Waiting for Ecstasy. Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. Franciscan University of Steubenville Press: 2009. Chapbook of Poems. 30 pp.
By Michael Lythgoe (Originally published in WINDHOVER, 2010)
Waiting For Ecstasy is a new chapbook by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. It reads like Lives of the Saints. O’Donnell has been a professor at Jesuit institutions for her teaching career. Naturally, her works reflect the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola and the influences of Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J. Like the English devotional poet, Geoffrey Hill, her poems here honor saints and martyrs. The mark of the best poetry is the presence of lines inspired by suffering and sacrifice. Yet, not all of these poems are tributes to saints canonized by the Church. She makes saints of artists–like Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Melville, Anne Sexton, Antonio Saliere, and Frank Sinatra. There is suffering, sacrifice, reverence in her lines. Not all of these saints die for their faith. Some are even sinners who may die without the traditional sacrament of penance. “Jesuits” (10) pays tribute to “the God-squad, heaven’s Special Forces” who served as missionaries to the Iroquois, and were killed in their black robes trying to save souls for Christ. St. Ignatius, founder of the order, left his sword behind at Montserrat, but found his faith after serving as a soldier. In the 20th century, Jesuits were martyred in El Salvador as recently as 1989.
In “Saints Lives” (11), O’Donnell honors St. Joan of Arc (burned), St. Maria Goretti (raped), St. Agatha (whose breasts were sliced). St. Lucy lost her eyes, and St. Cecilia “succumbed, they say, singing.” Yet the bloody murders alluded to in these lyrical poems are about “ecstasy”–waiting for salvation, or dying to go to heaven. She ends the poem cited above with echoes of Molly Bloom’s assent to sensual bliss in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “yes, yes, yes, O yes.” Other poems in this collection feature examples of strange behaviors saints exhibited in their lives: some provoke church leaders, some fast until they are anorexic, one, “St. Lazarus” (26), puts his skin and eyes and knuckles together to run in the sun from death; “St. Kate” speaks of St. Catherine of Sienna, who had her own erotic obsession with a relic of Christ’s flesh. Catholics, Episcopalians, and Greek Orthodox believers may enter stories of the saints most easily. Yet a number of the poems derive from the New Testament, especially the gospels—like “St. Lazarus,” “St. Martha,” and “What the Angel Said.”
The modern Church and liturgy, according to a friend, seems more about sacramentals and rituals than mysticism and prayer. We are not taught to pray with St. Basil, or to learn St. John of the Cross. Reading mystics can be too hard. We do not give enough quiet time to meditation and pondering mystery in our faith. We do not allow ourselves to be elevated in the language of mystery. I wish to celebrate the “mystical” feel, the emotion and empathy for Mary conveyed in “Annunciation,” the opening poem in this collection. “Waiting For Ecstasy,”(3) is inspired by St. Therese of Liseux; its mystical opening moves from the concrete hum-drum duties of a housewife doing the chores, washing clothes for her family, to the desire for transcendence. Work can be prayer. What is our intention? Do we offer up to God what we do for our family? There are also several Mother/Son poems. O’Donnell has mothered three sons. See “Christ’s Colors,” and “Blessing,” for powerful connections to the Passover story, blood on the doors to save the oldest sons—a compelling image these days when mothers fear for sons in combat. “St. Thomas” (27) is also a mystical poem: ”You have set me on fire, / O my Lord, at the last / after years of scut and cold smolder. / And I can not stop burning.” Like St. Thomas Aquinas, any writer might doubt what she writes: is it “like so much straw”? Elevated thoughts inspired by writing, emotions put into words and imagery with soft vowels, rhymes, and refrains. Her metaphors are strong: “You cut me in two. / I take half the blame.” (“St. Eve in Exile” 13). Great closures are deployed in her lines. There is a formal feel to this collection: One third of the poems are sonnets; one third are written in quatrains and couplets, or 3-line stanzas. I admire the movement from literary and historical figures to the living. Concrete events sail into abstract mystery and lift the reader. We could do worse than find poetry like this to read in preparation for our own final days.
WAITING FOR ECSTASY, REVIEW by Steven Schroeder
Vacpoetry Reading Room, June 10, 2011
Angela O’Donnell’s little book of saints begins with an annunciation in which Mary wonders “whether what she hears is promise / or a new trick of the light.” That is a striking image, both for the uncertainty it embraces and for the poet’s simple annunciation that it is possible for one to hear a trick of the light. Knowing that without the need to argue it, so confidently that it goes without saying, is one of the miracles that makes poetry possible, and it is one of many ordinary miracles that populate O’Donnell’s poems. In the title poem, doing laundry is intertwined with a description of God speaking to St. Therese of Lisieux in roses. The poem turns on the turning of the poet as well as the turning of the laundry: “I do little, I get nothing done. // Circling the cellar, / hands idle and empty, / I waste the hours / waiting for ecstasy.”
In her choice of title, O’Donnell puts waiting front and center — and getting nothing done is no small task. In St. Kate, it is God who is waiting: “She told the Pope / to come home / and be a man. // You laughed / in Your heaven. / You waited for her.” And in St. Francis, it is Brother Ass who “remained, faithful as the birds, / while Francis preached a gospel without words.” A gospel without words celebrates nothing that is there and could itself be a promising trick of light, as suggested in St. Martha: “My hands obeyed the rhythms of my labor / while Mary sat beside You like a man, / embraced within the circle of Your favor. // I stood apart, Your beauty kept from me, / and only when You left us did I see.”
This little book is filled with such promising tricks of light, one of the most effective being St. Ahab, whose “weapon” is “a poetry of dread.” Naming this “Old fire-lover, Jehovah-hater, / thief of men’s minds” a saint is a bold move. “You are us,” the poet says to Ahab, “you heartless martyr, / we are you through and through…”
Perhaps, contra Leon Bloy (who O’Donnell quotes in one of three epigraphs), not being a saint is not the only tragedy in life. There is also being one — and O’Donnell sings both beautifully.