The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell, Penned in the Margins, 125 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1908058928
“On the morning of March 6, | 1984, Mr. William McConnell, | assistant governor of the Maze Prison, | was outside his home, checking | underneath his car for explosive devices, | when he was shot dead in front of | his wife and three-year-old daughter.”
These are the harrowing opening lines of Belfast poet Gail McConnell’s The Sun is Open, and the only place in the entire book-length poem in which a full-stop appears, after which: white space, silence, and a page-turn, then a blank page. But do not turn the page just yet. Read closer – for this is carefully curated poetic language, not mere reportage – and the texture deepens: attend to the placement of line-breaks, to the spin of prepositions (“on”, “outside”, “underneath”, “in front of”) and the way that the scene ends with a close-up on wife and daughter. “Never mind the death in the foreground, for months I’ve been pondering the miniature / figures in the distance,” Ciaran Carson’s “Nicolas Poussin, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake, 1648” opens, and the careful arrangement of this scene demands that the reader grants the same attention to what “remains to be stumbled on in the shadows”. Read closer again, and those “explosive devices” contain traces of the “frail device” of Seamus Heaney’s “The Harvest Bow”, while that word “governor” recalls his “Government of the Tongue”. We are back in Belfast during the Troubles, but we are also entering an echoic textual labyrinth, and there is no easy way out.
What happened next on that March morning in that driveway in east Belfast the reader might naturally wonder. In terms of the minute after the shooting, we know from Beryl McConnell’s published statements that her daughter went back into the house for safety while she stayed with her fatally wounded husband; her “Statement of Witness” (heavily redacted) is one of the book’s sources. But what also happened, as this book-length poem by its very physical existence attests, is that the “three-year-old daughter” became the poet Gail McConnell, split in two (Gail meaning “father’s joy” / “Gale” meaning “mad and frantic”), her father’s “twice-voiced dawwww ter”, her imagination now attuned to the duality, the doubleness of the world and of words, doomed to keep returning to her earlier self on that day. As in Derek Mahon’s “Courtyards in Delft”: “[She] must be lying low in a room there, / A strange child with a taste for verse.” And so, on that day in March when “the girl” emerges from the house into the oblique light, there are two noons: “Around noon, the girl took her / auntie by the hand to the rows / of rose bushes where her father / wasn’t”. And, on the facing page, an excerpt from the Belfast Telegraph, April 29th, 1985, which opens the door into the “safe house” on Campbell Park Avenue to which the killers had retreated directly afterwards. Yet all of this comes much later in the book, and the timeline of the poem itself takes us back to another beginning, or another possible beginning: “BEGIN WITH VICTIM on his / back is how this could begin/ place your mouth over his mouth”. Here, we get the first taste (for this is a sensuously oral and tactile book) of the poet’s use of shade throughout as quoted material appears in grey as if to suggest its shadowlike insubstantiality. The effect is to suggest two competing voices – the poet’s voice (incorporating those of her earlier selves) and that of the clamorous archive – that at times seem at odds with each other and at other times dovetail and interweave. Yet the book may not begin here either, for this block of text is also followed by a blank page: another false start? In this faltering, fractured way the poet tests her voice.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems,” William Carlos Williams famously wrote, but the reverse may be more appropriate in the case of The Sun is Open, throughout which the open-ended story of the murder of William McConnell weighs heavily on poet, reader and poet-as-reader. In some ways it reads like the stuff of biblical or Shakespearean tragedy – or “the stuff of thrillers” as the poet wryly remarks at one point. William McConnell prophesied his own violent death, and if we follow the leads provided by the poet in her list of sources (these include newspaper cut-outs, the Bible, Ariel’s song from The Tempest, Keats’s poetry, song lyrics) we come upon the statement written by him in February 1984, titled “My Demise”, to be made public in the event of his death: “someone has decided that I should play no further part in the proceedings! I feel sorry for them, and can only pray that their part in the story will one day be revealed.” The day before penning this “auto-elegy of sorts” (as McConnell calls it in her 2016 poem “Type Face”) William McConnell had given a television interview (“his face / blacked out”) from a darkened room in the family home, speaking out about the omissions in the Hennessy report into the Maze prison breakout and its criticism of the Maze prison staff. As one speaker in the House of Commons in February 1984 testified: “staff, from the governor down, felt that their voices were being lost on the empty air”. It is there, on the shifting threshold between public and private spaces, speech and silence, revelation and concealment, that McConnell deliberately places the reader at the outset, making us uncomfortably ask ourselves questions about what we are reading, how we read, and why. How far should the reader follow the paper trail that the poet has laid down? At a certain point does it become voyeuristic? The sensation of reading The Sun is Open is that language itself has been put behind bars, called to account for itself, and the reader is never let off the hook; the poet is also a reader, of course, a reader of newspaper cut-outs, lyrics, the OED, literary and biblical texts, trying to make something of so many loose ends.
“Whatever happens to me, I spoke the truth,” William McConnell wrote proleptically, and the difficulty of speaking is one of the themes around which The Sun is Open orbits; a poem that is more than anything else a vocal arrangement stretched across one long “suspended sentence”. From Carson, McConnell has learnt the way that syntax, line-break (or line-turn) and the space around the poem can be manipulated in such a way as to make every word on the line gleam with its own significance. “YOU COME into this world / head first come in on your rump”, may be the true beginning of the book, as it starts with a birth, by c-section; the cutting out of which echoes the “caesura” method employed throughout the book (“caesura”, from the Latin “cutting, metrical pause”). But who is the “you” being addressed? Perhaps it is the poem being delivered into the world. After a stanza break, a pause to fill its lungs perhaps, the poet then takes us through her own compositional process: “I’m making soft returns / for this you need two keys SHIFT / and ENTER to go down the line”. Prompted by this, I Google the meaning of “soft return”: “Those times when you don’t want air, when you need to put lines of text close together, you use a soft return.” The air pressure around the text is thereby increased.
It seems not quite accurate to say that The Sun is Open lacks punctuation; although there are no conventional punctuational marks (few commas and no full-stops) the gaps, spaces and blanks are as measured as the rests in music, the power of which can be immense. One thinks of the chasm-like silences in Arvo Pärt’s Psalom (psalm) in which the long-drawn-out rests seem to suck up the sound leaving the listener on a precipice until the instruments tentatively resume, or, in choral music, the dramatic, if-only-slight pauses between the final words of the hymn Abide with Me and their jolting effect in the context of choral performance when the predictably flowing hymn metre gives way to the meaning of the words. Throughout The Sun is Open, it is left to the reader to listen in and decipher where the breaths between articulated phrases should go, involving a process of not merely reading forward but backwards too, so as to thread the sense together, like Ariadne in her maze. Better still, listen to the poet herself perform the poem and the score comes to life.
Throughout, words vibrate with other possible meanings and with their own overtones. Words such as “father”, “chest”, “shot”, “name”, “mirror”, “tiles”, “safe”, “cell”, “sound”, “house”, “sun”, “face”, “glass”, “stone”, resound to create a reverberant acoustics; thus “cage” becomes “John Cage”, “Eko” turns to “Echo”, while the “prepared piano” morphs into the “Be prepared” of the boy scout motto or, more chillingly, “prepare to meet thy Maker”. Just as in music, a word is different every time it is sounded (or as Carson put it, “the same tune is never the same tune twice”) there is a constantly moving sense of one thing turning into another, as one line or phrase turns into the next: thus “Juno” signifies both the level in the religious youth group the Campaigners (“first I was an Eagle then a Juno”) and the punisher of Echo in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Two of the most repeated words throughout are “face” and “glass”, calling to mind the oft-quoted line from 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face”, alluded to by Heaney in his elegy for his father, “Seeing Things”, and, before him, by Robert Lowell in public-poet mode in his “Waking Early Sunday Morning”: “When will we see Him face to face? / Each day, He shines through darker glass.” As the author of an academic study titled Northern Irish Poetry and Theology, McConnell’s biblical knowledge is profound (like Denise Riley and Derek Mahon she grew up singing hymns in church), and her workings with poetic form may be a way of updating conventional hymn metres – what Lowell called the “stiff quatrains shoveled out four-square” – while tapping into their ability to leave a “loophole for the soul”. It is within such formal strictures or bonds (another polysemous word) that the freedom to sing is possible, as Wordsworth knew: “the prison into which we doom / Ourselves, no prison is.”
The intentional loopholes forged by McConnell are most evident in her extraordinary refashioning of the Psalms throughout. Employing the same technique as in her “Untitled / Villanelle” (Fothermather, 2019) in which words from the epigraphs are erased, their absences honoured by white space between the words (thus allowing them a ghostly half-presence, both there and not there), she makes new meaning out of the Psalms in a way that brings into the light their provisional nature: “I put my / fingers on the Psalms and make / my own”. Reviewing Lowell’s Life Studies, Elizabeth Bishop remembered her own childhood reading of the Bible through a “powerful reading-glass”: “It seemed to illuminate as it magnified; it could also be used as a burning glass.” What McConnell does with Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my Shepherd”) is breathtaking, revelatory and violent. Taking the closing lines as an example, which read:
You prepare a banquet for me,
where all my enemies can see me;
you welcome me as an honoured guest
and fill my cup to the brim.
I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life;
and your house will be my home as long as I live.
The poet cuts the words away to expose the reality of life in the North of Ireland during the Troubles: that “we are all being watched through peep-holes, one-way mirrors, security cameras …” as Carson’s “Intelligence” from Belfast Confetti (1989) observes:
my enemies see
Such a state of hyper-vigilance demands a forensic attentiveness to language, as Gail McConnell knows. The McConnell home on Hawthornden Drive was indeed under IRA surveillance, as emerged afterwards when those responsible for her father’s murder went on trial. Like the crossed-out entries in the 1984 diary that led to the arrest and prosecution of William McConnell’s killers, such redactions and erasures can lead to revelation. Elsewhere, as in Beryl McConnell’s “Statement of Witness”, the poet’s erasures seem more like redactions of material that is too private, too close to the bone, to reprint; this is one source that remains off limits to the reader, out of the public domain.
Thus, the poet’s dismembered song puts language under pressure to show something of the tense reality of growing up in such a hemmed-in world, wherein speech is curtailed and silence the easier option. Echo, repeating the words of others, her bones turning to stone, is one such figure for the poet’s contingent self, with her father perhaps in the role of Orpheus, a prophet and a musician. William McConnell’s books of guitar songs are another of the poem’s sources, and the lyrics of songs such as Hello, It’s Me, or the toe-tapping I’ve Just Seen a Face take on a darker meaning when voiced through the dead father singing back to, and through, his daughter:
it’s an Eko Echo made the sounds
she heard the sounds she heard
became her voice her voice
returned his words here come
to me to me he turned on her she
turned to stone her bones
hollowed a voice lives in her still
“The exceeding brightness of this early sun / Makes me conceive how dark I have become”, Wallace Stevens wrote in “The Sun This March”, and throughout The Sun is Open the darkness is always with us; the shadows, the grey shades, the places where the sun cannot reach are as integral to the book’s art of tenebrism as the silence is to its deliberately ruptured music. McConnell’s self-delighting way with words, her dynamic sensitivity to their movement and modulations, her formal inventiveness (as in her earlier poem, “Worm”, she “plot[s] the gaps that keep the structure from collapse”), and her profound attentiveness to the world “at the cellular level” (to quote her own words about Carson) make for poetry of luminous intelligence and intuitive formal vitality. She has learnt from the best of them, and, like other younger poets coming out of Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre, such as Stephen Sexton, has studied her lines well. Carson, the book’s first reader, seems the true musical director of this new formal expression in poetry coming out of the North of Ireland that feels both revolutionary and familiar, learned and improvisatory; an unflinching, transformative art that not only lives out but insists on the continuity of the past into the present and delivers its own reckoning in place of any political one. The only justice may be poetic, but poetry does make something happen, it creates its own truth. For Heaney in “The Government of the Tongue” it is “more a threshold than a path […] at which reader and writer undergo in their different ways the experience of being at the same time summoned and released”. Like Denise Riley, another key influence, McConnell is a “walker in language”: wherever she goes, her readers will follow.
Maria Johnston is a poetry critic and is the co-editor of Irish Women Poets Rediscovered: Readings in Poetry from the 18th to the 20th Century, forthcoming from Cork University Press.