This is the month to salute two Belfast poets: the first revisits something that has already happened; the second explores, more often, what has not happened in the light of what might. Gail McConnell’s The Sun Is Open is about the murder of her father. She was three when, in 1984, William McConnell was killed by the IRA. She does not remember him or his death – he was checking under the car for explosive devices when he was shot outside the family home in front of his wife and daughter. McConnell’s devastated poetry is a stand-in for memory.
Stephen Sexton, winner of 2019’s Forward prize for best first collection pushes against the limits of possibility in his pioneering second collection, Cheryl’s Destinies. Imagination seems to exist rather as if it were a second language. He is uncommonly fascinated by the thought of other people’s imagining, of imagination as a currency spent elsewhere. In The Chair, he even wonders whose dreams he is having.
Belfast exerts an influence on both collections. McConnell describes her family house “on a street that/ slanted at the bottom of a carriageway you didn’t cross/ four lanes all going 50 to a roundabout”. Ordinariness exists as a form of protest, given what we know of how the peace was shattered. Sexton’s Belfast is focused on the extraordinary. A masterly tribute to the late poet Ciaran Carson, (So It Is), ends as though the elaborately transcendent city were under his wing: “Belfast/ emerges shining among its accoutrements/ of history, mystery, industry, river.”
In Segue, Sexton offers the idea that “cruelty is a time traveller”. For McConnell, this is brutally true. Her Tardis is a makeshift box labelled “Dad” filled with scraps about his life. William O’Connell was deputy governor of the Maze prison. His daughter creates a collage in which the souvenirs speak for themselves. She experiments with different fonts, her interventions in bold. She quotes from her father’s Queen’s University students’ union diary, in which he notes down the rules of resuscitation (the irony needs no labouring), and wonders:
is how this could begin.
It is as if her text were inhaling and exhaling in short gasps. The writing is in splinters, as befits the subject. Pain is a given. One feels that assessing the book as poetry borders on impertinent when the subject overpowers criticism. But there is no missing the meticulous discipline and literary grit with which McConnell approaches her task.
Orientating oneself within Sexton’s poems is often challenging, but his keen wit eases the welcome. His pen is fantastical. Cheryl (of the title), tarot card clairvoyant, is conjured out of thin air. She flourishes alongside many other sleights of hand and vanishing acts: there is no knot Sexton cannot slip. In The Butcher, he alludes to deer that may not exist, an unanswered phone, uneaten raisins – only snow seems a certainty. Many of his phrases are so good I wanted to steal them. A barman is described as walking “like a bride with a posy of stout”, which is deliciously funny and exact. “The thunder throws its weight around” has masterly ease. And an “itinerary of weeping” elegantly suggests that the involuntary can exist within a plan.
And it is irresistible to mention that both poets refer ironically to The Sound of Music (did the film have particular impact in Belfast?). In a recent article in the Irish Times, Sexton alludes to the power of narrative to “make the difficult bearable”. Both McConnell and Sexton make the world bearable with poetry as their intercessor.
A Short History of Happiness by Stephen Sexton
In a red desert
someone’s last pure thought
invents the heaven she has no name for
the heaven we call a water tap
so unimaginable as to be beyond
a miracle fifty generations away
a hundred, a thousand
and she passes uncredited
almost out of history
which is the name
we give to the currency of things
which might have happened differently
and didn’t, such as
a good man’s joy this spring morning
in his lovely office polished free
of breath and fingerprints, even his
waste-paper basket emptied somehow
where the magic amaryllis
despite his never watering it
shows new, majestic, red flowers.
The Sun Is Open by Gail McConnell is published by Penned in the Margins (£9.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply