Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.
Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”
She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by
“Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”
The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:
“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”
These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.
In ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with the one’s own body and its constituents.
“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”
Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.
There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.
“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”
“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”
‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.
‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.
The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.
Any Cop?: Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.