June 7, 2010

“Catholic poetry,” “Poetry by Catholics.” Thanks largely to Flannery O’Connor we may never be able to untangle what those two phrases actually mean. But one thing is clear, and that is that the lives of the saints are always in front of us. They are who we would do well to model ourselves after. That is true for every Catholic, poet or not. And the one defining characteristic of those who were or who would be saints is an absolute obsession with Jesus Christ: who He is, what he wants. So it would follow that every Catholic poet’s work should likewise reflect that pre-occupation, whatever he or she is writing about. I mean if St. John Vianney rode a bicycle down the cobbled roads of France, he was surely enjoying the presence of God as he put out his feet, perhaps even talking to his Lord as his cassock and hair flapped in the breeze.

But how often does Catholic poetry center itself on the Christ who defines us, who pumps the blood, spiritual and physical, into our veins? He gives all pain expression, and meaning. He is the reason we get up each day. Granted the world does not want to hear this. Oprah would find it excessive. Some would argue as Gerald Stern does: one is not always a Jew or a Christian; some poems are just about an itchy back or a fear of death. “Everyone fears death.” But for the Christian, again, we do everything in God’s contemplative presence, and that should express itself either explicitly or implicitly.

As I say, the world does not want to hear this. And it is this very tension which creates the contemporary literary landscape behind the Christian poem.

And so how can one be true to his or her vocation and still get published in “group mind” POETRY magazine? What kind of Catholic poems can get into little magazines, any way, and which kinds can not? These are good questions, reflect the difficulties. But there is more. Even on friendlier turf, there are other problems. Many overtly Catholic “literary” journals make demands which seem to come short of the liberty offered by the gospel, insisting as they do on a mahogany old-world European-laced perspective. Quality does not seem to be an issue for some of these editors, either. They seem more concerned with formula and the catechesis involved. Art, literary value, seem secondary. (Though we do need to tip our hats to Philip C. Kolin for his good work with VINEYARDS.)

This leads me to Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s wonderful book MOVING HOUSE by Word Press, 2009. It reflects both some of the problems and something of a solution to “the world” problem mentioned above. Broken up into seven sections, she delivers some fine Catholic poems here—though she, admittedly, does not spend a lot of time directly concerned with the King. Still, many of the offerings are wonderfully and overtly Catholic. The strongest of O’Donnell’s pieces in this book for my money revolve around her childhood coal town memories and those concerning her contemporary domestic scene. Some of these are so powerful that I feel they may still be around well down the road—a rarity, I think, in this postmodern world.

The poems I liked less might be said to edge either toward the coffee table variety or toward the herd mentality of the literary magazines. Such poems, when they fail in the large, usually acknowledge some pain, but it is controlled by wit, resource and a saving last line. In Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s defense, however, even when she verges in that direction, her judgment, sense of surprise usually saves the day.

Still, I prefer the poems that shake my bars, punch me in the mouth to put it baldly, poems that make me profoundly grateful to the poet for giving me real news. “Breaker” is one of those first-rate poems about her youth. In it we’re brought into a dark and damp coal town world, “A town of heaving men/who slept upright in their darkened parlors.” It’s a place I’ve never lived, a place where we later learn the kids must sleep wearing coats. The next poem “Northern Lights” does it again: mom and dad up early, after Robert Heyden, trying to breathe life into the soot-dark cold of the house.

“In “Grandmother’s Living Room” we learn “The floor sloped sharp/in the cavernous dark” and that abandoned shafts ran underneath the house. The kids squeal in delight because they are kids:
Still we braved it all the same,
The crazed plaster and warped floor boards,
The chill smell of sulfur,
The gray-tasting dust,
And holy Mary on the western wall
Suffering her sword-pierced heart.
The poem ends in delight, but a wise delight.

“Staking Claim” features the speaker as mom, delivers much. And “Division,” which follows is a fine, fine poem. The speaker, a mom, is Gertrude from HAMLET in the latter, can feel with the woman because she is a mom. This is the kind of thing Angela does best, though I liked all the poems about art as well. Still, it’s the poems like “Division” that really punish the reader. (Jorie Graham once said that it’s the poet’s job to break your heart.) This is a mother’s pain. The two which follow are marvelous too: “Dante in the Kitchen” and one of my long-tome favorites of hers, “Waking the Children.” There the mother knows, fore-suffers because she knows what days always bring to the young, to all of us.

Part VI has many wonderful poems around moving from one place to another: again, a woman’s take—as is fitting, since as Proverbs tell us, she is the heart of the home. There are other fine poems, too, ones which do not deal with my two favorite topics: childhood and motherhood/wifedom. Anything on Melville is going to be good because she clearly loves him so much, gets him in some powerful way. The death poems also really catch you up short.

There’s much to like here, which is a good thing because Angela is such a quality person, and it’s good to be blessed with that on the page. In parting, I would encourage here to write a book just on family. That is where she shines brightest.

Of course, God only knows where future poems will venture, or where they come from for that matter. May He have mercy on us all as we struggle to fit more snugly into obedient lives.