(REVIEW) The Sun is Open, by Gail McConnell
Dave Coates reads Gail McConnell's The Sun is Open (2021) as a landmark literary text from the aftermath of The Troubles — a unique work of self-excavation that straddles the gaps between the public and private; political violence and intimate perception. Situating the book within the larger context of poetries in which 'the capacity of language to carry the weight of history – personal, political, historical, colonial – is held under unrelenting scrutiny', Coates highlights The Sun is Open's importance as a collection which actively questions the politics of empire and their construction down to the deepest and most granular aspects of our language.
[M]any of those who were ‘affiliated’ with one ‘side’ or another during this conflict were not actively engaged in paramilitary action; were, instead, simply trying to survive in a state of chaos where rules were unspoken, changeable, and not of their own making.
– Tricia Malone, “Measures of obliviousness and disarming obliqueness in Anna Burns’ Milkman (Textual Practice, 2019).
Traumatic events are extraordinary not because they occur rarely, but because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life.
– Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (1992).
‘Belfast is many places then as now all lie in ruins and it is as much as I can do to save even one from oblivion’
– Ciaran Carson, “Exile”, Breaking News (2003).
* * *
Where to begin with The Sun is Open? Here’s the first text:
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.
The book is part archival excavation, part memoir, and many parts I cannot name because I simply have never before seen them in action. On this opening page, the reader is given a handful of facts, and any notion that this collection of poems might exist in a rarefied otherworld, the frictionless vacuum of the mind at play, is gone. But this text is also a litmus test (aren’t all texts about the Troubles?), perhaps one of those duck/rabbit illusions. What do you see? Do you see the family? The home? The bomb? The prison? The newspaper, reporting it all, the machinery of mass media? What matters most, in your eyes? In Carson’s 'Exile', one line arrests me every time: ‘all lie’. Watch how its meaning changes depending on how you hold it up to the light.
Let’s do likewise with McConnell’s work, beginning on page thirteen, the first poem proper (an unsteady category), as a way of examining in miniature about what the book is doing at large:
YOU COME into this world head first come in on your rump they call it breech you may be lifted out I’m making soft returns for this you need two keys SHIFT and ENTER to go down the line carries on the carriage moving back
Let’s start with the basics. First, the text is double-justified. There is a buried pun there: the book is primarily concerned with justice, and text. It’s worth noting here that McConnell published a long poem, ‘Type Face’ in 2016, concerning the publication of a report into her father’s death, which was printed entirely in Comic Sans; neither her earlier poem nor this first full collection allow the reader to lose sight of the materiality of the text at hand. McConnell’s work is abundant with layers of wordplay, such that any given line yields deeper meaning under close scrutiny: ‘soft return’, for example, could be the book’s subtitle, or mission statement: a means of revisiting the past without being overwhelmed by its violence. Next, the poem’s first words are in all-caps. A few modes of writing in English in which these formatting features are common are the Bible, print journalism, and legal documents. The Sun is Open questions and undercuts the authority by which each of these modes of script attempt to impose their interpretive frameworks on the world, in spite of the world’s incorrigibly plural perspectives and possibilities. It also, by visually punning between these modes and the poetic stanza, implicates poetry itself in the same processes. Poems, however quietly, do engage in the creation and maintenance of language as a shared, public resource, and in determining what truths the medium can and cannot bear. This work is not necessarily an uncomplicated good; not every form of art is dedicated to enlarging imaginative possibilities. The best one can do, McConnell seems to suggest, is keep making one’s soft returns, continually moving back along the line with new insight and understanding.
Back to the poem. Unlike the newspapers, legal documents, and Biblical text it quotes, adapts and echoes, the The Sun is Open is unpunctuated, forgoing another means by which a poet commonly exerts authorial control. The timbre of the poems’ voice remains consistent throughout the book, even as its subject matter varies wildly. On a first read, it feels breathless, hurried, sometimes child-like, sometimes disrupted or disjointed, as in the closing line of the first stanza quoted above. It is an active choice on the reader’s part to go against this trained response and give each phrase the time and breathing space it needs, the way, in fact, McConnell performs the work in person, cautious and slow. But how different would this poem feel if it was lineated the way, for instance, I read/hear it:
You come into this world head first. Come in on your rump, they call it ‘breech’. You may be lifted out.
This, I’m sure you’ll agree, distinctly dampens the poem’s energy. In requesting that the reader meet the text half-way (specifically requesting: you can absolutely keep the headlong, frantic voice in mind if you prefer), McConnell places an impediment between the reader and the poem, subtly challenges instincts so deeply ingrained in us they may have become automatic. It makes room to worry about what designs this poem has upon us.
The absence of punctuation provides further textual wrinkles. Look at the middle of the second stanza: on first glance, ‘to go down the line’ feels like a completed phrase, near-idiomatic and end-stopped. But the line break trips the reader, our first instinct was wrong: there are two phrases, one ending after ‘to go down’, and one starting with ‘the line / carries on’. This is a very neat effect! The text embodies the thing it describes: the line indeed carries on, even though we had good reason to assume it wouldn’t. But what the line carries on into is even stranger:
the line carries on the carriage moving back
The phrase describes two opposing forces, as the literary product (‘the line’) pulls oppositely to the means of literary production (the typewriter’s ‘carriage’, another nice double-meaning), as if the typed letters have been left running on air like Wile E. Coyote. What’s more, this closing flourish enacts in miniature one of the book’s most fundamental impulses: regardless of what we think we know, our instincts are as likely to lead us astray as to the truth. The poem does not allow the safe distance of MS Word’s pseudo-page, or the rarefied no-place of ‘literature’, only the physical moving parts of a typewriter; you can almost hear the clunk as the single word ‘back’ hits the left-hand margin.
This is the depth and intensity of meaning-making by which The Sun is Open operates. The poem has, on first blush, precisely two moving parts: a metaphor of birth separated by a stanza break from a metaphor of writing. But the way those parts mesh is extraordinarily intricate, how gently the poem pushes and pulls the reader into a position to which it can ask, quietly and with no small degree of sympathy, its most important question: are you sure you’re ready for this? It’s not going to get any easier.
* * *
The thread between the civil rights march organised by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) in October 1968, whose violent suppression by loyalist gangs and police is generally taken as the beginning of The Troubles, and the murder in March 1984 by IRA gunmen of William McConnell, assistant governor of the Long Kesh (aka HMP Maze) prison, is long and brutal, but not especially complicated. After months of violence, in which those same gangs of armed men and police attempted pogroms against Catholic communities in Derry and Belfast, the British Army began their occupation in August 1969, assembling the most comprehensive surveillance and carceral systems yet seen in these islands. The prison system acted in unison with military and police operations, with facilities in Belfast like the Crumlin Road jail, the Castlereagh interrogation centre, and in particular the Long Kesh prison, violently underwriting the political will of the British state. These institutions were given practically unchecked power by Operation Demetrius in 1971, which permitted the indefinite detention of civilians without due process, and conviction on security forces’ testimony alone. No Protestant was detained under this legislation until 1974, and by the time it concluded in 1975, around ninety per cent of those interned were Catholic.
According to Only the Rivers Run Free, a study published in 1984 by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean, it was not exaggeration to say that British security forces knew more about the Catholic residents of Belfast and Derry than their neighbours did. The book’s testimonies from prisoners, their families, and the few witnesses permitted entry to the Long Kesh are often profoundly unsettling, even decades later. Tomás Ó Fiaich, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, was permitted entry to the Long Kesh in August 1978, after two years of lobbying. In his words, the prison was ‘Inhuman. One would hardly allow an animal to live in such conditions.’ As prisoners’ rights were incrementally curtailed, and reports of the horrific abuse conducted within the walls of the Long Kesh became public knowledge, it became impossible to deny the breaches of civil rights and basic dignity committed against the province’s cultural minority, and yet that denial remained crucial to maintaining British/loyalist control. The feeling of having no true privacy, or even interiority, alongside these absurd inversions of reality as experienced by the province’s Irish Catholics, are reflected in the brilliant hyperreality of Anna Burns’ novel Milkman (2018, but set in the late seventies), and in poetry by Ciaran Carson’s virtuosic early collections, The Irish for No (1987) and Belfast Confetti (1989).
From the British Army’s massacre in Derry on Bloody Sunday, 1972, to the so-called Ulster Workers Council strike (a loyalist paramilitary-led shutdown conducted with the tacit approval of the police) that derailed the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974, to the ten men allowed to die on hunger strike in the Long Kesh in 1981, there is no shortage of evidence of Britain’s military strategy, the political decisions that created an apartheid state, and the direct intervention by loyalist forces against the provision of a basic quality of life to their Catholic neighbours, even to the detriment of their own. And yet, half a century after Bloody Sunday, and a century after Partition, the prevailing narrative in the North stubbornly refuses to engage with some basic facts: Britain wanted to maintain economic and military control over the ports of Belfast and Derry, enlisted the local Protestant population to maintain that control at all costs, and continues to do so to this day. This is a reality one needs to contend with before encountering any aspect of life in the North, including its disproportionately brilliant poetic tradition. Including Gail McConnell’s The Sun is Open.
* * *
‘Belfast / is many / places’, Ciaran Carson noted. No other poet has so effectively and vividly captured the chaos and enclosure of life, art and language in the city under British surveillance, and The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti are rightly seen both as living documents of an extraordinary time in history, and as era-defining works of art. His poetry has taken on many guises over the years, from the long, multivalent lines of these early collections and their hallucinatory, mutable, inescapable present, to the minimalism of Breaking News, in which that present moment becomes delicate, poised, fragmentary and elusive. No other poet from the North has been so many different poets, has so dedicated themselves to constant reinvention and re-evaluation. Though there are many ways in which Carson’s writing illuminates McConnell’s, in which their attitudes to art were interwoven – they were colleagues at Queens University Belfast for many years, and McConnell’s deeply moving eulogy-close-reading at the launch of his posthumous volume Still Life was printed in the Irish Times – it is this self-reflexivity, this pursuit of unconventional perspectives, particularly via a near-obsessive attentiveness to detail, in which they most clearly harmonise.
The historical timeline outlined above is, likewise, just one of many. It clearly elides, for example, the horrific violence committed over the decades by Irish republican paramilitaries against British security forces, Protestant civilians, and, as related by Burns’ Milkman alongside many other contemporary accounts, the Catholic communities they purported to protect. It is also extremely important to acknowledge that life went on outwith the domains of the military-historical. One might explore the history of housing and welfare activism in the North, or the role of religious fundamentalism among middle-class unionists and loyalists, or the brutal conditions for working-class women on both sides of the war, or, most pertinent to our interests, how the province’s artists processed the violence quite literally on their doorsteps. In the title poem of Carson’s Belfast Confetti, that experience is given broken, stuttering, voice:
‘I know this labyrinth so well—Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, Odessa Street— Why can’t I escape? Every move is punctuated. Crimea Street. Dead end again. A Saracen, Kremlin-2 mesh. Makrolon face-shields. Walkie-talkies. What is My name? Where am I coming from? Where am I going? A fusillade of question marks.’
The names in that first line are all real streets in Belfast named for battles in the Crimean War, while the third line refers to military vehicles and equipment deployed by the British army on those same streets, uncannily reduced to free-floating snapshots, details without context or grammar. The poem ties Crimea to the streets of Belfast, and those streets to the gear of the soldiers patrolling them: the imperial past is the colonial present. There are few moments in poetry from the North that so deftly embody the fractured and anxiously mutating state of language and significance that characterised the war years.
The Sun is Open is itself a fascinating historical document and a crucial, unique contribution to the canon of poetry from the North. Perhaps most obviously, no Northern poet has had so direct and personal a relation to the war; where poets from that first generation like Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Derek Mahon wrestled carefully and to great effect with their right to witness and aestheticize the violence, McConnell’s is surely beyond reasonable doubt. And yet The Sun is Open remains haunted by ethical questions around the reproduction and manipulation of language, echoing or ventriloquising the dead, expressions of institutional violence. The book is also the poet’s reckoning with a profoundly intimate loss which has been, inextricably, a matter of public and historical interest, whose meaning has been disputed in the press, in Parliament, and in the public statements of paramilitaries. That the book exists at all, let alone as one of the finest literary achievements to come out of the war, defies my understanding.
The early critical responses to The Sun is Open also carry trace remnants of these contestations. Several long-form pieces by English critics have focused largely (and understandably) on the book’s literary concerns, only touching lightly, as in Jeremy Noel-Tod’s review, on the book’s own analysis of Orange Order marches and William McConnell’s actions as assistant governor of the Long Kesh. One review which digs more deeply into the political side of The Sun is Open, Maria Johnston’s otherwise excellent piece for the Dublin Review of Books, actually distorts McConnell’s own framing, by painting her father and his colleagues more simplistically as victims than the book ever does. Thus far, none have grappled with the poet’s own renderings and critiques of colonial violence, such as her deeply affecting erasure poem using text from Operation Demetrius (‘YOU SHALL NOT / have the body it has been // suspended’), her analysis of Foucault’s ‘architecture / of brutality’, or the nightmarish corp-speak of what has become of the Maze Long Kesh in these ‘post-conflict’ times:
‘FROM PEACE TO PROSPERITY the Maze Long Kesh story is unique the Maze Long Kesh story has been articulated in the Corporation brand statement From Conflict to Peace From Peace to Prosperity a site once associated with conflict Maze Long Kesh has the potential to become a transformational project of international significance’
In context with the rest of the book, this cold, profit-driven transformation is heart-rendingly cruel: the euphemistic ‘once associated with conflict’ performs the whitewashing necessary for the attraction of international capital, perhaps the only force that has truly thrived in the post-GFA years. These passages constitute a relatively small part of The Sun is Open’s project, however. The book devotes considerably more time and energy to vignettes from childhood, artefacts from William McConnell’s personal effects, and reworking of biblical scripture, for example. But this critique of colonialism and capitalism is right at its heart, and contains some of its most striking textual reappropriations; any analysis of McConnell’s thinking on language and power is incomplete without a serious engagement with the overt and forthright political content of these core pieces.
It feels profoundly appropriate, then, that Ciaran Carson’s name and posthumous endorsement appear prominently on the fly-leaf of The Sun is Open. In crucial ways it follows Carson’s lead: the capacity of language to carry the weight of history – personal, political, historical, colonial – is held under unrelenting scrutiny, while remaining grounded in the everyday artefacts of a Belfast childhood. In McConnell’s case, Bananaman, Zig and Zag, skateboards, Christian summer camp, baked beans and alphabites. I feel like Carson, who in his later work seemed obsessed with literary and psychological doubles – the doppelganger or ‘fetch’ – would approve of his approval appearing posthumously on the cover of a book so deeply concerned with the ethics and efficacy of echoing, or doubling, the words of the dead. The Sun is Open opens in this self-reflexive, knotted and chiastic mode, one it will maintain until its last words:
BEGIN WITH VICTIM on his back is how this could begin
* * *
Let’s return, briefly, to Johnston’s review of The Sun is Open and its handling of the book’s political imagination. In isolation, her reading is fair and reasonable; in that very first text quoted above, Johnston sees a man murdered by masked gunmen outside his home, in front of his family. This analysis only holds water, however, if one reads that text, and The Troubles at large, as indicative of a purely inter-personal (or even purely sectarian) conflict. This reading elides the vast disparity in structural power between the legal and military institutions of the British state, alongside the dominance of middle-class Protestants over the North’s administration since partition, and the various organisations of Irish Catholic civilians acting in resistance. The Sun is Open has a deep and careful analysis of the distribution of power in Troubles Belfast, however tentative or subtextual its expression.
To be clear, it would also be misleading to assign The Sun is Open too definite a political conclusion or position. Its achievement is in its willingness to hold multiple competing and discomfiting ideas in tension, to present a multifaceted, eccentric, and often highly subjective vision of reality, and attempt to understand its jagged, irrational, painful shapes. The most pertinent poem in this regard, marked in the book’s notes as ‘Internment Without Trial / Operation Demetrius 1971’, is extraordinary, and difficult to reproduce typographically (perhaps this is intentional; it is deeply impractical to remove from its local contexts). Perhaps it’s worth attempting to recreate a few lines anyway, if you don’t have a copy to hand. After six lines of repeated ‘|’ symbols, comes the following:
|||||||||||||YOU SHALL NOT have the body it has been |||||||||||||||||||||||||||| |||||||||||||||||||||||||||| suspended ||||||||||||||||||
The only other legible words in the poem run: ‘the body in / the court […] need not appear / […] a line of bars you / look you start / […] to see a face or chains / these marks align a lion’s open / jaws’. There is a deeply biblical feeling to these lines, from the overt echo of the opening ‘THOU SHALT NOT’ of the Ten Commandments, to the image of a lion’s mouth, a recurring threatening image in the scripture, most notably from the story of Daniel, or perhaps from the Psalms, from which McConnell draws often: ‘Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’ (Psalm 22, KJV).
There is another visual pun here: the poem’s erasures echo the redacted blanks of an official document, where the truth is considered too sensitive for public knowledge. Elsewhere in The Sun is Open, where external materials have been quoted, they are printed in grey text, clearly marked as something other than the poet’s own voice. Here, however, no distinction is drawn: the boundary between poetical and political grows extremely hazy. A poem a few pages earlier contrasts the ‘O’ shape of the panopticon with the notorious ‘H-blocks’ of the Long Kesh; common to both designs is the isolation of the prisoners, their bar on communication. McConnell’s excavation of language cuts very deep in this passage: in her Irish Times eulogy for Ciaran Carson, she lingers on the multiplicity of the word ‘cell’:
a simple structure; a storeroom; a chamber for sleeping or writing; the small back room [Carson] liked so much, where the music of what happens happens; a compartment in the brain; the hexagon in a honeycomb; a room in a prison; a nucleus of political activity; the body’s tissue; a cavity
She also quotes a line from Francis Ponge, a favourite of Carson’s: 'The least cell of our body clings as tightly to language, as language has us in its grip'. The first half of Ponge’s line feels generative, energising: language is our means of making ourselves known to the universe, of forming bonds, of co-existing in those small rooms, making ‘the music of what happens’. In the context of a poetic ‘cell’ merging with its carceral twin, as members of a nucleus of political activity were confined to a room in a prison, the second half of the aphorism reflects what McConnell’s poem knows, that the necessity of language to our survival, to our ordinary functioning as organic, cellular beings, is a weakness that can be exploited to devastating effect.
There is something deeply and acutely painful, then, in reading the Demetrius poem, in which a word that clearly holds such personal significance to the poet, is brutalised into its singular, functional purpose as a tool of state violence. Even more so, perhaps, given that the poem vests itself in a biblical idiom, which provides such nourishment elsewhere in the book: in less than forty words, the poem harnesses the raw material of poetry to the H-blocks of the Long Kesh, the ‘O’ of the panopticon, and the word of God. This section of the book is formally ingenious, but I would argue this ingenuity is necessary to house the precise breadth and depth of pain, anger and grief that flows through its spare and awful lines. Though The Sun is Open is, given the subject matter, an astonishingly bright and expansive work, these pieces around its three-quarter mark feel like an emotional nadir, when its struggle with vexed political and ethical questions hit closest to home.
* * *
It is, in a certain way, easy to talk about the narratives of history, or the functions of language; these things allow, or require, a measure of distance and coolness in the observer. But to leave it there would be to omit the beating heart of The Sun is Open, its warm, vivid memories and imagination, and the abiding grief beneath it all. Adam Piette and Maria Johnston have both rightly noted Denise Riley’s influence on McConnell’s self-aware asides, their puncturing of elegiac posturing. Compare these lines from Riley’s ‘A Part Song’:
Oh my dead son you daft bugger This is one glum mum. Come home I tell you And end this tasteless melodrama
to this, from The Sun is Open:
‘copy all this out’ and I won’t have to address you shit
And from the next page:
measure me in Beaufort scale eight or nine approaching storm Old Norse mad and frantic go light-hearted gaily on
Though The Sun is Open is a much longer piece, both it and ‘A Part Song’ embed this level of self-critique in their foundations. McConnell even plays on the multiple meanings of her own name in the second of the above passages, as her attempts to go on ‘gaily’ (light-heartedly) become gale-force, the poet’s selfhood at stake between the will to struggle on and the impulse to abandon rationality entirely. The poem on p. 32, in which the teen narrator goes to the beach to burn everything she can lay her hands on, right down to ‘the / matches in the box then […] / the box the matches came in’ dramatizes this self-consuming rage that is never quite extinguished, one which expresses itself in the same chiastic mode as the first poem in the book; the energy to create a world fit for survival might also want to burn the old one to the ground. Elsewhere, McConnell’s little asides like ‘Another murder book had diary / bits to show the corpse alive / alive-o here goes’, or ‘hey presto got a DAD / BOX’, feel like echoes of Riley’s own dwindling battle with herself:
I make this note of dread, I register it. Neither my note nor my critique of it Will save us one iota. I know it. And.
Riley fights her way through these overlapping waves of grief and self-consciousness, wordless expression (that musical ‘note of dread’) and written word. It’s this aspect of ‘A Part Song’, I think, with which McConnell most clearly harmonises: her faith in, to use Riley’s own idiom, saying something back, even if it is only an echo of an echo, a copy of a copy.
It’s notable, of course, that in The Sun is Open an echo can be profoundly meaningful. One of the book’s most deceptively simple gestures is drawn from chapter three of the first Book of Samuel:
here I am you called me here I am you called me here I am you called me
In the scripture, God calls to the young Samuel in the night. Confused, Samuel goes to his father, Eli, and says these words: ‘here I am; you called me.’ In the poem, the confusion is not between holy Father and earthly father, but between earthly father and the poet’s own echoing voice, and the line-breaks, which the reader has been primed to register and suspect, create surprising new meanings and identity-confusion. The ‘here’ within the stanza’s walls is a room in which the poet’s ‘I/me’ merges with the father’s ‘you’: not ‘called’ as in ‘summoned’ but ‘named’. Is there solace in this, a place in which the living and dead can, however momentarily, draw near? Or does this perhaps tend toward Riley’s self-doubt or cynicism, not a meeting-point but the sentimental reassurance of a sock-puppet in the dark? I genuinely don’t know, and the poems surrounding this one – drawn from the witness statement of McConnell’s mother, the reports from Parliament and paramilitaries on her father’s character – seem to hold it in tension, a still, small voice in the book’s darkest night.
The book never quite resolves this tension. There are moments that point toward something better, something beyond the strictures of daily life in the North, close relatives of the sunsets in Milkman that prove the sky isn’t merely blue, that an accepted norm is not an inevitability:
parallelogram the word we learned in primary four this sunlight on a wooden floor (p. 98)
the thing scratched in the mind a stone through glass moss in all the seams the tarmac cracks kintsugi green (p. 113)
A word from Greek and a word from Japanese, indicating light breaking through a window and moss breaking through tarmac. I don’t think these echoes (or parallels) are accidental. A key recurring word in the book seems to be ‘tilt’, appearing as it does on four occasions: once when the speaker learns in school about sunsets and the earth’s rotation (‘it / doesn’t fall it’s just we tilt’); being served alphabites by her mum (‘she lifted up and / tilted all the letters fell onto my / plate’); once to describe the creation of paper (‘plunge / the deckle in lift tilt release / it from the frame’); and once to describe playing with a toy in which a marble must be guided through a maze (‘a little / silver ball making its way / through lines and lines you tilt / the thing help it along’). It’s difficult to neatly connect those ‘tilts’, however: one brings a child’s understanding of the world into line with reality, one provides both food and language in that homely concrete metaphor, Birdseye Alphabites, one is a step in the production of the base material of written literature, and the last brings the act of making a poetic narrative (‘lines and lines’) together with a child’s toy, both implicitly as acts of play and escape. This last instance focuses on one hand on the precarity and fragility of the poetic/playful act, and, in being so close to the words ‘maze’ and ‘screw’, keeps the very real prisons and histories of the North as part of the poem’s imaginative vocabulary. It’s as if the book refuses to allow one without acknowledging the other; perhaps this ‘tilt’ is the work McConnell wants for her poetry, of the constant adjustment and self-critique necessary to keep one’s art fully engaged with a complex and duplicitous political world, to acknowledge one’s place within its structures, to keep open imaginative possibilities that world would rather enclose.
Perhaps the greatest tilt of all, however, comes from the book’s title. The Sun is Open, as a grammatical unit, feels optimistic, hopeful, even if it doesn’t quite make idiomatic sense. It is also the collection’s final phrase, and in context makes even more complicated music than it does isolated on the book’s front cover. This last poem seems to take place in the present day, in a suburbia in which ‘we can’t see beyond the privet’, where ‘the news reports another / crash a bomb scare one / suspended sentence arrests our / ears’. Here’s the last stanza:
and damp dark cold the slaters are at home their tiny legs carrying them back across the greening grouting lining tiles to what lies underneath it all comes up and out and in the window to the bit without the sun is open
Slaters, the Northern name for a woodlouse, feed on decomposing matter, a crucial and usually unseen part of a garden’s life-cycle. Like the carriage of a typewriter, they go back across the lining, their work persevering ‘underneath it all’. There’s something reassuring about all that, these tiny souls dedicated to the gritty work of death and rebirth. But those last lines don’t sit quite so comfortably: the poem performs another line-break recontextualization, as ‘what lies underneath it all’ can equally refer to the natural place the slaters live, and to another active and unsettling presence, a ‘what’ rather than a ‘who’, which seems to leave its intended space and ‘come up and out and in’, into the waking world of the human, through a window where there is no sunlight, the meaning of ‘open’ turning (tilting?) from welcoming/friendly to vulnerable/defenceless. Without punctuation, without clear grammar – ‘comes’ cannot refer to the slaters, but what else is there? – the ambiguity of this stanza feels disconcerting to me. Perhaps the slaters, as symbols of natural cycles of decay and renewal, are the agents of hope in this closing poem, being ‘at home’, keeping going despite the lunchtime news, and in opposition to ‘what lies underneath it all’, which feels ever more like some malignant spirit.
Ultimately, the fact of the poem’s, and the book’s, irresolvability is what has kept The Sun is Open alive in my imagination for so long, and is what I hope will keep it alive for readers of Northern poetry for a very long time. There is plenty to discuss about this book that I haven’t touched on here: its work as an archival project for one thing, close in spirit to Jay Bernard’s Surge (2019) in its ruminations over the ethics of speaking to, with, and for the dead. Also like Surge, The Sun is Open is a prominent work by a queer poet which for the most part does not focus on queerness – though one could argue both come through a very queer lens – but on political atrocities from the recent past in these islands. I feel like The Sun is Open is also extremely alert to the traditions of Irish poetry, for example the poem on p. 114 about windows, snow and the space between them seems to converse obliquely with MacNeice’s totemic ‘Snow’; references and echoes to other poems and poets abound. Like many critics, I haven’t spent much time digging into the ostensibly joyful, primary-colour tableaux of childhood; I suspect there’s a lot more to those than meet the eye. But these things are for other critics in other essays, perhaps other poets in other collections.
I want to return to Carson’s ‘Exile’, which I quoted at the start of this essay, its wish to save even one of the many Belfasts of the past and present from ‘oblivion’, from the forgotten places where inconvenient narratives are consigned. I feel like the most powerful thing The Sun is Open does is insist upon its own fragmented and mutable narrative, in which so many different Belfasts can co-exist, in constant need of re-evaluation and re-invention, of being held up to new light. Today’s Belfast is one in which a significant number of its loyalist citizens openly support war criminals, on the grounds that their crimes were in the name of loyalist rule. That support, in turn, is a product of decades of distortion and denial propagated by the country’s colonial rulers, amplifying the violence of the disenfranchised while obfuscating its own. The book demands, as in its poems derived from Operation Demetrius, from Parliament, from national newspapers, a more complex understanding of history than is common in public discourse and poetry criticism alike. By refusing simplistic and reassuring moral stances on a moment in which the personal life of the poet met the historical life of the province, The Sun is Open saves a better Belfast from oblivion. It asks that we keep making our soft returns, to join the slaters in handling with grace and care the processing and renewal of the dead matter of the past, and never to turn away from what lies beneath it all.
Text: Dave Coates
Image: Dave Coates