Conor McDonnell’s debut collection, Recovery Community, portrays a powerful sense of empathy that is “held down / by stones in pockets” (The Scalded Sea). In cycles of addiction, obsession, and recovery, there is both cause for optimism and a sense of impending doom, knowing that even when the afflicted are on the way to breaking the cycle, “This will never end // There is always / more to come” (Rebar).
McDonnell’s speakers describe addiction and disaster with “an uneasy calm” defined by equal parts detachment and appreciation, as in “The Lady Waits”: “Doomed the fire burns slowly… It is quite gorgeous and I want to photograph it… How soon / before the floor collapses? How long is left to capture this?” There is also a prominent presence of vicarious trauma, watching the downward spiral occurring, yet being able to prevent its progress: “an ecstasy held up by pressure and pain / I am in the eye of an emergency & I haven’t saved a thing.”
The speakers cope with this exposure to illness and trauma by fixating on details, reflected in frequent list poems, exemplified by “I am waiting for a terrible sentence to begin” (excluding the title, 12 repetitions of “I am waiting for…”), “We are Shine” (112 repetitions of “we are…”), and “Thirty-three rants per minute (33 rpm)” (33 repetitions of “As if…”).
Similarly, choral refrains appear and reappear throughout different sections of the collection, lending a sense of cohesion and consistency to the worldview of speakers who weave between ekphrastic poems, Hollywood movies, album titles, media broadcasts, overwhelmed hospitals, burning hotels, and undefined emergencies with easy and fluency. “I am a brittle flower beaten softly,” “Earthquakes echo in my jaw,” “As if Heaven’s antennae could receive my skinny little fists,” and “To everything add one” are lines that cross between the dimensions of individual scenes to illustrate underlying efforts to prepare for disasters that cannot be anticipated.
Anticipation is also rampant in Recovery Community, whether waiting for illness to claim a life as in “Lewy-body Diary” (“I thought I was at an earlier stage but it turns out I am not”), addiction to re-assert its hold as in “//911//9/11//” (“Delay it a while there’s always another signpost to hell ‘case you lose your bearings while we’re all busy killing ourselves”), or the broader collapse of society as in “In the event of an emergency” (“When all else fails, terminate and dispose”). Throughout the collection, the event horizon gradually shifts closer and closer to the reader, imposing an increasing sense of urgency and candour.
Redemption from this anxiety is ultimately found in connection, where mutual bonds form the titular community required to face the inevitable loss and destruction of these challenges. The most personal, and therefore most revealing, poem in the collection, “I’ll be there when you die,” describes a dream where the speaker witnesses the death of a partner. The initial reaction is “to call in sick today / to never leave you in case this might be true / knowing one day it will be, if our luck continues.” However, despite this temptation, the speaker finds the resolve to confront the inevitable tragedy: “I wash and dress for work, calming myself // not today / not tomorrow.”
This deeper resolve is where Recovery Community discovers its salvation, in appreciation of the beauty that lingers even while ugly realities assert themselves.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.