Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Paraclete Press, 2020; 128 pp., $19.00
Review by Maryanne Hannan
With the Heroides, a series of imaginary letters written by legendary lovers in elegiac couplets, Ovid (43 BC–17/18 AD) claimed to have invented a new literary genre, the persona poem. While this claim can be debated, poets, since then, have frequently released themselves from the confines of their own ego minds in order to enter imaginatively the minds and hearts of real or fictional characters.
Andalusian Hours: Poems from the Porch of Flannery O’Connor takes on the inner life of the acclaimed Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. Despite her early death at age thirty-nine, she left behind a large literary legacy, two novels, thirty-two short stories, numerous reviews, essays, and bundles of correspondence, some of which has recently been made public. Fordham University professor, associate director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies, and the author of four books about Flannery O’Connor, including the recent Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is ideally suited to the challenge of writing in the persona of this brilliant, complex, wickedly funny literary giant.
The book draws its title from Andalusia, the family’s so-named dairy farm outside Milledgeville, Georgia to which Flannery withdrew in 1951 to live with her mother Regina for the last thirteen years of her life. Here she would write her oeuvre, while continuing to correspond with the literary world she was forced to leave behind when she developed lupus, the disease that had killed her father. Rather than limiting her work, as she had feared, living in relative isolation enriched and grounded her work, where she’d come as “the magnet pull home to this red clay, / like a stone saint who has wandered away” (“Flannery’s Pilgrimage”).
Hours in the title refers to the divine office, which gave form to Flannery’s days, in addition to the daily Mass she attended with her mother. O’Donnell weaves poems about Flannery’s deep spiritual yearning throughout, expanding on “Flannery’s Prayer:” “Oh Lord, at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately.” Hours also refers to the book’s organization, according to the Catholic liturgy of the hours: Lauds for poems mostly concerned with Flannery’s early life, from the death of her father to Iowa; Terce for poems of converse with the outside world, from James Baldwin to Thomas Aquinas; Sext for poems exploring the centrality of her work; None for poems of Andalusia; Vespers for poems outside Andalusia, including actual journeys, her trip to Lourdes, and imagined, the Camino; and finally, Compline for end poems, threshold poems.
Each of the one hundred sonnets written from Flannery’s point of view opens with an epigram, chosen primarily from one of her brash comments or insight-filled stories, letters and essays. They provide O’Donnell opportunity to explore problematic aspects of Flannery’s inner life, including race, amour, her fiction, family, and death, while preserving the characteristic sardonic humor, intellectual acuity, dedication, and self-scrutiny. Then, in cadences and language that Flannery might have used, O’Donnell’s sonnets unpack, react, or expand on the quote. For instance, “Flannery’s Existential Thoughts while Porch-Sitting” expands on her observation that she and her mother might both have named a dog Spot; her mother, “without irony,” herself “with irony.” O’Donnell uses this wry comment as an entry point into Flannery’s complicated relationship with her mother: “I almost envy her her darkness— / or should I say her light.”
The poems are loosely chronological. Important issues are addressed more than once, circling around and building based on earlier references. A notable example is the sequence of poems referencing her failed love relationship with Erik Langkjaer. The epigram for that series, “Flannery in Love,” is a quote from Erik, noting that kissing Flannery was like “kissing a skeleton.” Despite the revenge she exacted, “So I became Hulga, made him Manley, / the saddest story that I ever told” (“Flannery in Love, Take III”), she ultimately admits the value of the experience in “Flannery in Love, Take IV:” “When you left / I was myself again, lonely, odd . . . Even so. I treasure those long rides, / the thrill of your kiss on a red hillside.”
During her time at the Iowa workshop and time subsequently spent with the Fitzgeralds, she developed important contacts in the literary world, which she was able to maintain and increase through correspondence and the occasional visit. One correspondent in particular, Maryat Lee, elicited from Flannery troubling racist comments that O’Donnell develops in a couple of poems. Of her refusal to meet James Baldwin in Georgia, Flannery admits: “Where I live we kill our prophets, / beat and butcher them, hang them from the trees. / Queer or Catholic, Negro or Jew” (“Flannery and James”), concluding “I choose to tell the truth in quieter ways.”
O’Donnell gives space for Flannery to express how central her work was and even to offer some critical understanding: “Here Jesus comes to me in every comma. / I do my best to make straight the way / for his incarnation every day” (“Flannery’s Christmas”). In “Flannery’s Manifesto,” she declares: “But what else can I do but write what my crooked heart tells me to?” And, then: “But what else is making fiction for / if not to trouble folks . . . / make them question why they rise from their beds.” God is good; creation is good; and writing in service to these truths is definitely good.
Both parents appear frequently. Regina, as above: they are devoted to each other and their way of life, but so different. Flannery felt a greater likeness with her father, who died when she was fifteen. His early loss ushered in “Flannery’s Fear:” “When my father died I could not bear / the grief that fell on me like hard hard rain. / But that was nothing next to the fear— / full knowing my mother was mortal, too.” When she too was diagnosed with lupus, “when the Red Wolf / ate up my dreams” (“Flannery Country”), that identification deepened.
The concluding poem, outside the cycle of sonnets, “Poet’s Apology,” written in O’Donnell’s voice as a farewell to Flannery, admits to “brief trespasses on your private mind.” To delve deeply into another’s psyche and try to make plain what perhaps even the subject herself has not fully realized is risky, especially with our contemporary sensitivity to cultural appropriation, but neither Ovid (nor any author of persona poetry that I can think of) felt compelled to justify their “stealth / and nerve to steal your mind and heart.” Perhaps because so many of us assume personal Flannery ownership, we react proprietarily, but in accepting these sonnets as literary creations, authorial what-if musings, I was thoroughly engaged. Did I agree? Disagree? Ever thought of that before? And so forth.
With her thorough understanding of Flannery scholarship, her nuanced critical understanding of Flannery’s work, and her own widely recognized skill in the sonnet, O’Donnell brings intrigue and insight to an acknowledged fictionalization. It was as if I were given access to a previously unimagined three-way conversation between Flannery, Angela O’Donnell, and myself. As a decades-long Flannery fan, I relished these exhilarating forays into Flannery’s world.
Maryanne Hannan, a poet and former Latin teacher, is the author of poetry collections Rocking Like It’s All Intermezzo and This Can’t Be Good, as well as a series of short books on classical literature.