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Angela Alaimo O’Donnell: Faith’s storehouse of story and symbol enhances poet’s diverse writing

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(Catholic News Service photos)

In the introduction to her 2014 prose work “Mortal Blessings,” poet and educator Angela Alaimo O’Donnell offers this frank observation: “Poetry seemed to be something I could manage on my own. All I needed was a pen, some paper and a ritual. And so I would make music with words.”

A professor of English literature at Fordham University in New York, Alaimo O’Donnell has taken as her muse the late Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor who, while not a poet in her own right, has inspired countless Catholic authors over the last half-century.

O’Donnell, who also serves as associate director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, has devoted the bulk of her work to studying O’Connor as a Catholic artist. Along the way, she has continuing making “music with words” via nine collections of poems and dozens of book reviews, essays and scholarly papers on topics intimately connected with Catholic literary arts.

In a recent interview with Catholic News Service, O’Donnell reflected on her path to a poetic career and how the Catholic faith nurtured her creative imagination.

“It’s difficult to say exactly how my faith has influenced my writing, in part because much of that influence is unconscious,” O’Donnell revealed. “As Flannery O’Connor says, when you write, you write ‘with the whole personality.’ And part of my personality is this Catholic formation I received as a child, which has shaped, and continues to shape, my vision of the world.”

(CNS illustration; photo by Tyler Orsburn)

O’Donnell was born to a large Italian family in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and grew up in nearby West Wyoming. She attended Our Lady of Sorrows Parish there and has fond memories of her dedicated but somewhat rebellious mother bundling the five siblings off to early Sunday morning Mass.

“When I was very small, I remember watching the votive candles flickering in their little red glasses, blinking my eyes and watching them appear and disappear,” O’Donnell said. “My mother used to tell the story of my seeing them for the first time in church. I broke out in a spirited performance of ‘Happy Birthday’ — and she was mortified.”

As a child, O’Donnell stumbled upon Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and Sylvia Plath’s cri de coeur poem “Daddy,” both of which set the young writer on her literary career trajectory.

“I was astonished at the spell [Plath] cast in her poem, and I wanted to learn how to do that,” she said.

Her literary interest in Flannery O’Connor, however, was apparent at the outset of her academic work.

“Flannery O’Connor is a rarity — a writer who is celebrated and recognized by the literary community for the excellence of her work and also a writer who is a faithful Catholic,” O’Donnell said. “She was a genius as a writer, and an eloquent and brilliant spokesperson for the role faith can play in the life and the work of a serious writer. She pursued her twin vocations as an artist and as a Catholic relentlessly with total commitment to both.”

O’Donnell, however, has not limited her poetic imagination to exegeses of an inspiring mentor. Her “Mortal Blessings” is the author’s account of her family’s gradual discovery of a “sacramental vision” as the brothers and sisters cared for their ailing mother.

“A few months after my mother’s passing,” O’Donnell wrote, “one sacrament led to another … and I wrote a poem in attempt to capture the complex, beautiful paradox of these days I spent with my mother in pursuit of beauty. It helps me to remember — and when my memory fails, as it inevitably will, I hope the poem will continue to speak what those days taught me.”

Even more contemporary events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures of the last year and a half, figure their way into O’Donnell’s work. Her poem “Love in the Time of Coronavirus – Quarantine day #29: Our Emmaus,” infuses present day realities with a reflection on an Advent season Gospel reading:

…This is the real

presence of joy these days of pandemic.

The world’s gone insane. People are frantic.

They talk of the news, the news, the news.

Terrible deaths. Bleak crucifixions.

Lives once well ordered now lack direction.

Better to sit here. Just me and you.

To set on our table olives and wine,

to savor the taste of sweet grapes and brine,

to raise our glasses and toast the poor dead,

to mend the world and break our bread.

As someone so enamored of the precision, meaning and expressive value of good poetry, O’Donnell is distressed that verse is not overly popular with the reading public.

“I do wish more readers would turn to poetry,” she said. “People are hungry for truth, wisdom and beauty to help them cope with the challenges of being human, and poetry offers exactly that. A poem written by a stranger who was born 200 years ago, or 20 years ago, can articulate in a short space the promptings of our own private hearts.”

Like many novelists, poets and writers raised in the Catholic faith, O’Donnell draws on Catholicism’s particular language, metaphor, symbolism and repository of stories to enliven her art. “The vocabulary of Catholicism is rich. From an early age, we learn words that attempt to convey the mystery at the center of our faith, that attempt to capture the mystery of the divine and the human.”

By Mike Mastromatteo, Catholic News Service

Mike Mastromatteo is a writer and editor from Toronto. He also writes about Catholic fiction for CNS.