Angela O’Donnell has reviewed poetry and fiction in these pages and was a finalist for America’s Foley Prize in poetry. After two poetry chapbooks, this is her first full-length book of verse. Moving House is a deeply affecting book. It balances hard truths with a sweetness of spirit that is, if not singular, rare in our time, especially in contemporary poetry.
O’Donnell’s book begins in recollection of her childhood home in Pennsylvania mining territory, a place so grim and dark and claustrophobic that in her first poem she links it to the ancient tragedy-ridden House of Atreus and Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In “Touring the Mine,” we learn about “the tight-lipped men/ our fathers” who “split rock in the dark,” the author’s father among them. In “Looking Back” she writes touchingly, “we fled again—...refusing to be buried in that place/ as you, in your quiet grace, did not.” The soft off-center rhyme of “place” with “grace” is a mark of O’Donnell’s careful craft.
Grouping poems in seven sections, she leads us from this unspeakable (those men are tight-lipped) devastation and a poem, ironic and powerful, about “the crucified before Christ” (“The First Art”) through poetic songs celebrating saints of the church and the saintliness of artists and the homelier saintliness of family, friends, neighbors and community to a less constricted realm in which possibility and autonomy play a salvific role. The book’s journey is indeed, as the title suggests, one of “moving house” from a dark to a brighter place—though one might also read the title as an epithet for the world, which is, of course, a moving house.
“December Roll Call” lists three “saints” in a row: “Merton, holy soul on fire./ Juan de la Cruz, in love with desire./ Mozart, martyred by music.” Here again, the avoidance of a triple rhyme is itself musical, a Haydnesque surprise. And then we have the folks who are perhaps not exactly saintly but who bear an iconic meaning, such as Hoss in the poem “My Bonanza,” based on the old television show “Bonanza.” Here, Hoss is the poet’s “bonanza,”
the big dumb ox-of-my-dreams.
Your brotherly touch sweet and
as the blue of your downcast
that said you, you, you are the one.
We take our saints, then, where we find them, hoping perhaps to find ourselves in them or, rather, embraced by them.
At the same time, the poet’s light self-mockery in “My Bonanza” renders her accessible, all the more human in her quest for emotional and spiritual freedom. O’Donnell sometimes literally sings her poems at readings: that strikes me as both suitable (to the poems) and fetching (for the audience weary of rhetoric).
Before her book reaches its end, the poems “move house” to New York, where O’Donnell now teaches at Fordham University. In “Amtrak #86” she and her family are
where Vermeer’s blue girls
pour milk and weigh pearls,
his windows spilling Delft light
across the Met’s white walls,
where bluer skies arch high
across the space where the
trimmed and tacked
and, once, were felled by fire.
But this is bravado, for the speaker sees that “my own moon face/ greets me ghostly in the glass” of the train window. She is still herself, plunging into a new environment but aware of real limitations. And in “Reading in the New House” she recognizes in a book about elephants the sisterly consciousness that crosses species to express a love of home, as if she were both elephant and free woman. As we do when we move houses, she both anticipates and laments.
In a brave poem in the last group, O’Donnell returns to the burning towers of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, finding in that holocaust an image of “stigmata,” arguing that God loves even “this world/ of fireball and ash.” Yet these final poems, because they take in new breath, new lives, are buoyed by compassion to supply that splendid balance I mentioned above. Snowflakes in a snowfall are transfigured to “Flecks of light from heaven./ Splinters of struck stars” (italics hers).
In such snow and wind, “What mercy for the birds?” she asks. It is a profoundly distressing question, but readers will recognize that the poet who asks that question already feels within her a necessary mercy and will respond in kind.