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Stepping Into The Light

Susan McKay

Constellations: Reflections from Life, by Sinéad Gleeson, Picador, 304 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1509892730

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections, and a guide to looking at things from different angles.
From “Hips and Makers”

As you read this book, the marvellous title has you reaching for all the starry words. Sinéad Gleeson’s collection of essays is brilliant, yes, but that word is somehow too glittery, too showy. These essays celebrate a resilience that feels hard-won. I found myself thinking about the poem in which Elizabeth Bishop evokes “the shooting stars in your black hair” and invites her lover to let her wash it in “this big tin basin / battered and shiny like the moon”.

Gleeson has, she reveals in this book, had a great deal of pain and illness in her life. Her “complicated bones” are what made her a writer, a picker up of bright shards, those fragments, pace TS Eliot, she has shored against her ruin. Her writing is a fierce and defiant response to experiences that at times have threatened, she admits, to engulf her. “The story of our lives,” she writes, “is still the story of one body ... grappling with our mortality.”

Gleeson has a fine mind and a courage that is required of her time and time again. She’s a modern Irish Scheherazade. She describes the awful night when she has just been diagnosed with leukaemia, and her devastated parents come to visit her in hospital. She realises that something profound is required of her, looks into her mother’s face and says, “I am not going to die, I’m going to write a book.” Gleeson notes that she does not remember saying this – her mother told her about it and she has interpreted it. She relies on these glimpses of herself provided by others, shafts of light from other sources, illuminating sometimes a vulnerability that startles her. A friend tells her about the night she saw her after she’d emerged from hospital after some aggressive treatment that caused her to lose her hair. She was in a bar, wearing a “long, dark and vampy” wig, and looking “like a frail little bird holding court”.

“Constellations” is a portrait. We see the writer as a girl, Bowie’s “girl with the mousy hair”. We see her make her way around a dancefloor as a teenager, self conscious, on crutches. She goes to music festivals, lives in flats, gets jobs, canvases to repeal the eighth amendment. She goes to America. She visits her aunt in a nursing home. She gets married, has babies. She writes music reviews, worries about money. And always, throughout this passionate life, there are ambushes by illness.

Repeatedly, as a patient avid for information about her own body, she is treated like an object, the vessel for the condition for which she must be treated. She is told that she is “overreacting” when she gives voice to her own experience of pain, as in one instance when a careless or inept doctor saws off a cast on her leg and she “explains” to him that he is cutting into her skin. Twenty years later, she still has the scars: “vertical lines, pink and fierce, telling a story”. The body will not allow the evidence to be discounted. She has to learn pain like a language, and to try to translate it. “Pain is a reminder of existence ... Yet, the physical experience resists words.” One of the more experimental pieces in the book, “Where Does It Hurt?”, uses poetry to engage with the McGill Pain Index, which is meant to offer a vocabulary to those who need to describe their suffering to doctors.

She feels a powerful connection with Frieda Kahlo, who turned her chronic agony into paintings that engage “with the taboos of illness and the female body”. A blood clot has travelled from her calf to her lung “like a rogue climber” and a professor turns up at her hospital bedside with a group of interns and talks about it “as if talking about changing a tyre”. Gleeson is an elegant writer, and has in particular a great way with similes. In Lourdes, to which she is brought as a girl to look for a miracle, “crutches and splints hang from the walls, like oversized Christmas decorations”. Intimations of conflict are never far away. Pregnancies “were like a bomb going off in my bones”. During unenlightened days in Ireland, before feminism began to prevail, friends of her mother “went to England and brought back suitcases full of condoms to pass around like war rations”. She writes about the artist Lucy Grealy, who had facial cancer and for whom “ongoing surgery was a battle, a fight with her own face”.

In patriarchal societies, a woman who must battle her own body is in an intensely exhausting position, for she must also battle a culture that assumes the right to dominate that body, deny her autonomy, ignore her evidence. Health is politically fraught in highly gendered ways. Gleeson prefaces one essay with a quotation from Christen Clifford: “there is no equality without reproductive rights, there are no reproductive rights without respect for the female body, there is no respect for the female body without knowledge of blood”. Menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and abortion – all bloody, all scenes of strife in this Catholic country –that term now, since the death of Savita Halappanavar, so freighted with grief and anger.

Gleeson has been sustained through dark sojourns by love, and love shines through. She writes about falling in love, about the death of a former lover, about the joyful love she shares with her children and with her husband, “me in your arms”. She writes about how having her children deepens her relationship with her parents. One of the best essays, previously published in Granta, is “Second Mother”, about the decline into dementia of her beloved aunt and godmother, Terry.

In a collection of such daring scope, there is inevitably some unevenness, an occasional sketchiness that is at odds with the depth of engagement that characterises the finest work. But Gleeson’s somehow dashing willingness to take risks is so admirable that the rare moments when she falters actually serve to remind the reader of the luminous excellence of the rest. She is ambitious – she has published short stories and is writing a novel. Well-known already as a discerning and generous literary critic and anthologist, her feminist interventions have rescued the work of some shamefully neglected writers. Her perceptive interviews with authors turn into celebrations of the imagination and its works. With Constellations she steps out into the light, a bright star ready to shine.

1/4/2019

Susan McKay is an author, journalist and commentator from Derry.  She was one of the founders of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre. She has written extensively about feminist issues and about the Northern Irish conflict and its aftermath. Her documentaries and reports have won several awards. Her books include Bear in Mind These Dead (Faber) and Sophia’s Story (Gill and MacMillan). She currently writes for the London Review of Books, The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times and The Irish Times, and is writing a book about the Irish border.

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