“In illness,” writes essayist Sinéad Gleeson, “it is hard to find the right words.” Gleeson knows what she’s talking about. Her short life has been full of medical difficulty—cancer, arthritis, as well as the more common experience of carrying and bearing two children. Her relationship with her body is both intimate and mundane, and she writes about pain with an absorbing intensity, telling stories of condescending doctors, creating metaphors that push the sanitized pain scale to its limits and, most passionately, describing artists who have rendered their pain into something more.
“I gravitated towards writers and painters,” Gleeson explains as she details her early response to an illness. “People who . . . transformed their damaged bodies into art.” Readers are introduced to dozens of artists, some Irish like Gleeson, others from all over the world. Some readers may, like me, find themselves searching for the images described in the book, eager to see for themselves the works that Gleeson writes about so well.
One such piece is featured in Gleeson’s essay “60,000 Miles of Blood.” In addition to telling her own stories of blood transfusion, which are contextualized by fascinating medical insights about how much blood humans have and how it moves through our bodies, she details the work of American artist Barton Beneš, who took the artifacts of his AIDS illness—including his own blood—and created a new type of iconography. He fashioned a crown of thorns out of IV tubes filled with his own HIV-positive blood; in lieu of thorns, he pierced the circlet with needles. Gleeson calls the work “delicate and devastating.”
Constellations: Reflections From Life will make you think differently about the body in all its weaknesses and feel grateful to the artists and writers who—like Gleeson—have transfigured their suffering into a sacred creative release. Though Gleeson is skeptical of heaven, she finds solace in the stars and their many constellations. In this book, she offers us a unique map of her own constellations, one that has clearly helped her find her way when navigating a wide and painful world.