Angela Alaimo O’Donnell – Four Poems
“Frequently the [pea]cock combines the lifting of his tail with the raising of his voice.
He appears to receive through his feet some shock from the center of the earth, which
travels upward though him and is released: Eee-ooo-ii! Eee-ooo-ii! To the melancholy
this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded
like a cheer for an invisible parade.” –Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”
“One of the most arrogant of the O’Connor peacocks is “Limpy,” who has been strutting with one foot for several years after refusing to yield to a mowing machine.” –Conversations with Flannery O’Connor
For I will consider my peacock, Limpy.
For he flings his screams out day and night
enough to drive my mother wild, while I
am pleased by his praise of the dark & the light.
For he lifts his turquoise neck and plumed head high.
For he moves among the hens a monopod god.
For he unfurls a hundred suns with one flash.
For he sets fire to the hovering sky.
For he burns the house and farm to ash,
then rises up again, toeing nimbly
among the roses, his pointy foot shod
with a soft-soled slipper. He moves that quiet.
For he is the violet heart of our home.
For he makes me feel less maimed and alone.
Flannery & Poetry
“Enclosed is a poem . . . . This is my first and last.
I think it is a filthy habit for a fiction writer to get into.”
– Flannery O’Connor
Of course it would be about a peacock
dragging his sixty suns. That’s a fact
that stuns the sky into a blue funk
every day at Andalusia. The bird
would cease and be as other birds, as Frost
once wrote, but that he knows in strutting
not to strut. It feels its beauty and acts
the part. I try to cage him with words,
with pictures and paint, but nothing
short of feathers and flesh will do,
can contain those suns, that holy blue
head and three-starred crown. I haven’t lost
my touch. You can’t lose what you never had.
Still, for a first poem, it’s not all bad.
“I have the original tin ear. I cannot hear music;
just don’t know what to listen for.” –Flannery O’Connor
Except when it comes to the human voice,
an instrument I cannot help but love,
the husky whisper of the stout li-
brarian, the nasal twang of the back-
woods handy man, the high whine of the waitress
who brings coffee and pie, whom my
mother thanks in her own throaty tone
and I nod at, keeping my silence
so as not to disturb the patter song
goin’ on all around me, the click
of forks on plates, the talk of coffee spoons.
This is the music I dream of
while I sit at my desk each day till noon
and learn how to carry the tune.
“The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”
–Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
That’s the beauty of it, living here
where the sun comes daily and the trees seem
lit from within, some secret fire
igniting the world which sparks but does not flame.
The same fire’s inside me, so I know
what it is to burn low with no
one seeing the quiet glory
you are, how bright your leaves and every
polished stem just gleaming in the white light,
what it means to be mean and still lovely
and loved by the maker who made you that way
full of wonderlust and mad hot wit.
It’s not something you see every day
unless you live here. So I stay.
Author’s Statement on Beauty
Flannery O’Connor had a penchant for the weird & the wild and a gift for finding beauty in both. After writing 101 poems in her voice, I have come to appreciate the strangeness she admired and become a convert to her brand of beauty. For what is symmetry, proportion, wholeness, and perfection—all classical ideals of beauty—set beside the homely, the lonely, the plain, and the maimed?
Eschewing the aesthetic of the comforting and comfortable, Flannery preferred beauty that afflicts the gaze, sights so striking one cannot look away. She knew the bodies we inhabit to be extraordinary and that some are more obviously extraordinary than others: the eloquent intersex person and the tattooed man at the fair, the spectacularly acned college girl, the man with the missing arm, sleeve flapping in the breeze, the girl stomping about on her wooden leg, the prophet with two burned out sockets where his eyes used to be. These were her people, and she loved them.
She had a special affection for the splendidly freakish. As a child she collected chickens: “I favored those with one green eye and one orange or with overlong necks and crooked combs. I wanted one with three legs or three wings but nothing in that line turned up. I pondered over the picture in Robert Ripley’s book, Believe It or Not, of a rooster that had survived for thirty days without his head.” Flannery suspected the reason she loved freaks is that she knew she was one—that all of us are, deep down—and that there is beauty in that.
Novelist Harry Crews tells a story wherein everybody he knew as a child growing up in rural Georgia was fascinated by the Sears Roebuck catalogue. “First thing that struck us was that everybody in the Sears Roebuck catalogue was perfect. Wasn’t any bald heads. Everybody had all the fingers that was comin’ to ‘em. Nobody had any open and running sores on their bodies. But everybody we knew had a finger missing, or one eye put out from a staple glancin’ off a post. In our world everybody was maimed and mutilated whereas everybody in the Sears Roebuck world was perfect.” Crews knew which world was false and which world was true, and it’s the true world he chose to write about.
Photographer Diane Arbus loved taking pictures of so-called freaks—Miss Makrine, the Russian dwarf, sweeping up her tiny kitchen; a Jewish giant visiting his parents in their Bronx apartment; the tattooed Jack Dracula, and the man who swallows fire. “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.” Spending the day photographing people of all types, she would come to the revelation that we are “all odd and splendid as freaks . . . all of us victims of the especial shape we come in.”
In a dream sequence in one of Flannery’s stories, an intersex person preaches to the crowd assembled to gawk, laying claim to his/her own strange beauty: “God made me this-away. I ain’t disputin’ it.” A deaf, mute, mentally challenged young woman in another story is depicted with great poignancy, “her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.” So striking is this child in her radical (im)perfection, the waiter at the Hot Spot diner declares her blessed: “She looks like an angel of Gawd.”
For Crews, for Arbus, for Flannery, beauty is the celebration of the singular and the authentic, and they are artists of the beautiful. “Try to praise the mutilated world,” Adam Zagajewski writes in his celebrated poem. And, much to our delight, so they do.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell teaches English at Fordham University and is Associate Director of Fordham’s Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Her fifth collection of poems, Still Pilgrim appeared in April 2017 from Paraclete Press. Previous publications include two chapbooks; four collections of poems, Moving House (2009), Saint Sinatra (2011), Waking My Mother (2013), and Lovers’ Almanac (2015), and a memoir, Mortal Blessings (2014). Her critical biography, Flannery O’Connor: Fiction Fired by Faith (2015), won first prize for excellence in biography from the Association of Catholic Publishers. More at: http://angelaalaimoodonnell.com/.