Constellations, Gleeson’s first essay collection, is not a book about illness, though it deserves to take its place among recent literary accounts of physical pain by writers such as Hilary Mantel and Sarah Perry. Rather, it’s a collection of personal, cultural and political reflections from which the fact of living in a body – especially one that requires frequent medical intervention – cannot be separated...I would gladly read an expanded version of The Adventure Narrative, in which she considers how the history of travel and exploration was for so long a male domain, for reasons often connected with assumptions about bodies, strength and endurance, before picking out a few stories of pioneering women adventurers. There are essays, like this one, that will leave the reader wanting more, and one or two pieces that feel like filler, but it’s clear that Gleeson’s insight is hard-won, and that, like the women who inspire her, she has found a way to transmute her experience into something powerful that demands to be heard.
These essays expand beautifully from their starting points: an essay on blood transfusions spills into a reflection on blood’s symbolism in art, from religious painting to the performance art of Ana Mendieta; in another, about hair (Gleeson defiantly shaved her own off when she was six), she meditates on identity and growth, via P. J. Harvey and Maria Falconetti. Gleeson experiments with form, delivering the view from her hospital bed through a series of aphorisms (“The patient is a minnow, navigating streams between the X-ray lake and the reservoir of outpatients. Crossing the borders of cubicle, room, ward, corridor”), and attempting to describe pain through poems based on the McGill pain index (heartburn is “like a stranger in a town, an unfamiliar car cruising”). She gives us the shape of her life, and yet her book makes no claim to autobiography – her wounds are “the source of inspiration, not the end of it”.
Imagining what she looks like on the inside, Gleeson finds a title for this book, reflecting: “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.” The idea of constellations also gives her a form for this book, which radiates out in all directions, leaving it to the reader to find clusters and patterns and shapes. Sometimes the prose gives way to poetry or song lyrics. Each essay refracts the meaning of the essay before. But there is a clear narrative arc: this is Gleeson’s life told through the story of her body. One of her epigraphs is Hélène Cixous’s injunction to “write yourself. Your body must be heard.” And she does... Without polemic, without grandstanding, she makes the point that the female body is still a political battleground in a way the male body is not.
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.
When Sinéad Gleeson was diagnosed with aggressive Acute Promyelocytic Leukaemia at the age of 28, the outlook was bleak. Asking the nurse to tell her parents, she “readied” herself in her bed, “waiting for them to appear around the curtain . . . Amid all the wrongness of that moment, I knew something was required of me.” Gleeson doesn’t remember “but my mother told me years later that I looked into her face and said, ‘I’m not going to die. I’m going to write a book.’” Constellations is that book, a collection of hard-won, highly-wrought, fiercely dazzling essays about life in one woman’s body...The essays are varied in form, breaking the boundaries between prose and poetry, using the white space of the page to experiment with free verse as in A Non-Letter to My Daughter and Where Does it Hurt? or the tight aphoristic series of prose poems that make up Panopticon: Hospital Visions. Here Gleeson’s wonderful sense of place and highly visual style turn a well-trodden familiar place into something visionary and true.
Gleeson is an eloquent storyteller, and the stories are held in delicate balance with the analysis of her world. Her title evokes Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations and she shares his interest in categorising and delineating ordinary experience. Her ambition – foolhardy, but worthy – is perhaps to provide a female counterpoint to his book. She assembles as collaborators in this enterprise the artists and writers she admires: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Lucy Grealy, Jo Spence – women who have shown that creativity and illness can combine, “that it was possible to have an illness but not to be the illness”. I’d have liked the discussions of these artists to be longer and more strenuous. Sometimes, the elliptical juxtaposition felt a little too tantalising. Gleeson takes her form as far as it can go in addressing the complexities of her life and times, but there have been moments while reading all the recent essay-collection memoirs when I’ve missed the grittiness and expansiveness of a sustained argument.
"To commit to writing... is to commit to living." This extraordinarily intimate and resonant memoir comprises a series of short, sharp immersive pieces that chart the life of a body as it goes through sickness, health and motherhood. Gleeson's meditations on her physical essence also spark reflections on much else, including what it is to be raised a Catholic in Ireland, abortion, and a moving essay about how she met her husband through an ex-boyfriend who later died tragically.