Angela O’Donnell’s new collection of poems is a lives of the saints—of a sort. Nearly every poem is a tribute to a particular saint, but not all are officially canonized in O’Donnell’s own Catholic tradition. Yes, Teresa of ávila, Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi are here. But O’Donnell also boldly proclaims many saints of her own, including the biblical Eve, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney and of course the book’s title saint, Frank Sinatra.
In calling these people saints, O’Donnell—a professor of English at Fordham University—is not being heretical (though heresy does play an intriguing role in the volume, as I’ll discuss below). Rather she is conceiving of sainthood in its core New Testament sense of a “holiness” (hagiasmos in the Greek) that is available to anyone. The early church, as reflected in the Epistles, referred to all members of the new Christian community as hagiotes. The Letter to the Ephesians, for instance, is addressed “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus.”
What so interests O’Donnell about saintliness that she would write poem after poem on the topic? I think she wrote them in order to explore from the inside the texture of what holy living might mean. Sometimes her vision is consistent with our usual concept of saintliness. Take the marvelous sonnet “St. Vincent,” which rings changes on Van Gogh’s statement that “the best way to know God is to love many things.” But then there is the deliberately shocking poem “St. Eve,” which imagines the biblical Eve in her exile complaining to God, even partially blaming him for her inadequacies: “Ever a disappointment,/ I grew breasts/…/You cut me in two./ I take half the blame.”
Words like this border on heresy; and it is this borderland that O’Donnell chooses to explore in the six poems whose title begins “Heresy,” one closing each of the book’s sections. “Heresy #1” details the mutilations of several female canonized saints, tortured and killed for what their eras defined as heresy. Silently, implicitly, the poem condemns the male treatment of these faith-filled women, and this condemnation is perhaps the poem’s own heresy. In Heresy #3, “St. Ahab,” the primary heresy is the very naming of Moby-Dick’s dark protagonist as a saint. But further, as this fine poem proceeds, all of us are implicated in the angers and hatreds that are Ahab’s very being. “You are us, you heartless martyr,/ we are you through and through.” The final couplet is chilling: “How we bless our horrors with abstraction./ Vengeance. Justice. In Ahab’s Holy Name.”
Another reflection on life’s dark side is “Heresy #5: St. Hawk and St. Shrew.” The poem describes the interrelated God-given roles of the two: the predator hawk and its prey, the shrew. The three-line inter-rhymed stanzas end with a challenging vision of the interweaving of evil and good, weakness and strength, and art itself:
part, though dying gladly takes more art. St. Lucifer and Christ watch and weep.
St. Shrew’s the hard and lesser
though dying gladly takes more art.
St. Lucifer and Christ watch and
O’Donnell experiments with rhyme schemes in many of the volume’s poems, and in a sense the book’s overarching theme is poetry itself. The long, six-part poem “The Conversation,” perhaps my favorite in the book for its brilliant play in the service of a profound vision of life and art, imagines the final meeting between the great poet Czeslaw Milosz and the monk-mystic-poet Thomas Merton. O’Donnell’s poem incorporates not only many of their own words but also lines from other poets, all in a grand conversation celebrating the glory of loving this world and of loving poetry. But is poetry of God or of the devil? Pondering the question without finally answering it, the poem lets its speakers characterize a poet on the one hand as speaking “the language of angels,” and on the other as “A houseful of demons speaking in many tongues.”
The volume’s final poem, also its final heresy, continues the conversation about whether poetry has a divine or demonic—or merely human—source. This “Poet’s Heresy” has an unnamed female poet uttering her desire to feed us with language’s lusciousness:
I want to feed you
bread and wine, fruit and feast,
blessed and broken words
to chew, chew, chew.
I want you to eat them
to put your lips around p,
crack k’s with your crowns,
roll l’s across your taste-budded
Poetry, she goes on, “is lies & truth, death & life/ …/ what you have always/ and have never known.” Finally, the poem closes by making explicit its vision of poetry as eucharistic:
It is my body & my blood.
Here. Take. Eat.
Is this heresy, to claim poetry as sacrament? I think not. Language is as incarnational as Christ himself, the Word made flesh: O’Donnell’s whole volume suggests this. She wants in this collection to help us rethink our concepts of holiness, of incarnation, of divinity and humanity intermixed, even of heresy. So she offers for our consideration—indeed as food for thought—a range of representations of all these concepts. Like any fine poet, she will not give answers. Rather, she invites: “Here. Take. Eat.”