Sunday, April 04, 2021

Conor Mc Donnell, Recovery Community


I am waiting for a terrible sentence to begin.

I am waiting for permission. (“I am waiting for a terrible sentence to begin”)

Toronto poet and physician Conor Mc Donnell’s full-length debut is the poetry collection Recovery Community (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2020), a book comprised through a poetry of direct statement. His appears as a poetics of subject, determination and sentences composed on and around health and the betrayals and limitations of the body. “I began a careless quark,” he writes, as part of the poem “Forget Galway,” “the question mark of everything I might become [.]” Structured through three untitled sections of poems plus opening poem, Mc Donnell’s Recovery Community writes around and through crises of health and the possibility of healing, writing the intimacies of crises and care through the ability, and even requirement, to depend upon others. “You were dying in a room where I usually work,” he writes, as part of “I’ll be there when you die,” “and I checked on you / every few minutes // I get caught with a patient and when I saw you again a colleague / was suctioning phlegm through the catheter he just placed / in your throat // The sound wakes you suddenly, panicked and wide eyed, / and you don’t know where you are [.]” The perspective of medical worker is one not often utilized in literature (a quick Google search offers the names of multiple poet-doctors, including William Carlos Williams, John McCrae, Shane Neilson, William Henry Drummond, Vasily Aksyonov and Taslima Nasrin), although one of my favourite literary titles, if not directly from a medical practitioner, remains Andrew Steinmetz’s classic Wardlife: The apprenticeship of a young writer as a hospital clerk (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1998). Much like Wardlife, Mc Donnell’s Recovery Community exists on the level of book as unit of composition. Not every piece might be as strong or self-contained, but that isn’t the intention; the interplay, and even the accumulation, provides the collection its strength. His poems are composed as brief narratives, a book of pieces that are feeling out the possibilities of the poem, of storytelling, as a sequence of poem-theses.

Mc Donnell writes from both sides of the medical equation, from patient to physician, which can only provide deeper layers of comprehension and expertise. “I am in the eye,” he writes, to close the poem “The Lady Waits,” “but I cannot see to photograph. My life acquires an uneasy calm /// as when a baby comes and you are told not to push /// an ecstasy held up by pressure and pain /// I am in the eye of an emergency & I haven’t saved a thing /// There are cupids carved in the ceilings [.]”

This is the way

The words not spoken will keep us silent

forge language in stasis to shape our concerns


Our mouths will transplant lights for voices

to nourish and shower the newborns down


The fresh graft will smile back at us


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