Review by Dawn Leas
Waking My Mother
Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
Perfect Binding, 73 pages
Waking My Mother is Angela Alaimo O'Donnell's third full-length collection of poetry (she has also released two chapbooks), and in it she uses familiar themes of food, family and faith as base ingredients for simmering a pot of sauce that is equal parts comforting and disarming, texture rich with familial history, emotion and memory. Whether you have had similar experiences or not, you will be pulled into the narrative flow of this collection to the point of not really wondering or caring when you will emerge , but you will hope throughout that a plate full of spaghetti and red sauce sprinkled with parmesan is waiting for you on the other side.
Alaimo O'Donnell employs form, rhyme and rhythm from beginning to end creating a melodic cadence that sometimes lulls the reader into a cozy memory, but occasionally wakes the reader up to see the harsher side of complicated family relationships. The result is a collection with just the right mix of spices and a dash of sweetness, but without a trace of an overbearing aftertaste of sentimentality or whininess, which can sometimes pervade a collection focused on family and memory.
The first section is a crown of sonnets about Alaimo O'Donnell's unconventional, complicated mother that are loving and beautiful in their often thorny honesty; vibrantly alive while speaking of end of life and death, of a critical mother whom they all still loved. The poet uses the requisite repeated lines as an apron string not only tethering the poems, but also the family and their relationships—the good and bad of it—with the mother. As I settled in to choose examples to excerpt, I found it difficult to pick the following from this section since each one carries strong lines and revelations.
From Sonnet VII:
...We sing the harmonies of long regret,
the failures of love we can and can't forget.
But music of the past can't serve as guide
to truth the present and the future tells.
In Sonnet IX, the poet explains the need of children to love but break free in the shadow of critical words spoken by a mother:
...And still we loved our mother in the face
of insult, injury, of unkind words,
as if we thought love somehow could erase
the anger and the bitterness we heard
whenever she would speak, or cry, or shout.
We loved her as we clamored to get out.
Even in the light of a mother who was not open and loving when her children were growing up, Alaimo O'Donnell concedes in Sonnet X some truth to the things their mother said:
...We learned to love the lies we learned in youth
and tasted sweetness in their bitter truth.
Despite a childhood that appears to be absent of a mother who loves unconditionally, Alaimo O'Donnell shows the later stage of her mother's life in a different light in section two, and with a bit more levity to balance the gravitas of the crown of sonnets. At this point, her mother is living in a nursing home, and the author shows how a family rallies around a matriarch who is nearing death.
In the section's opening poem, “Our Mother at the Nursing Home,” Alaimo O'Donnell describes daughters and a granddaughter taking care of her mother. It was a poignant poem for me as a reader because I have a very similar memory of tending to my grandmother in her nursing home room alongside my sister, aunt and mother. In this poem, all the disappointment and disapproval seemed to have melted away and the women are focused on taking care of a dying woman:
...Four women fussing over a Fifth-
The One who started the fire
we tend in this linoleum-cold room.
The poet dedicates “Now & At the Hour of Our Death” to her son Will, and it is a beautifully compact goodbye that begins with:
Because he spoke across a thousand miles,
Because she breathed her last breaths,...
And ends with:
...Because the last human voice she heard
Said I love you,
Our mother's heart rested at 10:38.
Because joy never comes too late.
Section Three includes “Messenger,” “25th April,” and “Northern Nights” that takes us back into the poet's childhood, her father's death, and the place where she grew up. In “Cooking with My Mother,” we see a tender moment with the mother and daughter making sauce, which leaves the reader wanting to ask the author for the recipe, but in “Her” we see the self-absorbed mother. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Other Mothers,” is also included in Alaimo O'Donnell's chapbook Mine. It speaks to her mother's unconventionality and how other girls' mothers didn't like her:
Other girls' mothers
sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.
My mother took lovers.
Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.
...Other girls' mothers
wore aprons, baked bread.
My mother slipped on stockings,
stepped into heels, and went to work...
And then to end the poem:
...My mother would have thought
had she thought of other mothers at all.
The fourth section of the book focuses on “the after,” he questions and grief the people left behind face. The tone of the poems here seems softer, more contemplative than in the previous sections. While faith is woven throughout the collection in poems and biblical epitaphs, it is “Ash Thursday” that spoke to me the most bringing me back to my childhood Catholicism and the always present fear of (and the wanting to) washing away ashes on my forehead before they faded on their own:
...They clung to me all day
till I knelt at the sink
paused at the brink
and washed them away.
Another one of my favorite poems is the only poem in the Afterwords section. It is also written in one of my favorite forms – the villanelle. It is titled “For Shadowment: Villanelle for the Solstice,” and its rhyme, rhythm and repetition soothe and carry quiet hope. It ends with this stanza:
Clear your mind as night draws near.
Stead your heart and shed no tear.
Here, here in the crook of the year
where light falls long across and dear.
This is a collection of opposites, and its poems expertly balance the tension between domesticity and unconventionality; love and discord; togetherness and separateness; holding on and letting go; acceptance and disapproval, life and death, stitching them altogether with imagery, memory and faith. Alaimo O'Donnell pieces each individual poem into the “best words in the best order” with an ear to economical rhythm and timing and an eye toward form and look on the page. The result is a gorgeously intertwined and unapologetic homage not only to her mother, but to herself and her siblings.
Dawn Leas is the author of the chapbook, I Know When to Keep Quiet (Finishing Line Press), and is the associate director of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Programs. Her work has appeared in San Pedro River River, Connecticut River Review, Literary Mama, Interstice and elsewhere. Her web site is . Follow her @DawnLeas on Twitter.