The Poetry of Pilgrimage
A Review of A Gathering of Larks by Abigail Carroll and Still Pilgrim by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Joshua Gage

Carroll challenges the idea of a pilgrim by giving the speaker of her poems, which reads as Carroll herself, no destination, but simply a journey with Christ. Despite the subtitle of the collection—“Letters to St. Francis from a Modern-Day Pilgrim”—there is no sense of pilgrimage, but merely a modern woman progressing through life. In this, Carroll usurps the traditional image of a pilgrim, and instead focuses on a modern Christian, one who faces upheavals, doubts and struggles. She parallels this journey to the life of St. Francis, finding inspiration and consternation in his life and the stories associated with him. The poems are written as letters directly to St. Francis, and are autographed with spiritual appellations, such as “Rechristened” or “A Green Thumb,” tying the speaker back to the themes of the poem.

Carroll’s speaker is clearly enamored with St. Francis, his life, and his legends. Most of the poems retell moments in his life. For example, the poem “Dear Wolf-whisperer” begins, “That you proposed a pact with a wolf/should make me think you/mad.” The poem “Dead Jongleur de Dieu” starts with the lines:

When your lungs failed
and your sight was all but gone,
took on

a new kind of work; you canticled
the sun.

This content, structured as letters to the saint himself, often struggles and seems forced. Where the poems seem to want to express joy and companionship with lines like “I too take long walks in the fields and woods./Sometimes, I must confess/I speak secretly to the birds,” or “I would like to meet Job. By chance,/have you bumped into him up there?” the colloquial use of second-person and the simple retellings remove the reader from participating in the emotions that the speaker clearly feels. At their best, the bulk of these poems read like gushing fan letters.

At rare points Carroll abandons this style of writing for one that is more personal and contemplative. For example, in the poem that begins “Time to plant, time to press my nails/in dirt…” the speaker considers her habits in gardening, and the act of gardening in general. “I do not trust the package notes…” she confesses, and “It seems to me no life can rise//from dust…” She extends this discussion into a metaphor about life and the afterlife. Francis isn’t addressed until the very end of the poem, and then only tangentially. This sort of poem works well in this collection because it takes the reader’s associations of St. Francis (patron saint of ecology) and approaches it from a unique perspective. Another poem begins, “With my foot in a cast, so much/remains on hold.” The speaker confesses later, “Strange, but I simply have no needs.” Not once is Francis or his life mentioned beyond the address in the title. However, Carroll uses our associations with Francis, images of patience or quiet solitude in nature, and connects them to her own spiritual life. These poems are all too few in this collection, and the book suffers for it.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s recent collection, Still Pilgrim, uses the persona of Still Pilgrim to explore the life of a modern woman and all its complications. Immediately, she challenges the reader’s sense of pilgrimage. If a pilgrim is one who moves or ventures toward a destination, what is a still pilgrim? O’Donnell asks us to consider a pilgrim who pauses occasionally to collect their thoughts and evaluate themselves and their progress. O’Donnell’s collection is a series of poems that captures these moments of pause as free-verse sonnets. In this way a narrative of moments is constructed, and one can see the progress that the Still Pilgrim makes.

O’Donnell not only challenges the idea of a pilgrim, but she also challenges the idea of a sonnet. For readers who would identify a sonnet as a lyric poem with a regular meter, often iambic pentameter, and set rhyme scheme, O’Donnell’s free verse interpretations of this form and original rhyme schemes might throw them for a loop. However, this is not an unconscious choice or a decision of sloppy craft. As O’Donnell explains at the end of her book, the metric feet in the lines represent the steps that a pilgrim would take; therefore, because a pilgrim does not plod or march through their pilgrimage, but will often shift speeds and gait through their journey, so too do the lines have a varied number of feet. The clever use of rhyme and slant rhyme hold these poems together, so there is a unity to each piece.

The moments of stillness that O’Donnell presents in her sonnets are moments of contemplation, but also moments of heartache and loneliness, stubbornness and inadequacy; in short, they are moments that all readers will be able to relate to as modern-day human beings. In one poem, “The Still Pilgrim Moves,” the titular character is moving her last son into his new apartment, and she says:

The joy he felt all day was worth
the pangs I felt. When I came home
the house was empty of all my sons.
One life had ended, another begun.

In the next poem, “A Still Pilgrim Hears a Diagnosis,” her son is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The poem ends, “I sat beside my grown young son/and hoped for a blessing. There was none.” It is these sorts of moments that O’Donnell gives us—brief moments of pause in the life of a modern woman.

The persona often alludes to other women and compares her life with their situations, such as in the poem “The Still Pilgrim Recounts Another Annunciation,” which begins “So here we are again, Mary,/you, me, and the ordinary/day scrolling out in front of us.” Later the two women “get back to business,/the floor unswept, the house a mess.” This exploration of the religious beside the ordinary works well in this collection, as the two narratives—the real life and the spiritual life—are intertwined throughout the book into a euphonic hybrid that makes this a very pleasing collection for the reader.

Each of these collections ends with an epilogue or an afterword that explains the book, the author’s process in writing, and actually invites the reader into the discussion. A Gathering of Larks even has discussion questions and writing prompts for readers who want to attempt their own saintly letters. These sorts of sections are rare in modern poetry collections, and it was a pleasant surprise to be allowed deeper into the thought processes that produced the poems in these collections.

If a pilgrim is one who is on a pilgrimage, both Carroll and O’Donnell challenge readers to question the very nature of a pilgrimage. Both authors seem to assert that modern life, with its flaws and challenges, joys and heartaches, is itself a form of pilgrimage. Both authors have, in their own way, attempted to document this pilgrimage in poetry. While O’Donnell’s collection stands out as the stronger of the two, both A Gathering of Larks and Still Pilgrim add to the notion that we are all pilgrims and invite us to pause for a moment to reflect on what that means in our relationship with God.

Joshua Gage's new chapbook, Necromancy, is available on Locofo Chaps from Moria
Press. He is an ornery curmudgeon from Cleveland with a penchant for Pendleton shirts and any poem strong enough to yank the breath out of his lungs.

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