Paradox at the Heart of Poetry—In Review

August 4, 2017)

Paradox colors the world, especially when seen through the eyes of faith, and paradox is at the heart of these poems. Consider the collection’s title: Still Pilgrim. How can a pilgrim, who is a traveler by definition, be characterized as still? “This world was never made for rest,” says “The Still Pilgrim Ponders a Paradox,” the poem serving as the book’s epilogue. “And still you stay as still can be / unmoved by your velocity.”

In these poems, the Still Pilgrim—seemingly the poet’s alter ego—reflects on longing and the world’s impermanence, the fleetingness of time and vivid memories, piercing joy and piercing grief.

 Even the most intense joys in these poems—as in the real world—never fully break free from the shadow of defeat and sorrow. The reader gets the sense that the Still Pilgrim is making a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of progress, which brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s description of fallen human life before God in The Problem of Pain: “Thus . . . all the days of our life, we are sliding, slipping, falling away—as if God were . . . a smooth inclined plane on which there is no resting.”
Companionability is a poetic virtue of special importance in our time and place, and it is abundantly present in O’Donnell’s poems. The Still Pilgrim says of her (by no means affluent) childhood home: “You’d never know we were among the least. / Bread was our mercy. Wine was our cure.” There is a generosity of spirit here, an unself-absorbed openness about the triumphs and vulnerabilities of our common experience of life. O’Donnell’s poems assume—even as they’re reaching toward it—a deep connection, a kind of communion with readers. How countercultural. How necessary here and now.

“We are living in an anti-art age. The world is now a brutal place and obsessed with speed and wealth.” So said singer and songwriter Paul Simon in a 2015 interview, and one could understandably fear, in such an age as ours, that poetry has finally become irrelevant. But I would like to think, and Angela O’Donnell’s engaging and deeply humane poems in Still Pilgrim encourage me in doing so, that poems will go on functioning as diverse mercies we can keep with us—at home or away—for the pleasure of their company and as a means of remembering who we are.

Read the full review from The Christian Century

Angela Alaimo-O’Donnell on how Stil Pilgrim came to be…


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