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Wresting Insight, and Poetry, From Pain

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Her experiences are rendered vividly and with an admirable lack of self-pity. There is the school trip to Lourdes where, as a pious 13-year-old, plunked into the holy waters, her hopes of a miracle vanish: “After months of thinking about how it would feel, it was already over. My skin was instantly dry. Apart from the purple mottle left by the cold, nothing felt different.”

Gleeson has an eye for telling detail: the scent of lilies and formaldehyde that fills with “harsh sweetness” the summer room where the body of her former boyfriend, Rob, lies. She touches his shoulder. “I run my fingers over the joint, but the terrain is not the same. I know the swell of that clavicle, the drumlin of bone, which now juts strangely, broken for sure. I pull my hand away as if scalded.” Just a few days before she had begun a relationship with Rob’s flatmate — a relationship that would be forged in shared grief. A rambling Ginsberg-style poem is threaded through the searing essay: snapshots of Rob (who had an encounter with Ginsberg) in bars, on roller coasters, night swimming. The poem itself is prosaic, but intercut with the terrible events of his death, the reminiscences glow eerily.

“Constellations” has the makings of an enthralling memoir structured around these experiences. But although the first third of the book sets out in that direction, the remainder meanders. The other essays and poems feel as though they were written as separate pieces at different times and don’t enhance or engage with one another. It’s not just that the subject matter is diverse; diverse subjects can be pleasingly knit together. But Gleeson’s essays have no formal consistency. One is an extended riff on the subject of hair; another is a collection of 20 poems and brief meditations structured by the McGill Pain Index (in which patients are asked to choose among collections of words to characterize their pain). Although the poems are weak, the structure is intriguing, yet none of the other essays pick up on the form or play with medical terms.

Gleeson’s book has a conversational style, and we feel we are in the company of an appealing, sharp-witted person, a member of a lively Irish artistic scene that her writing draws on to good effect. When she veers into cultural critique, however, her observations lose their fresh particularity. She trots out well-worn feminist lines about the politics of Irish abortion, patriarchy and the church with no particularly new insights or analysis, or even surprising anecdotes. She asserts that simply “by virtue of being female,” female writers are still “deemed lesser” but offers little evidence. (Her own book — a prizewinning best seller in Ireland — certainly did not follow this pattern.)

In an essay on women adventurers, she complains that the names of the first women to reach the North and South Poles or summit Mount Everest are not famous and “not considered real firsts … not as significant as the achievements of their male counterparts,” and asks, “What women are lost to history in this erasure?” She writes about the Japanese climber Junko Tabei, who scaled Everest in 1975, but elides the male Sherpa, Ang Tsering, who dramatically saved Tabei’s life, digging her out of the snow when she was unconscious.

Seriously? A woman scaling Everest more than two decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay should be considered a comparable achievement? Tabei herself said, “I did not intend to be the first woman on Everest”; rather, she wished to be viewed as the 36th person to scale the mountain, just as she wanted women to be evaluated on a par with men in the workplace in Japan.

For a book that begins as a literary work, the final chapter closes it disappointingly, with a long poem addressed to Gleeson’s daughter with trite you-go-girl encouragement and New Age affirmations. She warns her daughter of inevitable discrimination: “Your girlness, that unfairness / Is an ongoing thing”; earnestly exhorts self-empowerment (“Embrace heights,” “Don’t be afraid,” “Sing louder”); and closes with the usual affirmation of goodness (“Assume there is goodness all around / unless there is not, / and even then, be the goodness”).

Like most truisms, this is sound advice, but it is not a good poem by any stretch. Indeed, it’s not clear why it’s written as a poem at all — the verses lack musicality and the line breaks feel random. Yet while this, and indeed much of the book, fails to sustain its incisive beginning, the best of these essays — as with the best of Olstein’s meditations — would be a shame to miss.


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