The Burden of Gravity

By Shannon McConnell

Categories: Poetry
Imprint: Caitlin Press
Paperback : 9781773860282, 104 pages, August 2020

In this haunting and disarming debut, McConnell recalls a dark time in BC's history to give poetic voice to the many forgotten residents of the infamous Woodlands School.


In her debut poetry collection, Shannon McConnell explores the fraught history of New Westminster's Woodlands School, a former "lunatic asylum" opened in 1878 which later became a custodial training school for children with disabilities before its closure in 1996. Partially set in the 1960s and 70s, The Burden of Gravity uses personas to imagine residents' lives, giving voice to those who were unable to speak for themselves, to shift focus from the institutional authority to the experience of residents. As poetry of witness, the collection uses a grounding tone to excavate the individual experiences through traditional narrative, ekphrastic and experimental erasure forms that elicit an array of emotions, from heartbreak to anger. Drawn from archival research, The Burden of Gravity, challenges readers to consider how we, in the aftermath of deinstitutionalization, choose to remember institutions like Woodlands School.


"'Did you think you could hold their silence / like kittens under water?' No, according to Shannon McConnell. With the unwavering eyes of an activist, McConnell restores voice, vision, muscle and bone to the men, women, and children who were betrayed by Woodlands, an institution that failed to protect our most vulnerable citizens. This is a vital collection, written with intelligence and delivered with grace."

--Katherine Lawrence, award-winning poet and young adult author


“In the late 1990s I began the public art project ASYLUM: A Long Last Look At Woodlands. While photographing what remained of the institution’s rooms and hallways I became immersed in the history of the Woodlands School. I couldn’t help but sense the pain and suffering of those who had lived there. Shannon McConnell with great depth and compassion tells the stories of the people who lived in these rooms. When I read her words I felt that I had heard these voices before.”

—Michael de Courcy, artist, ASYLUM: A Long Last Look At Woodlands

“Here are the lost lives, thwarted dreams and desires of the neglected, abused and forgotten inmates of the infamous Woodlands School. Shannon McConnell’s poems are a tender reimagination of the girls and boys, men and women who were disappeared by a society that didn’t want to see or acknowledge their capacity for love, humour, kindness, insight and wonder. In these poems, their humanity is rendered in lucid, painstaking detail.”

—Elizabeth Philips, poet and novelist

“McConnell fights to ensure that the inhabitants of the Woodlands School, ‘every name / buried here,’ are not forgotten. She holds up the remnants of the troubling and erased history of this place before the reader and demands that they pay attention in this mighty debut.”

—Nicole Haldoupis, editor of Grain and untethered and author of Tiny Ruins