Book Review: The Sun is Open

sun is open

“Around noon, the girl took her
auntie by the hand to the rows
of rose bushes where her father
wasn’t”

“Around noon, the men sent out
for fish and chips and as they sat
eating they watched the lunchtime
news to find out if they had
killed their target”

On the morning of March 6, 1984, Gail McConnell’s father was shot dead outside his home in front of his wife and three-year-old daughter. This poetry collection provides an innovative and powerful account of the affect this had on the author in the years that followed. It is built from memories and personal archive material taken from a ‘Dad Box’ she created. Several of the entries are wrapped around direct quotes from items stored therein, including: newspaper clippings, William McConnell’s student diaries, Beryl McConnell’s Statement of Witness.

Each page makes use of white space and indentation to effect. There is no punctuation and few capital letters. This approach serves to focus the reader’s attention. Meaning is clear. The stream of memories and violent imagery is gut-wrenching to consider.

The poems are more factual than political, emotive given context but never mawkish. By drawing on what was reported at the time, a picture of the terrorist mindset sits alongside a young girl growing up in the shadow of the void their actions created. And yet, no judgement is made here. Her father’s perceived character – “a man of high morals, honest, loyal, dedicated” and also “giving prisoners a hard time in Long Kesh” – sits alongside the man who made his young daughter a Wendy House, took her to the beach and created music with his guitar.

In a segregated society sides will be taken, community support provided even for killers.

“the stuff of thrillers wigs washed
in the kitchen sink two pairs
of rubber gloves burnt in the
yard the briefcase tucked up in
the attic sub-machine gun snug
inside clean towels for everyone
the spinner going on third
time that afternoon”

The author’s family are church goers, the child’s social life lived amongst Christian youth groups and protestant schoolfriends. The bible is quoted frequently, the bizarreness of some of its commands and stories quietly highlighted.

The strangeness of being a major news item is remembered, or rebuilt from items kept. In time, the author is cautioned against playing her ‘murder card’ to get her way.

“it’s what dislodges in my body
when I hear balloons pop pop the
birthday party I spent in the
corridor outside the room”

As an adolescent there were small rebellions but also a pulling in of what had been absorbed, the fallout from such a pivotal childhood event. The hurt from such a loss need not be explicitly stated to provide the undercurrent and occasional riptide in choices made. That the author avoids any call for sympathy in her writing – although obviously deserved – is to be commended.

The poems are both beautiful and poignant to read, the language employed all the more compelling for its concise simplicity. Depth is conveyed through what was considered ordinary for a girl in Northern Ireland – how strange the accepted behaviours are to look back on. And yet, it is not necessary to understand life during The Troubles to appreciate the schism caused by the sudden death of a parent. This collection provides a window into a life that perforce continued. It is an arresting and deeply moving read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins.

Book Review: Sanatorium

Abi Palmer is an artist and writer who has suffered from a disabling chronic illness since childhood. In this, her first book, she writes of the treatments she received and the effects they had on her body while attending a thermal water-based rehabilitation programme in Budapest, Hungary. Her visit was funded as part of a research project. Many of her fellow attendees pay for their own, annual visits. The sanitorium reminds the author of a hotel, with comparable private accommodation. This differs from her previous rehab experience, provided by the NHS, in which she shared a ward with 17 other patients.

Entries jump between Budapest, London and Chertsey.

The author lived in adapted accommodation in Chertsey, visited daily by time-stretched carers, to enable her to attend college. Some of the anecdotes she shares of this time, how she was treated, are horrific.

In London she lives with her partner, Hans. When no bathtub is provided in their flat – such provision goes against regulations in case she falls climbing in or out – she purchases an inflatable one from China. Its gradual deterioration is mined for metaphors of her body’s struggle to function adequately.

The stories are presented as short episodes of treatment, interactions and complications. The language used is poetic with much use of imagery.

The author has occasional out of body experiences and vivid dreams. She muses on Saint Teresa of Ávila, a Carmelite nun and mystic who claimed healing through instances of religious ecstasy. The author muses on this and her own sexual escapism.

The pain Palmer suffers is described in succinct yet vivid detail. She also has digestive issues and regular skin complications. Having lived with her condition for so long, she is wary of being pushed too hard at the sanatorium and suffering consequences. Nevertheless, she wishes to give the treatments offered in Budapest a chance before refusing them.

Occasional sketches, drawn by Nick Murray, enhance the text – as does the generous use of white space.

The theme of floating – in water, air and mind – is made more salient due to Palmer’s inability to physically support her body easily. Walking unaided for just a few minutes is a challenge – movement requires mobility aids. Those offering treatment are not always sympathetic to the recurrent pain the author lives with. All this is presented through action and consequence alongside graphic description.

Back in London, Palmer feels well enough to attend a party with friends.

“It felt really nice to be included. I also didn’t have the usual feeling that haunts me: I wish I’d been able to stay longer, I wish I fitted in, I wish I felt part of things.”

I hesitate to describe this as a beautiful book given its sometimes devastating subject matter, yet there is an exquisite quality to the writing that brings it alive. The visionary prose does not shy away from bodily functions and their occasionally gross aspects. What lingers is more rarefied.

Living with pain is shown to be exhausting and consuming but there is more to the author’s life than survival. She retains her appreciation for that which she finds comforting or aesthetically rewarding. An eye-opening but still life affirming read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Penned in the Margins, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: The Perseverance

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

What?

I am a one-word question,
a one-man
patience test.

What?

What language
would we speak
without ears?”

Raymond Antrobus is: a poet; a teacher; a son; British Jamaican; Deaf. All of these attributes colour his writing in this, his latest poetry collection.

The Perseverance explores not only experiences lived, or shared with the author, but also the effects of heritage and culture across generations. He writes of how language is used and how this varies in time and place. What does not change is the near universal insistence that those who communicate by signing adapt as best they can to enable understanding by the hearing.

“How do you write me when I am visual?

“How will someone reading this see my feeling?”

Antrobus writes of his father with whom he had an, at times, difficult relationship but who he cared for during the two years prior to the older man’s death. He writes of his wider family in Jamaica where he visits regularly. Themes of grief and dementia are touched on alongside misunderstandings and the search for forgiveness.

Poems that explore the D/deaf experience are both enlightening and powerful.

“I know the deaf are not lost
but they are certainly abandoned.”

In ‘Miami Airport’ an official is accusatory and unsympathetic even when he realises the traveller cannot hear.

“you don’t look deaf?
can you prove it?”

A sequence of poems written for Samantha share the story of a Deaf Jamaican woman whose mother believed the Devil had taken her child’s voice. There is a lack of appreciation that the deaf have their own language, and anyone can learn it.

Many of the poems are searing in effect. Although not vitriolic there is no shying from the way D/deaf people are treated and how this can lead to isolation.

“Before, all official languages
were oral. The Deaf were a colony
the hearing world ignored.”

‘Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris’ tells of a man shot dead by the police when he was stopped and attempted to speak. His language was sign which meant moving his hands. In the moment this was translated as a threat to safety.

A need to belong, to find acceptance, is a recurring theme delivered with finely balanced potency. A mixed heritage can sometimes lead to dual rejection. It is possible for deafness to be regarded as difference rather than disability.

Any Cop?: Notes at the end of the book explain the inspiration for each of the poems included. Although of interest these were not imperative. The writing is accessible; the subject matter and emotion clear. The author takes the reader into his territory. Awareness gleaned is a sobering reminder that to fully understand a situation it must be lived.

 

Jackie Law