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.
- Poets and Poems: Andrew Frisardi and “The Moon on Elba” - June 6, 2023
- Poets and Poems: Bruce Beasley and “Prayershreds” - May 30, 2023
- Poets and Poems: James Sale and “StairWell” - May 23, 2023
L. L. Barkat says
These poems are so perfectly Angela. I’ve met her, and she too is a kind of saint 🙂
Mama Zen says
This sounds excellent!
Maureen Doallas says
I’ll add this title to my list.
Sue Danielson says
Angela, if I didn’t have enough of reason to read your new poetry by just knowing you and your talent, this review and some of the comments on Facebook, have given me the extra nudge I need to get myself a copy of St. Sinatra. I love comment number 1 on this site, because I admire you greatly, and I’m so happy that others are seeing more and more the depth and breadth and connectedness of you, in addition to the generosity of you that is so constantly revealed in your daily nurturing roles as mother, wife, teacher and mentor. I love your wordly, worldly, yet profoundly spiritual expression…it speaks so directly to the truth that touches and shapes us all, even when the literary erudition of your references are a bit outside my everyday experience (living in the mundane, non-academic day-to-day world), you still hit that spot…I can’t wait to read these poems. I fully expect to be moved. Congratulations on the wonderful responses I’ve been reading to this publication!
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell says
Many thanks to Laura, Mama Zen, Maureen, and Sue for these kind responses and good words about SAINT SINATRA. I’m delighted that the book has found it’s way to such generous readers. Glynn Young’s brilliant review casts SINATRA, with its full motley company of saints and sinners, in the best possible light. I am honored by such strict and generous attention.
Regarding Laura’s casting of me as “a kind of saint”–I happily accept that role, keeping in mind how various (ranging from the much-beloved Saint Francis of Assisi to the hated Captain Ahab)–the saints in my book are!
Regarding Sue’s kind commentary, connecting the work of my (extraordinary) ordinary life to my (supposedly) more exalted work of writing poetry, I can’t imagine a greater compliment. If I might borrow a phrase from the great Yeats, it is a form of glory to have such friends.