bog where dead men dwell,
grieved with ghosts who told their wrongs.
Your consonants cleave my soft palate.
I taste their music and savor it long
past the last line of the taut sonnet.
Its rhyming subtle, its accent strong.
And every poem speaks a sacrament,
blood of blessing, bread of the word,
feeding me full in language ancient
as Aran’s rock and St. Kevin’s birds.
English will never be the same.
To make it ours is why you came.
There is much to plumb in this poem, not the least of which is the connection between art and faith, or how art expresses faith, and how faith is revealed in art.
The poems in the volume are not limited to saints; there is also one called “The Conversation,” which is almost like a news account of the one face-to-face meeting of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and the Polish-Lithuanian-American Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz. The two had corresponded for years: their one meeting was a in a restaurant in San Francisco in 1968, and it is imaginatively recreated by O’Donnell here, including these lines:
He made me Milosz, you Merton,
and neither of us home
and sent us on a pilgrimage to find it.
We have seen on our way and fallen in love
With the world that will pass in a twinkling.
The maker loves the maker and the made.
Other poems include O’Donnell’s responses to seeing Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sower with Setting Sun” on the feast day of St. Francis and an exhibition of paintings by J.M. W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
O’Donnell teaches English, Creative Writing and American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York City. She’s previously published two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poems, Moving House. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Christian Century, Comstock Poetry Review, Potomac Review and Xavier Review, among many others. She’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Web Prize, and was finalist for the Foley Poetry Award, the Elixir First Book award and the Mulberry Poets & Writers Award.
And in Saint Sinatra, she’s given us the poetry of the saints, all of the saints, including those who are recognizably ourselves.
TWEETSPEAK, May 25th, 2011