In his letters, the Apostle Paul usually addresses the churches, such as the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica. In his letters to the Ephesians and the Philippians, Paul speaks to the “saints.” Peter speaks to “God’s elect.” But while different terms are used, all are generally understood to mean the people – the living people – who comprised the churches in these cities. When Paul wrote to the saints in Ephesus and Philippi, he was not addressing people who had been recognized and canonized as something special and different after their deaths. And so too today, in most of the Protestant traditions (Anglican and Episcopal being obvious exceptions), the terms “saints” refers to the living, breathing members of the church.
And then there’s Saint Sinatra.
I have to say that I laughed when I saw the title of this collection of poems by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell. I’ve never really considered Frank Sinatra a saint, even in his early singing career when young women (like my mother) swooned over those famous blue eyes. Yet his poem, the title poem, leads this volume. And it should.
It is a collection that is at once serious and humorous, focused and yet playful. It speaks to and about saints who are both familiar and known for being saints (like “St. Kate, ” or Catherine of Siena), as well as those who are not – like St. Ikaros, the mythical Icarus who flew too close to the sun. And O’Donnell includes a variety of literary figures to populate her saintly domain here – like St. Seamus (Heaney, the poet), St. Melville and St. Hawthorne, St. Edna (Vincent Millay) and St. Emily (Dickinson).
The idea here seems to be that these figures are all saints, have all been found worthy of sainthood, be that for singing, writing, painting (Van Gogh and Turner) and even playing the saxophone (Clarence Clemmons, who played with Brice Springsteen.)
The poem entitled St. Seamus, for the Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner, is a kind of praise and giving thanks psalm, and is an indication of how O’Donnell has written and organized her poems.
For years I’ve knelt at your holy wells
and envied the cut of your clean-edged song,
lain down in the bog where dead men dwell,
grieved with ghosts who told their wrongs.
Your consonants cleave my soft palate.
I taste their music and savor it long
past the last line of the taut sonnet.
Its rhyming subtle, its accent strong.
And every poem speaks a sacrament,
blood of blessing, bread of the word,
feeding me full in language ancient
as Aran’s rock and St. Kevin’s birds.
English will never be the same.
To make it ours is why you came.
There is much to plumb in this poem, not the least of which is the connection between art and faith, or how art expresses faith, and how faith is revealed in art.
The poems in the volume are not limited to saints; there is also one called “The Conversation, ” which is almost like a news account of the one face-to-face meeting of Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and the Polish-Lithuanian-American Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz. The two had corresponded for years: their one meeting was a in a restaurant in San Francisco in 1968, and it is imaginatively recreated by O’Donnell here, including these lines:
He made me Milosz, you Merton,
and neither of us home
and sent us on a pilgrimage to find it.
We have seen on our way and fallen in love
With the world that will pass in a twinkling.
The maker loves the maker and the made.
Other poems include O’Donnell’s responses to seeing Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sower with Setting Sun” on the feast day of St. Francis and an exhibition of paintings by J.M. W. Turner at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
O’Donnell teaches English, Creative Writing and American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York City. She’s previously published two chapbooks and a full-length collection of poems, Moving House. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Christian Century, Comstock Poetry Review, Potomac Review and Xavier Review, among many others. She’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and The Best of the Web Prize, and was finalist for the Foley Poetry Award, the Elixir First Book award and the Mulberry Poets & Writers Award.
And in Saint Sinatra, she’s given us the poetry of the saints, all of the saints, including those who are recognizably ourselves.