Review: Sarah MacDonell’s The Lithium Body

In/Words magazine and press, Carleton’s in-house small press literary journal, has recently released a “lithium body” into the world. The Lithium Body is a poetry chapbook by Sarah MacDonell, who is currently settled in Ottawa.

MacDonell’s words have found a home in the Ottawa poetry scene, having appeared in Sawdust, a local reading series, Ottawater, Ottawa’s annual poetry PDF journal, and ByWords, a local poetry magazine. Her new chapbook, The Lithium Body, is a long form poem that comes alive from the multiple potential interpretations of the concept of lithium. It was launched at this month’s In/Words reading evening.

Part science and part heart, The Lithium Body switches back and forth between the narrator’s scientific and intimate relationships with the element, or drug, lithium, as an abstract concept. At times it isn’t as simple as switching back and forth, and a scientific and a personal sentiment will share the same sentence.

“When he didn’t call I lay on the floor binding potassium chlorides to my collar bone,” the poem read.

What is lithium, and what does it mean to the person pushing the words behind the page? We don’t exactly know, but we can take guesses, and guessing seems to be one of the most successful interactive elements of the chapbook.

We can guess at what lithium means, what relation it has to the writer, what kind of “sickness” it is being used to treat. We can guess who has the sickness, what relation they have to the writer, and what relation the writer has to the sickness. The chapbook is successful in its ambiguity, and little dots can be connected to create a fuzzy picture.

“The lithium body wants you to know that he’s not effeminate. The lithium body is hair and flesh and sweat and a single valence electron who mows the lawn, takes out the garbage, and teaches his son the name of passing ships,” the poem read.

The “lithium body” seems to materialize in a father form, through anecdotes of everyday life tinged with familial tensions. “I forge a father who isn’t sick and practice apologizing to it.”

There are references to how well it is working, presumably as a drug, and how it is treating a sickness. There are also references to how traces of lithium can be found in the narrator, and other people that the narrator encounters.

“Trace amounts of lithium are found in all organisms.”

But through it all, lithium appears to be more of a villain than a hero. We are told stories of the narrator trying to evade it, and it catching up to them. Lithium is complex, and the narrator is just as complex. Footnotes offer interludes and self reflexive thoughts, counterpoints, or insight.

Chains of thought are interrupted often, and the layout isn’t linear either—often words jump from side to side on the page. The scattered nature of The Lithium Body is helpful in getting a feeling for the nature of the subject, and the stream of thought of the narrator.

Overall, MacDonell’s The Lithium Body is engaging, complex, and a bit of a mystery—and that is where its value lies. Trying to understand the story within the prose may be a challenge, and may not have one right answer, but it is a rewarding task. What is lithium, in the context of this collection of poems? I still may not know, and that may not be a bad thing.

– Photo by Madeline Lines