I like to track the winners of the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize because of my own past association with it, and was really interested to see that earlier this month it went to a book of poetry, The Sun is Open, by QUB-based writer Gail McConnell. In fact the 119 pages of text are one long poem broken into chunks, playing with text and with font colour, processing the writer’s reaction to going through a box of her father’s things, long after he died in 1984 at 35, shot dead by the IRA while checking under his car for bombs, in front of his wife and his then three-year-old daughter.
Gail McConnell barely remembers her father and has no memory of that awful day, but of course it has affected her whole life, and the poetry captures that disruption and the effect of engaging with her father through a box of personal souvenirs, most notably a diary and a Students Union handbook from his own time at QUB. There is some incredible playing with structure – quotations from the box are in grey text, documents are quoted in fragments to let us fill in the blanks, at one point the page fills with vertical bars to symbolise the prison where her father worked. It’s provocative and unsettling, and meant to be. You can get it here.
This moved me to seek out an earlier poem by Gail McConnell, Type Face, which you can read here. It’s funnier, though the humour is rather dark; the theme is that it explains her reaction to reading the Historical Enquiries Team report into her father’s murder, and discovering that it was written in Comic Sans. The third verse is:
‘Nothing can separate me from the Love of God
in Christ Jesus Our Lord’. Nothing can, indeed.
I am guided by Google, my mother by Christ.
Awake most nights, I click and swipe.
I search and find Bill McConnell Paint and Body.
Under new management!!!!! Northeast Tennessee.
Where is God in a Messed-up World? Inside the Maze.
(My phone flashes up a message like a muse.)
Straight & Ready: A History of the 10th Belfast
Scout Group. (35) (PO) (IRA)
– for more and a photograph, push this link>>
the maroon death icon on CAIN.ulst.ac.uk
You visited this page on 06/02/15.
And here I am again.
And in The Violence of Incarceration
(Routledge, 2009), eds. Phil Scraton
and Jude McCulloch (page thirty-three), he
‘oversaw, but later denied in court, the brutality
of prison guards, [and] was executed by the IRA
on the 8 March 1984.’ (He’d been dead two days
by then.) Execute. Late Middle English:
from Latin exsequi ‘follow up, punish’.
There’s a listing on victims.org.uk,
‘an [sic] non-sectarian, non-political’ nook
complete with Union Jack and Ulster flag
campaigning pics, the Twitter feeds and tags,
a calendar and videos. Powered by WordPress.
And then there’s Voices from The Grave (and this
one’s hard to bear, though can I say so? I don’t know.
I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.)
I won’t write down the page. But something in me,
seeing that crazed portrait – something’s relieved.
Really good stuff, and very different in presentation from The Sun is Open. Both are recommended.