Please note, due to publishing deadlines, the manuscript provided for review was not the final edition.
“Poems aren’t postcards to send home.” – Anne Sexton
a.j.k. o’donnell’s third literary collection Amaranthine is a sprawling, ambitious, demanding book. The precocious local activist/author, just a few years out of high school, has already had work appear in the Huffington Post, The Daily Iowan, and Medium.
o’donnell has created a cri de coeur that interposes long prose fables with fairly abstract, unpunctuated lyric poems to howl the crises and miracles explicit in our conceptions and experiences of religion, spirit, community, the body, trauma, and identity. At once coherent and chaotic, urgent and opaque, artful and maladroit, it signals the arrival of a young poet with vision and talent who, like many of us, would mightily benefit from a judicious course of reading and a readier hand on the editing pen.
After an inciting poem (“a genesis.”) vague in the way mystic poems often are (I counted beauty, pain, sorrow, anger, wisdom, love, and soul among its bumper crop of abstractions), Amaranthine opens with a long, heated prose sequence roiling with narrative tumult and hints of real writerly grace: “There is a tree. It churns upward like bubbling butter. (https://ausoma.org) It has the appearance of three women stretching in worship.”
This structure and style characterizes the entire collection, with long, indulgent prose sections that read like adverb-peppered dreams (with all the tendentious awe and surreal jumble of hallucinatory terrain one associates with the subconscious) giving way to short-lined, somewhat gauzy poems, the writer grappling with the shackling hypocrisy of religion (“have you ever been made to apologize / to god / for his own choices”) as they attempt to fashion a free and coherent meaning from the bracken of mere being (“I know the sound of my own death / it is a privilege / to believe God is still listening”).
“We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth averred, so I’m leery of ascribing too neat a thematic arc to this at times self-serious project (Kazim Ali: “A poem is whatever it wants to be and nobody knows how language really works.”), but I often found myself wanting to take a scalpel to the less original language (“pain” recurs too often, as does “darkness” and “soul”) and administer steroids to the infrequent but occasionally resplendent objective correlatives o’donnell crafts.
“You can find the entire cosmos lurking in its least remarkable objects,” Wislawa Szymborska reminds us, and hither and yon o’donnell charts that cosmos: “the fainting began in high school / if I refused to nourish my body / I could stretch myself / into a vision”; this collection aims to be visionary, even ecstatic, and with a more lavish eye for unexpected details, it could linger longer in that aether.
Amaranthine is a profligate accomplishment, aiming to transmute profane reality into sacred imagination, and though the language could use a some rigorous burnishing, there’s enough wisdom here on which to base a life:
pull the lesion
from the earth
unchant the spell
to breathe again
the one who was wounded
can you absolve
can you absolve
can you utter the holiest prayer
I forgive you
Amaranthine may be preordered at www.ajkodonnell.com/preorder
Todd Robinson is the author of two books of poetry, most recently Mass for Shut-Ins (University of Nebraska Press). He teaches in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.