In the introduction to her book “Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor” (Paraclete Press, 2020), Angela Alaimo O’Donnell recounts how “at least one reader” asked “whether it is presumptuous … to assume Flannery O’Connor‘s inner life” and write “deeply personal” poems in O’Connor’s voice.
O’Donnell’s reply reflects not only a poetic imagination but also a deeply Catholic one. Of course entering and embodying another’s mind and heart is presumptuous, she writes; but that presumption is the calling of every artist — and of every Christian, too. “We can never truly know another soul. But love compels us to try.”
This continual trying to know and love other souls is the force that drives her poetry. It is an answer, too, to the oft-asked questions about the nature of the Catholic imagination and its manifestations in art.
What defines a Catholic writer? How might a Catholic way of looking at the world inform a poetic work?
As a poet, writer, scholar, professor of literature and leading voice in today’s Catholic literary landscape, O’Donnell addresses these questions persuasively and often. At the biennial Catholic Literary Imagination conferences and elsewhere, she has asserted that “there are as many ways to be a Catholic artist as there are Catholic artists.”
Of the shared characteristics that bind diverse incarnations of the Catholic imagination together, the most essential is embedded in the word “catholic” itself. It is to approach the world with a generous heart — the way we hope to approach Christ in the Eucharist, the way Christ in the Eucharist approaches us.
In O’Donnell’s poetry, this generosity manifests itself not only in the language of eucharistic communion but also in the language of pilgrimage. One is tightly bound up with the other: Love of God and of our neighbor as ourselves is “our (un)common beginning and our equally (un)common end.”
Our shared pilgrimage, undertaken in love, is a journey toward Love itself. Of all poetic forms, the sonnet perhaps best embodies these themes. The sonnet is the traditional love poem, its iambic pentameter beating in time with the human heart.
The sonnet enacts pilgrimage, too: as O’Donnell writes in the afterword to “Still Pilgrim” (Paraclete, 2017), it is a “marvelous poetic fact” that lines of poetry are measured out in metrical “feet” and that the sonnet’s 14 lines recall the 14 Stations of the Cross, “the road to Calvary being the template for every human pilgrimage.” The sonnet contains within it a “providential design” — its very form teaches us how to love.
Considered together, O’Donnell’s most recent poetry collections — all of them grounded in the sonnet form — exemplify love’s pilgrimage to fuse the self with an ever-expanding communion of saints. The semi-autobiographical persona of “Still Pilgrim” discovers herself through interior pilgrimage and her relation to eternity through the most ordinary scenes and domestic tasks.
In “The Still Pilgrim Makes Dinner,” the everyday ritual of preparing a meal becomes sacred as the speaker remembers her mother in “this dish she taught me to make / This wine I drink, this bread I break.” In “The Still Pilgrim Recounts Another Annunciation,” quotidian realities of “the floor unswept, the house a mess” conjure up images of the Mother of God, her “angelic guest,” and the mystery of the Incarnation.
“Andalusian Hours” presents the next leg of the pilgrimage, from self-knowledge to compassionate identification with another — in this case, with another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. These private pilgrimages pave the way for the publicly shared pilgrimage recounted in “Love in the Time of Coronavirus: A Pandemic Pilgrimage” (Paraclete, 2021).
After a year of worldwide suffering and sacrifice, the Catholic poet reminds us of a vision for living we too often forget: “We who’ve neglected each other so long / could have loved one another all along.”
By Jessica Schnepp, Catholic News Service
Jessica Schnepp is a doctoral candidate in English literature at The Catholic University of American and founder of the CUA Contemporary Catholic Writers Group.