Inexpressible Wounds

Sinéad Gleeson, Constellations: Reflections from Life

Picador, 304pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781509892730

reviewed by Liam Harrison

Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations opens with a series of epigraphs. One of them is from Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: ‘Empirically speaking, we are made of star stuff. Why aren’t we talking more about that?’ Constellations is in dialogue with an array of literary reference points, but particularly with Nelson’s argonaut analogy, which presents the body not as something static, but as a series of makings and un-makings. Gleeson explores this star stuff, the matter that makes us – from blood types and bones, to hair and metal hips – taking the time to listen to our ignored heart beats, our pulsating, steady rhythms.

Writing eloquently but unsentimentally, Gleeson navigates the body as a site of renewal: ‘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.’ These essays explore how we understand (or fail to understand) our corporeal reality – tracing the connections between the lives of artists and their work, alongside the quotidian joys and suffering of the individual.

An early episode, of a doctor cutting through a hip spica cast and into Gleeson’s flesh with a cast saw, sets the tone. The doctor ignores her screams, tells her to ‘calm down’, and looks annoyed when pleaded to stop. ‘Twenty-something years on’, she writes, ‘I still have six ghost scars on my thighs and knees. Vertical lines, pink and fierce, telling a story’. Constellations isn’t a diatribe against the medical profession (there are many tales of kindness and gratitude too). It does, however, tell a larger story of how frequently women go unheard, how their voices are silenced, and how hospitals often re-enforce this deaf ear. Part of this deafness comes from treating ill people as objects rather than subjects – demonstrated by the packs of doctors who converge on Gleeson’s hospital bed, draw on her body, and examine her as an exercise to solve, rather than a person who could be consulted or consoled. Gleeson sketches a panoptical society, where women are constantly surveyed, but rarely listened to.

Gleeson’s dwells on how ‘words are often insufficient where pain is concerned’, asking us ‘what is the vocabulary of pain?’. ‘Where Does it Hurt?’ takes the form of a series of poems/stories based on the McGill pain index (a method of word selection where a patient indicates the severity of pain). These poems show how words often fail us when we try to describe bodily suffering, returning us to Nelson’s Argonauts. Specifically, to Nelson’s consideration of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea, that the ‘inexpressible is contained – inexpressibly! – in the expressed’. Constellations is a testament to this paradox, as Gleeson determinedly attempts to express the inexpressible. In doing so she articulates, if not the inexpressible, then the experience of struggling to communicate pain into language.

Constellations is neither a celebration nor a lamentation of the body, but an exploration of Hannah Arendt’s idea that ‘all public acts are political’. Arendt’s concept is pertinent when considering how women have been systematically deserted by Ireland’s theologically led hospitals, by the abuse-masking-as-philanthropy of the Magdalen Laundries, and by the current constitutional dictum which still states that a woman’s place is in the home. Gleeson’s examinations of these issues are more essayistic than a conventional memoir. She has spoken of how memoirs are defined by a confessional inclination, a desire to tell-all, while essays allow for a more curatorial, selective approach, where there’s room for more experiment and play. The slipping between genres of autobiography, art criticism, and poetry, allows for a fluidity in the prose which mirrors its theme of casting off shackles. Gleeson speaks less of her own acute suffering (firstly from monoarticular arthritis and then leukaemia), and gives more airtime to the lives and artists who have impacted her: from the love of her friend Rob and her aunt Terry, to the inspirational figures of Jo Spence, Frida Kahlo, and Lucy Grealy.

Although this is her first book, Gleeson is an established journalist, broadcaster and editor. She is best known for editing the anthologies The Glass Shore and The Long Gaze Back, two collections of short stories by women from the north and Republic of Ireland, which shine a light on many forgotten and neglected authors. Gleeson’s anthologies fit into another constellation, of current concerted efforts to recover Irish women’s voices: The Stinging Fly Press have recently republished Maeve Brennan’s work, Arlen House and Tramp Press publish recovered voices, and Gleeson’s anthologies prompted New Island to republish Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar.

Constellations is part of a recent flourishing in Irish essay writing – from Emilie Pine and Brian Dillon, to Ian Maleney and Kevin Breathnach. It also thematically resonates beyond an Irish context, with the work of essayists such as Eula Biss, Lauren Elkin, and Zadie Smith. Like Smith’s recent collection, Feel Free, Gleeson writes her essays with an openness, a looking outward which explicates on the deeply personal, hoping the sparks of her stories will catch the eyes of others. Smith claims she writes at ‘the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self’. While negotiating the unfamiliarity of the first two, and (like Gleeson and Nelson) the malleability of the self, Smith’s essays earnestly ask her readers, ‘I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’

Constellations is full of poignant moments of looking outwards, of small glimpses into Gleeson’s life which, like Smith, ask questions and unveil multitudes. She fakes a coughing fit over the opening lines of Nick Cave’s ‘Into Your Arms’, when choosing music for a funeral, so that a fastidious priest doesn’t hear the lines, ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist god’. She finds those cracks of light which let music into her children’s lives – whether through FIFA soundtracks or Justin Bieber concerts (Smith has also written wonderfully on Bieber). She contemplates just how to explain to her kids what the anti-choice abortion posters depict, as they cover every lamppost outside the school playgrounds.

Such examples may risk portraying Constellations as a memoiristic, timeless ode to Motherhood. But it is much more of an essayistic mediation on how weird, beautiful, and fucked up motherhood can be. Another of Gleeson’s opening epigraphs is from Liz Berry’s ‘The Republic of Motherhood’: ‘I stood beneath the flag of motherhood and opened my mouth although I did not know the anthem’. After the birth of her second child, Gleeson touches on this form of not knowing, and how it hints at the possibility of self-reinvention, ‘Second-time mothers are deemed wise as monks. Yet I felt like I was starting all over again’. Gleeson dispels the myths of choreographed knowledge, the essentialist claims of motherhood, and, like Berry, begins to write her own mythology which concludes with Constellations’ final chapter, ‘A Non-Letter to my Daughter’. ‘Assume there is goodness all around / unless there is not, / and even then, be the goodness.’

A key at the book’s end lists the 14 constellations used as a heading for each chapter, underlining how the collection is both expansive and somewhat diffuse. Readers may be left wanting more on particular subjects – on the literature which informs the essays, or how artists’ lives further intertwine with Gleeson’s – but it is a testament to Constellations that we are left desiring a more sustained look at certain stars.

The term ‘universal’ has been used a lot in relation to Constellations (it is even on the blurb). But such a term doesn’t capture the minutiae of the book. While the essays do evoke empathy, this need to constantly claim ownership – the homogenisation that a ‘universal’ perspective implies – goes against the thread-making, and the unique lines of connection that form a constellation. Claims of ‘universality’ perform an inverted and slightly desperate attempt to reverse centuries of claiming all women’s writing as ‘domestic’. Generalisations on both counts mask what is distinctive and flatten the writing into blunt labels and bland marketing categories.

These essays, while resonating across various literary landscapes, speak to their own exceptionalism. Gleeson quotes Anne Carson, ‘a wound gives off its own light’, before writing herself, ‘Illness is an outpost: lunar, Arctic, difficult to reach’. It is the lights shining from these individual wounds that are projected outwards, relatable but distinct, that give Constellations its own luminous glow. Gleeson goes on, emphasising the etymological roots of ‘essay’, as an attempt, a venture: ‘The sick body has its own narrative impulse. A scar is an opening, an invitation to ask: “what happened?” So we tell its story. Or try to.’

Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham researching late styles and modernist legacies in 21st-century literature.