Patrick Connors

Jeannine M. Pitas

The Other Life: Patrick Connors, reviewed by Jeannine M. Pitas

Transcendence at the Bus Stop

 

While the name Patrick Connors may be unknown to most US readers, in his hometown of Toronto, Canada he is a mainstay of the city’s vibrant poetry scene. After a winding, trauma-scarred path through youth and early adulthood, Connors essentially took a personal U-turn at age forty and reinvented himself as a poet. Over the past decade he has made a name for himself as a promoter and organizer of many literary events and festivals in his city, an enthusiastic supporter of his peers regardless of their tradition or style of poetry, and a 21st-century heir to the distinctly Canadian literary tradition known as People’s Poetry, whose most notable representatives include twentieth century writers Joe Wallace, Al Purdy, and Milton Acorn. Connors’s first full-length collection, The Other Life (Mosaic Press 2021) has been received with much enthusiasm in his home country and offers a message that US readers need to hear.

According to literary critic Terry Barker, Connors’s poetry is marked by a “persistent, indeed, plodding expression of the unsatisfactoriness of our common temporal life, held together with the hope for its improvement, and the faith in the reality of a truth that is transcendent” (xv). Connors’s poetry faces the world’s harshness at both the personal and social levels, evoking familial conflict, addiction, corporate greed and political corruption. In a poem entitled “Madness,” the speaker evokes the frustration of working an unsatisfying corporate job: “Answering the call, I cater / to a ravenous, raging creature – / a starving need that cannot be sated, / only made hungrier by more, more, more – / bloated by excess with no escape / under the guise of helping myself” (83).

Karl Marx famously argued that the capitalist system alienates all of us from the work we do, and we sense this speaker’s alienation viscerally as he describes waiting for the bus on a late December night: “Tomorrow is winter / the year essentially over. / I look back on how I passed / the time in unsatisfactory work / serving mammon which provides / the means to cure my pain […] I feel helpless, numb, / empty, and wonder / when my bus will get here” (87).

However, despite a deep awareness of the harshness of his daily work, Connors’s poetic speaker is able to find redemption in “the other life” he leads “after 5 PM, before 9 AM” (89). It is a life marked by creativity, friendship, a dogged pursuit of justice, a commitment to prayer, and the transcendence of pain through humor. The speaker’s passion for sports – both amateur and professional – plays a large role in this other life. In “Buds,” three men who married three sisters, and have little else in common, bond while watching a hockey game. In “What Runs Through,” the adolescent speaker describes the thrill of temporarily escaping his conflict-ridden home to watch the Toronto Blue Jays defeat the New York Yankees.

The tradition of Canadian People’s Poetry is known for being grounded in everyday life. It is a poetry of the working class, a poetry that seeks to be accessible to the widest possible audience. “The best poems are written to be read by anyone,” Connors states (4). However, while the language may seem simple, a closer look reveals complexity, mystery, and a kind of Whitmanesque mysticism. Barker notes that most of the twentieth-century People’s Poets combined their leftist politics with Christian spirituality, and Connors, a practicing Roman Catholic, continues this tradition. He envisions “unity forged in refining fire, / anointed oil, sacred water cleansing” (18); he holds onto the “audacious belief in what seems unlikely / fierce like the fire which consumes me” (50); he commits to “planting seeds in unreceptive soil / hoping to make a life out of nothing” (94). The promise of redemption is always present, particularly in the process of recovering from trauma: a father who cruelly destroyed his young son’s poems, the tyranny of addiction. “I had to look within while I was doing without,” the speaker says of his recovery (45).

Humor is another crucial aspect of the “other life” that Connors seeks to develop. “I’ve gotten drunk, fought, played hockey, quite often / at the same time,” the speaker asserts with a smile. In a poignant poem called “The Innocence of Youth,” the speaker reminisces about stealing another child’s much-coveted Nutella sandwiches – then receiving his comeuppance when he finds out “through the grapevine / Erasmo’s Mom had put Ex-Lax in the sandwich” (22).

In addition to offering a personal transcendence, this playful irony also serves to speak truth to power at a wider societal level: “A balanced budget / should almost make up / for all those pesky poor people” he asserts in a poem entitled “Exit Poll: Advice to the New Leader” (2). In a poem addressed to former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Connors asserts, “I have confidence that you and I / Mr. Prime Minister and the typical guy / can come to some sort of compromise: / I will go on reading poetry / while you can go on telling lies” (11).

In his famed poem “Como tú” (Like you), acclaimed Salvadoran poet and activist Roque Dalton (1935-1975) asserts, ““I believe the world is beautiful / and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Connors, who has been active in Toronto’s Latin American community and has traveled on a cultural exchange program to Cuba, believes this dictum wholeheartedly and reveals it through both his writing and his life as an activist and event organizer. One part of his life involves a bus stop where “A gaggle of passengers / get off with a grimace. The driver says hello, / but doesn’t ask how I am doing” (97). But another part involves friendships where “the conversations are unscripted; / all I want from you / is to know how you are feeling” (89).

Connors’s book is particularly appropriate for our current reality of social isolation, ecological collapse, and dysfunctional politics. Throughout The Other Life, Connors maintains the clear conviction that no matter how bleak our lives and the world may seem, we always hold some power to resist, even if just through small acts, humor, contemplation of beauty, and the relationships we form with one another. Connors’s writing is an act of faith, a commitment to a future even when it seems there is no future: “Waiting, much like praying / And writing poems by hand / Builds up muscle and strength […] Cramps and pains are inevitable / They may seem final to some / But delay is not denial / Of what is to come” (61).

Connors, Patrick. The Other Life. Oakville, ON: Mosaic Press, 2021.

Patrick Connors's first chapbook, Scarborough Songs, was released by Lyricalmyrical Press in 2013 and charted on the Toronto Poetry Map. Other publication credits include poems in Spadina Literary Review, Tamaracks, and Tending the Fire, released in spring 2020 by the League of Canadian Poets. His first full collection, The Other Life, is newly released by Mosaic Press.

Jeannine M. Pitas is the author of Things Seen and Unseen, a book of poems published by Mosaic Press in 2019, and the translator of work by many Latin American poets, most recently Carnation and Tenebrae Candle by Marosa di Giorgio (Cardboard House 2020) and We Do Not Live In Vain by Selva Casal (Veliz Books 2020). She lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Dubuque.