The Pilgrim in Pumps: a ★★★★★ book review

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches English at Fordham University and is the associate director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. She has previously published seven poetry collections (in addition to publishing other books, articles, and essays). Her new collection of poems, Still Pilgrim showcases a steady faith and the journey of a woman through the seasons of life and liturgy.

still-pilgrimThe project was birthed after O’Donnell made a pilgrimage to Herman Melville’s grave, a few miles from her home in the New York. Melville had written of the passion of men going off to sea, but his grave plot in Woodlawn cemetery in the Brox was in only one of ‘New York’s five boroughs not surrounded by water” (69).  O’Donnell composed a poem, St. Melville, with these words, “Is this what you were called to still pilgrim,/to sleep beneath six small feet of earth?” (70). An old sailor interred in the earth, still but his work still lives on.

It is O’Donnell not Melville that dons the moniker Still Pilgrim in these poems (perhaps the poetic voice isn’t completely autobiographical, but I am willing to wager that she wears size nine shoes). All but one poem has “Still Pilgrim” in its title. Here is a random sampling: “The Still Pilgrim visits Ellis Island,” “The Still Pilgrim Tells a Fish Story,””The Still Pilgrim Honors Her Mother,” “The Still Pilgrim Sees a Healing, “The Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” “The Still Pilgrim Describes How Heaven is.”

These poems are sonnets—metred with fourteen lines and a rhyme scheme—and are arranged fourteen poems in each of the four sections. The arrangement corresponds to the four seasons and is roughly shaped by the liturgical calendar. There are also prologue and epilogue poems, introducing and concluding this collection. The structure of tradition is juxtaposed against a contemporary life, the Still Pilgrim. More than once we hear the heal strike of her size nine pumps against the cobblestone of the pilgrim way. There are encounters between old and new and all the heartbreak and joy which comes through life’s journey. The tone is both serious and playful, at turns exuberant and sad.  O’Donnell writes in her afterward:

The poems in this book aim to tell a story, albeit by means of glimpses and gleanings rather than continous narrative. (This, after all, is more akin to hwo we experience and remember our lives. Continous narrative is a form of fiction.) The Still Pilgrim’s history consists of flashes of joy and visitations of sorrow, engagement with saints,and with artists (the Pilgrim’s personal patron saints), epiphanies sparked by words and songs and stories, revelations triggered by encounters with beauty and terror. The gentle reader who perseveres through these poems is no longer merely a reader—he or she is a partner in pilgrimage and a friend. (74).

I had not read O’Donnell’s work before and was caught off guard by these poems. The sustained character of the Still Pilgrim journeys through all life’s seasons, still a pilgrim from beginning to end.  This is the double entendre of “still.” It is more than stationary, but it also means continual persistence. Like Melville in his grave, lying still but whose work still lives on,  I hope to have much more encounters with the still pilgrim on the road ahead. I give this five stars. ★★★★★

Note: Many of these poems were previously published in various journals. Here is a link to five of these poems as they appeared in the Christian Century if you are curious what these poems are like: https://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/angela-odonnell

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of Still Pilgrim from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review

A Visual Devotional: a book review

Iconography is an art-form rooted in Incarnation. Jesus, our God made flesh, showed us the image (eikon) of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).  Icons are symbolic depictions of Christ and the saints designed to be “windows of heaven” That is, they invite us to transcend the physical in our move towards the spiritual as we reach  for God.  They are a meeting place between heaven and earth (similar to prayer or Bible reading). An icon invites us to spend time with an image, not obsessing over brush strokes and the  skill of its author (artist), but the spiritual word beyond which it depicts.

iconsIconographer and author, Sr. Faith Riccio, Cj, is the iconagrapher behind  Icons: The Essential Collection.  The  book combines Sr. Riccio’s icons of Christ, the apostles, and saint of the church with Scripture, short bios and devotional selections from the tradition and contemporary selections, including authors like Henri Nouwen, M. Basil Pennington, Ernesto Cardenel, Jack Levison, Scott Cairns and Angela Alimo O’Donnell. This a gift book easily read through in one sitting; yet the images reflecting iconography of the Christian tradition and are invitations to encounter.

We meet images of Jesus, his Mother Mary and the Holy Apostles. We also meet saints East ( i.e. Anthony, the Cappadocians, John Chrysostom, Ignatius of Antioch) and West (Gregory the Great, Benedict, Francis). Riccio’s style reflects the iconography of the Eastern church (though she is a member of a Catholic Community in Massachusetts).

This is a beautiful book. Frederica Mathewes-Green writes the forward and Riccio provides a brief introduction. The scriptures, quotations and devotional selections are well chosen and Sr. Riccio’s icons (and close-up details) are beautiful. I say this as a lowly protestant who’s imagination is formed more by iconoclasm than icons (protestants after all protest). I don’t pretend to understand iconography, but as a lover of art and faith, I am moved by what these images evoke. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.