In Constellations: Reflections on a Life, Sinéad Gleeson navigates her own relationship with and the intersections between illness, the body and motherhood, in a series of essays that combine the personal anecdotal style of memoir with cultural criticism. From the pain she experiences as a teenager, which is eventually diagnosed as monoarticular arthritis, to pregnancies and a diagnosis of aggressive leukaemia, Constellations charts the intimate relationship Gleeson has with her own body. But Gleeson moves outwards from her own experience to explore far-ranging topics, from the political implications of hair to the history of blood transfusions and the narratives of adventure stories.
Gleeson’s concern with the way that illness and the body shape the narrative of our lives is manifested throughout the book in her interest in the relationship between life and storytelling. Upon telling her mother that she had been diagnosed with leukaemia, Gleeson recalls that she said: “I’m not going to die, I’m going to write a book.” The act of writing becomes, for Gleeson, a tangible evidence of living. The hybrid essay-memoir form allows her to contain a representation of life and illness. In one essay, Gleeson quotes Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’ in which Woolf remarks on the “poverty of language” that occurs in the depths of illness. Vocalising pain and attempting to advocate for ourselves to doctors requires from us language that we might not be able to produce. Another barrier to understanding is that we are sometimes not listened to; we fight to find the words to use, only to be disbelieved by the medical professionals we rely on. In Constellations, Gleeson draws from her own experience of illness and pain to exhibit the insufficiency of language in articulating suffering. At one point, Gleeson creates poems from the language of the McGill pain index, a scale used by doctors to assess pain, in an attempt to provide a fuller vocabulary for suffering. These poems act as an articulation of various moments of intense pain for Gleeson, from ‘Heartburn (in pregnancy)’ to ‘Unlistened-to Pain’, and also point towards the limitations of finding words to convey the exact shape of pain meaningfully.
In an essay entitled ‘A Wound Gives Off Its Own Light’ (named after a line in an Anne Carson poem), Gleeson turns to depictions of life and illness in art, charting her own relationship with the works of three female artists: Frida Kahlo, Jo Spence and Lucy Grealy. From each of these women, all of whom have made illness their subject, using art as a means of representing a diagnosis, Gleeson reflects on the lessons they taught her, namely that “it was possible to live a parallel creative life, one that overshadows the patient life, nudging it off centre stage… That in taking all the pieces of the self, fractured by surgery, there is rearrangement: making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.” The expression of illness and life in art becomes then a collaborative process, one that Gleeson participates in.
The flexibility of the essay form allows Gleeson space to track the intricacies of illness, of the forcible transgressions between the personal and political spheres that illness demands. As an Irish woman writing about the body, Gleeson makes explicit the politicisation of the female body in Ireland. “Until 2018,” she writes, “it was impossible to talk about the body in Ireland and not discuss abortion,” in the opening of the essay ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy (for the twelve women a day who leave)’. Writing on the referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Irish constitution, Gleeson draws together stories of the women who fought and died for reproductive rights in Ireland, alongside her own experience of canvassing for the ‘Yes’ campaign and going to the polling station with her daughter. Out of a painful, and deeply divisive struggle, Gleeson weaves a tale of hope and optimism – a story in which “things are changing. The crowd has swelled; the voices are louder.”
Constellations is pulled together by a reverence for language and storytelling. From the interweaving of a wide range of subject matters, what I was left with at the end of the book was profound faith in the transformative power of writing to lead us through pain.