Monday 20 May 2019

Sinead Gleeson's heart and steel strike a powerful balance in Constellations

Non-fiction: Constellations

Sinead Gleeson

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Sinéad Gleeson tells her stories with poeticism and sensitivity. Photo: Bríd O’Donovan
Sinéad Gleeson tells her stories with poeticism and sensitivity. Photo: Bríd O’Donovan

Hilary A White

We were reminded of many things by Emilie Pine's Notes To Self, not least the market that exists out there for unflinching examination of matters deeply personal.

Honesty with thyself and a candid voice are core elements, but good essay writing is not simply about being "a mirror" for the writer, as Jonathan Franzen suggests. It is something ultimately outward-looking in perspective because very often the things that concern me will matter to you too, provided I am able to make the message reach you effectively.

There is perhaps no higher compliment that you could pay this debut collection from the great Sinead Gleeson than to say that it takes up the courageous baton from Pine and carries it into new quarters.

Gleeson is one of the nation's most popular women of letters and someone who has spent her life championing the artistic output of others in her long-held capacity as an arts correspondent and commentator for RTE.

The work of women writers is a particular passion of hers, and anthologies she has edited such as The Long Gaze Back, The Glass Shore, and Silver Threads of Hope attest to not only a keen literary mind but a social conscience too.

None of these is sufficient reason to say nice things about Constellations, however.

Especially seeing as there are dozens of more concrete arguments to praise this exceptional body of work.

Bell-clear and immaculately hewn throughout, Gleeson's voice is also strikingly muscular and dextrous, something she has clearly worked on over the 16-odd years she has been sculpting these essays and poems.

As you roam through its pages, stopping a while to digest something she has hit upon or forging ahead closely with her every word, it becomes understandable why this is.

Her voice and what she says with it is everything her body hasn't been - vigorous, adamantine, assured.

Between the arthritis that riddled her during her youth, soundtracking her stilted schoolgirl years with crutch clicks, the small matter of a leukaemia diagnosis, and all manner of incidents and convalescences, Gleeson's body has been through more than is reasonable for any one human, and that's before she asked it to bring children into the world.

With poeticism and sensitivity, she reflects on these and her relationship with her corporeal existence.

And being a woman - and an Irish one at that - this inevitably will involve society's relationship with it too.

Misdiagnoses and feckless medical practitioners. The fundamental politics of the body, of blood and hair, and the confronting of attitudes towards these through artists such as Tracey Emin, PJ Harvey and Frida Kahlo.

We have a piece on Ireland and abortion titled Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy (dedicated to "the twelve women a day who leave") that will share this wrenching saga and its hard-fought referendum result with the many international readers this book is destined to reach. There is the X Case, the treatment of a 14-year-old girl "as both a sexualised adult and a child, at the mercy of the judiciary", and how "a system can brutalise and betray its youngest citizens".

Powerful registers are struck, and always there is something linking the discussion back to what is for the writer the most tangibly immediate components of her life. This is where she cracks you wide open.

"Outside I take a photograph of my daughter beside the polling station sign, her body showing its own traces of change. I want to record this moment in the hope that this is the last day that her reproductive rights will be out of her control. The sun catches her hair, and I see all the ways her life will be different. She takes my hand, and we walk into the cool air of the hall, to change the future."

It is just one of any number of achingly gorgeous moments as Gleeson locates the master control and starts pushing buttons. See also her closing poem A Non-Letter to My Daughter, a deliriously lovely thing that is a prayer to children everywhere. Also coming ready-packaged with a lump in the throat is Our Mutual Friend. This account of friendship, love, music and loss is so poignant, so beautifully weighted and threaded with such poetic awareness that it hangs around for days afterwards.

Elsewhere, the wry agony of Where Does it Hurt? and its verses charting the physical pain index sit next to sparkling instalments such as The Moons of Motherhood where she celebrates the two moments in life that her unreliable body came through for her. The former veers from darkly comic to sobering, while the latter is more primary coloured and tuneful, something erupting from a place of wisdom, tenderness and distilled maternal joy.

You'd need a heart of stone to resist these hymns and paeans. They are as fundamental to Constellations' DNA as the more difficult subject matter that she wades confidently into. Like Olivia Laing's The Lonely City, this balance between intellect and humanity is what matters. You won't find cuddly comforts where women's issues, the church, and archaic attitudes are concerned - there's too much at stake, Gleeson reminds us in her own unforced way - but all of the steel that she works with is underpinned by huge compassion.

So don't venture towards Constellations because that Sinead Gleeson is a nice person who's been a great help to others throughout her career. Don't do it out of sympathy because she's been through the wars herself health-wise. Do it because it is a book brimming with vitality and sincerity. Because it is sumptuous text by someone who proves that being a good writer begins with being a good reader. And do it because besides entertainment and enlightenment, we need writing in our lives that reaches into us and has the potential to leave what's there a little better than it found it.

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