(Penned in the Margins, 2021); pbk, £9.99
The Sun is Open is a poetry collection from Northern Irish poet and academic Gail McConnell. McConnell had previously published two poetry pamphlets, Fourteen (2018) and Fothermather (2019).
From the very first page which details the tragic death of McConnell’s father by a bullet in front of her three-year-old self, it is made immediately clear to the reader that this will be a difficult and confrontational read. All of the poems (bar one notable exception) in The Sun is Open are untitled so they seem as half-forgotten memories that flow into each other. To name them would be to impose order on them, and McConnell does not do so. Her poems lack punctuation, leaping in and out of italics, coming across as a rushing stream-of-consciousness… a babbling brook brain, and a mind moving too fast for words.
The poems meditate on, are shaken and shaped by trauma; consequently, they take strange shapes and forms. It is almost as if the poems themselves have suffered some kind of injury, separated and spread out, like a hand blown into disparate fingers. The sparse spacing in some poems has an interesting effect of making some of the preceding words and following poems be visible through the page, as if the past and future are merging into one singular distorted present. The loss of her father is, of course, the defining trauma of the collection, but religious traumas are also dissected and the concept of sin weighs heavily on the poetry, tied up as it is in Christian guilt.
The collection is steeped in childhood but is in no way nostalgic. Instead, it reels off 1980s points of reference in an unemotional detached manner; on page 105, for example,
Mary Poppins Herbie Goes
Bananas you put it in the slot
press PLAY the tape moves from
the left spool to the right we got[.]
There is no fondness in these memories, no warmth. Rose-coloured glasses have been shattered to pieces; their pink glass shards scattered to the wind. There’s no room for self-analysis here, just thoughts racing.
Despite the lack of self-analysis, there is room for a consideration of others. For example, a poem on page 114 touches on the first Christmas without McConnell’s father from her mother’s perspective:
as your child opens
the gifts you have given and
wrapped was to ignore what
happened just beyond [.]
The poem is a really well-observed piece on the ambivalent feelings of experiencing Christmas day without a father and husband, the joy of the holiday and her child ripping open the present; the bright colourful pageantry of the decorations, are contrasted by not just the feeling of loss, but the visceral memory of a disturbing violent death of someone so close:
you see in your dreams
where he lies holes in his head
and chest the body in
blood broken windshield
Even more heart-breaking is the description of the court case where her mother was cross-examined in a cold clinical manner over the death of her husband. ‘Statement of Witness’ is the only titled poem in the collection. So, from the start the reader is compelled to pay extra attention to it. The contrast between the procedural nature of the court happenings with the strange poetic technique that McConnell puts on display a creates disturbing dissonance between what is being said, how it is being said and why.
The Sun is Open is a brutal, powerful and haunting collection. Gail McConnell shows an excellent level of ingenuity and skill in the way she has woven together her tragic tome.