Frightening New Furniture
Page Count: 96
Publication Date: Monday, March 01, 2010
Cover Artwork: Plastic Chairs - Steve Lovegrove | Dreamstime.com
About this Book
In poems laced with the blackest humour Kevin Higgins spares no-one, least of all himself. In this his third collection of poetry, he takes the reader through the hubris of boom time Ireland and out the other side into a strange country where everything is suddenly broken again. Just when Ireland imagined itself to have finally escaped history, the statues of virgins and freedom fighters are on the move again. Higgins goes all the way into the dark to investigate what's left when youthful political idealism - his 'old political furniture' - gives way under the sheer weight of what actually happens. As ever, the City of Galway is one of his pet subjects, and he takes time out to bring to hilarious life its bookshop romancers and women who decide to be fascinating.
'a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show... A satire which eschews moderation and openly admits its own savagery can only succeed.'
Justin Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000
'He is the only one of my Irish contemporaries who makes me laugh out loud regularly, not just because the work is funny, but because it has that great sense of character behind it, where one pictures the speaker in all his curmudgeonly grumpy-old-man-ness glaring at the reader wondering what the hell they're laughing at!'
Nigel McLoughlin, Iota
'The left should hurry to welcome this collection. Here is poetry that we can identify with, that tells of our hopes and fears and doubts and questions, that puts our lives on the map too. The fact that one of our own can tell such stories in a way that is so powerful and satisfying is something to be proud of.'
Joe Conroy, Red Banner magazine'This is work which raises the question of what the political poem can be, for us now, in our several cultures.'
Siobhan Campbell, www.dissentmagazine.org
'wonderfully inventive imagery'
Laurie Smith, Magma
Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events. He facilitates poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre; teaches creative writing at Galway Technical Institute and on the Brothers of Charity Away With Words programme. He is also Writer-in-Residence at Merlin Park Hospital and the poetry critic of the Galway Advertiser. His first collection of poems The Boy With No Face was published by Salmon in February 2005 and was short-listed for the 2006 Strong Award. His second collection, Time Gentlemen, Please, was published in March 2008 by Salmon. One of the poems from Time Gentlemen, Please, - My Militant Tendency - features in the Forward Book of Poetry 2009. One of the poems in this collection, 'Ourselves Again', appeared in Best of Irish Poetry 2009 (Southword Editions). His work also features in the The Watchful Heart - A New Generation of Irish Poets (Ed Joan McBreen, Salmon Poetry) & in Identity Parade - New British and Irish Poets (Ed Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010).
Read a sample from this book
Yesterday's Pinstripe Suit
Review by Philip Coleman for Irish Left Review, 4th August 2011:
'Against the iron railings of History’: the Poetry, and some of the Prose, of Kevin Higgins
To write a positive review of Kevin Higgins’ work for the Irish Left Review might seem like preaching to the converted. After all, the poet has published poems on this site, and they almost always receive enthusiastic comments and feedback from ILR readers who frequently go on to post the same poems on Facebook and elsewhere online. Readers of the ILR have not been slow about challenging the poet on occasion, but Higgins himself has also expressed reservations about the kind of back-slapping that often passes for criticism, in political as much as in literary circles. He is acutely aware of the problematic relationship that exists between texts and their readers. As he puts it in ‘Borges, Balzac & the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come’, a review of Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, originally published in 2002 and collected in Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray (2006):
At a recent reading in Dublin the critic and poet Kit Fryatt said that Higgins was ‘notable for never toeing a party line’, to which he responded that he is ‘one of those middle-of-the-road people now’. Far from being a writer on the fence, however, Higgins’ poems and essays engage in meaningful and sometimes moving ways with the kinds of disappointment that almost always result from unthinking forms of affiliation, in the private as well as in the public sphere. Through his three published collections to date – and in his prose essays and reviews – he has emerged not only as one of the most incisive and compelling poetic voices to probe what Dave Lordan has termed ‘the austerity era’, but he is also a poet whose work warns against self-congratulation, whether it is conceived in personal, cultural, or political terms.
Writing in The Cambridge Introduction to Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 (2008), Justin Quinn has rightly described Higgins as a poet whose work contains ‘a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show.’ (Quinn 196) The comparison is illuminating, not least because it suggests that the forms of expression and imagination engaged in and by Higgins’ poems embody all of the cunning and deviousness of language as it has been manipulated by his many targets. In the poem entitled ‘To certain lyric poets’, from his first collection The Boy With No Face (2005), Higgins writes of a ‘lyric poet [who] sees / his own reflection everywhere’:
These lines satirise the self-regarding egotism of much erotic verse,
but they also illustrate some of the strategies the speaker seeks to
criticise in the ‘certain lyric poets’ of the title, as each carefully
crafted line-break draws attention to the ‘precisely meant’ arrangements
of Higgins’ own argument. As an exercise in satire the poem succeeds in
part because it is informed by the very methods and modes of expression
that it would claim to dismantle. In a sense, the poem works because
Higgins wears the mask of the self critiqued in it. In the same way that
Jonathan Swift assumed the voice of power in his great works of satire –
think of the devastating act of ideological mimicry that is A Modest
Proposal – Higgins’ poems often proceed through and by acts of cultural
ventriloquism that speak across the noisome void of what he has termed
‘the Bankrupt Years’ (The Boy With No Face 64). It is no accident, indeed, that the title of his second collection – Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) – alludes to The Waste Land, the great modernist poem whose original title was, after Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices.
Higgins is not a radical modernist poet in terms of technique, and the comparison with Eliot doesn’t need to be pushed very far. Having said that, his poems engage with ideas of personality and impersonality, ‘tradition’ and ‘the individual talent’, and these explorations invite readings of his work in relation to a longer modernist lineage that extends beyond the Irish cultural frame of reference. Higgins’ poems often dwell on the recent past and on the author’s own experiences growing up and living between London and Galway from the late-1960s to the present, but they are rarely if ever too intensely autobiographical. Always in his work there is an ability to take the images of personal recollection and transform them into a broader public or historical vision. In ‘Nostalgia, 1990’, for example, ‘A miscellany of recollections, / trinkets tossed from a deep black sea’ of personal memory are transmuted, in the course of the poem, into an acknowledgement of the necessary ordering and reordering of experience, and different versions of the past are ultimately said to compete for ‘Polite applause with murmurs of approval.’ (The Boy With No Face 65) Higgins is not shy about admitting the way that the contemporary poetry scene participates in this process of cultural self-validation, and ‘Nostalgia, 1990’ is one of a number of poems in his first book where he teases out the uncomfortable social dynamics of literary culture, the gatherings of ‘literary associates and occasional friends / reading from latest collections.’ (The Boy With No Face 65)
At the same time, Higgins is not willing to simply ‘throw a shrug of the shoulders / to the trend of the times’ as he puts it in ‘The Bankrupt Years’, but he persists in the making of poems and in believing in the agency of poetry, despite or in spite of the cynicism voiced by many of his most memorable speakers. Moreover, his poetry’s recording of the names of figures such as Liam Lawlor and Frank Dunlop in the creation of ‘the austerity era’ is just one of the reasons why it has already demonstrated what might be termed its documentary public value. As he writes in what can be regarded as a kind of early manifesto, ‘The Satirist’:
Or, as he puts it in ‘Knives’, where the poet-speaker’s father is said to have compared ‘Albert Reynolds’ face to a torn slipper’:
There is nothing particularly original in the claim that words can ‘cut / others down to size’, but these are important statements of intent in which Higgins lets it be known that he believes poetry – and his own poems – can work in the public sphere and, at their best, can affect change in the broader social and political contexts of their composition.
This is an issue that Higgins explores in the title-piece of his prose collection, ‘Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray’, originally written in 2004. There he writes:
In the course of this important essay Higgins goes on to argue that
the best thing writers can do is ‘bear witness as honestly and as well
as [they] possibly can’, not just to the hypocrisy of people like
Lawlor, Dunlop, Reynolds, and others in Ireland, but also to the broader
international crises of our time, from the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to
what he has described as the degeneration of ‘the high Socialist hopes
of the early twentieth century … into … sordid everyday tyranny’ in an
essay on Albanian poet Visar Zhiti (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray
47) Again, in his piece on Zhiti, Higgins is not afraid to disagree
with ‘socialist friends’ – ‘some of them now former friends’, he
interjects – who have criticised the works of poets such as Medbh
McGuckian or John Ashbery because of their perceived detachment from the
world of politics and economic materiality. Unlike those who would ‘act
Stalin when dealing with poetry which doesn’t appear to serve the
cause’ (46), as he puts it in the same piece, Higgins is a poet – like
Seamus Heaney, in this regard – whose work credits the value of poetry
as a tool for raising consciousness and conscience in the public sphere.
So what if the point appears exaggerated to those who don’t read or
appreciate it: poetry always exceeds the occasions of its saying.
Indeed, this point has particular resonance in relation to Higgins’ work as organiser of the Over the Edge series of readings and workshops in Galway, an important forum for many new, emerging, and established writers since its creation in 2004 and which has, together with developments such as the Wurm im Apfel series in Dublin, asserted poetry’s place in society in ways that have certainly helped to raise its profile in recent years. The importance of Higgins, in particular, in spearheading a whole new poetry reading/performance movement in Ireland over the last decade cannot be overstated. Moreover, it is fair to say that his work, like that of Dave Lordan and other poets such as Elaine Feeney and Karl Parkinson, is often written with the public forum of the reading or open mic session in mind. While these poets may be said to participate in an oral tradition that goes back several centuries and ranges across many cultures, it is important then to consider how their work in Ireland, today, challenges the critical, academic, and economic hegemony of the ‘slim volume of verse’, with its focus on the single, silent reader. This aspect of contemporary Irish poetry’s development has only been touched upon in critical studies of the field to date, but where the cultural history of the ‘austerity era’ is concerned the work of Higgins and the other poets mentioned above will be shown to have played a crucial function not just in terms of the ways that their works expand conventional definitions of poetry as a verbal art form, but also for their insistence on a reconsideration of poetry and the poet’s place in the public sphere.
For Higgins, then, poetry is always a public event, and in his three
published collections to date he has steadily insisted on the place of
the poet in the life of the nation state. This is one of the reasons why
criticisms regarding the prolific output of poets like Higgins and, to a
certain extent, Lordan, seem to miss the point. In a review of Higgins’
third collection Frightening New Furniture (2010) in Poetry Ireland Review,
Richard Hayes, while generally positive about the work, wrote that a
‘slimmer volume’ might have done more to reveal the poetry’s strengths.
Fair enough, but it is also important to see the longer poetry
collections of Higgins, Lordan, and others as a testament to their
ongoing commitment to the process of engaging with the world through
art. A volume of Selected Poems will in time reveal the high points and
greatest hits of Higgins’ early career, but his three collections
published with Salmon Poetry between 2005 and 2010 – weighing in at an
average of sixty poems or so per book – attest to Higgins’s belief in
the appropriateness of poetry as a form of direct, continuous response
to the social, economic, and political realities that would and have at
different times sought to obliterate both the poet and his vision, as
the example of Visar Zhiti demonstrates. Higgins of course is the first
to admit that ‘at least [poets in Ireland] are not in danger of being
denounced by the Ministry of the Interior’ (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray
46) for their perceived apoliticism, but his own work, in any event, is
thoroughly involved in the transformations of the public sphere. His
prolific output – in addition to the three books under discussion here
there are also poems in numerous print and online journals and magazines
– is a consequence of his passionate and consistent engagement as a
writer of real commitment. Nevertheless, Higgins is, first and foremost,
an artist, and it is for this reason that he can agree with Marx when
he said that ‘one reactionary Balzac … was preferable to a hundred
socialist Zolas’, as he mentions in his review-essay on Hitchens (11).
Art and the processes of poetry – the formal, aesthetic, and critical procedures by which it is made, measured, published, and packaged – are also of interest to Higgins, therefore, and in several poems throughout his three collections he has questioned and indeed challenged the effectiveness of his own methods. This is one of the reasons why he is important not just to readers who might agree with his political or ideological critiques, but also to practitioners and students of poetry itself regardless of their ideological inclinations. His contribution to the development of Irish satire is indisputable, but in poems such as ‘This Small Obituary’ from Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) he reveals an awareness of the dangers of the satirical approach:
This poem is partly about what it means to have a voice, but also
about the dangers of using it too much, or of speaking always in the
same tone and on the same topic. So while commentators have often
focussed on the overtly political and social projections of much of
Higgins’ work it is also important to recognise the ways in which he has
explored other aspects of experience beyond the realm of politics,
including the vicissitudes of private, domestic life. In poems such as
‘The requiem plays, though not for us,’ for example, from The Boy With
No Face, or ‘Together in the Future Tense’ in Frightening New Furniture, Higgins writes poems that explore what he calls ‘our very own festival of befuddlement’ in the latter piece (Frightening New Furniture
93). Where he may be said to exhibit a quasi-Larkinesque reticence
about sex in and of itself – and the comparison with Philip Larkin,
about whom he writes with judicious insight in the Hitchens piece, is
also discussed by Richard Hayes in his PIR review – Higgins is also
interested in the dynamics of personal relationships and these poems
should not be overlooked in any full appraisal.
The wry sense of humour and intimate comedy of many of his more personal poems – including ‘She Considers His Proposal’ and ‘Word from the Other Country’ from Time Gentlemen, Please and ‘To a Discarded Lover’ from Frightening New Furniture – work well in those collections to remind readers that Higgins is a poet whose work moves confidently between public and private domains of experience. It is true, reading through his first three books, that the bulk of his work concerns overtly political or social topics, but in the same way that it is important to recognise the fact that Higgins is a poet with an international outlook – his poems about American foreign policy are among the most incisive written on either side of the Atlantic in recent decades – it is also worth recognising the ways in which his poems engage with the private sphere. What the preponderance of overtly political poems proves, however, is that Higgins is a lyric poet for whom the pressures of the public world are too great, and too serious, to ignore. In fact the poem from which his most recent collection takes its title, ‘Clear Out’, explores the relationship between domestic or personal space and the public world of politics in its imagery and language:
Higgins’ work explores on many levels the application of political and social theory to daily lived experience – it is, again, no accident that his work is suffused with references and allusions to the many writers and readers he has read, from Leon Trotsky to Stevie Smith – but it is also honest in its evaluation of the usefulness or otherwise of theoretical speculation. As he puts it in ‘A Balancing Act’, from his first collection:
Higgins wears his learning lightly, as did Patrick Kavanagh. Like Kavanagh, indeed, Higgins does not take himself too seriously, but seriously enough that his poems affirm the value of intelligent and well-informed artistic engagement with the world.
At times the comic tendency in Higgins’ work can smack of self-deprecation, and he often comes across as a bit of a ‘B-movie actor who still / can’t believe the part is his’, as he puts it in the same poem (‘A Balancing Act’). This may be related to the pervasive sense of disillusionment with the Left that often informs his work, a disillusionment that is given clearest articulation perhaps in his recent satirical elegy for the Italian Socialist leader Bettino Craxi or, indeed, in a poem with a more local orientation like ‘Community Employment Scheme’, both of which have been published in the ILR. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kevin Higgins’ voice and the force of his poetic project are gaining in confidence and authority with each new collection. A poem like ‘Austerity Mantra’ – first published on the ILR site in September 2010 – is clear evidence of this, with its speaker’s insistence that ‘I am the unthinkable / but you will think me.’ In the final stanza of this poem he writes:
The ‘figures’ mentioned here refer to the cold statistics of economic
forecasting and analysis, but they are also the ‘metaphors’ and ways of
saying of Higgins’ unmistakable poems, through which he has recorded
one citizen’s engagements with social and political crises in Ireland
and further afield for a number of years.
In a recent article in The Stinging Fly Dave Lordan defined ‘revolt’ for the writer as a way of ‘working in words to capture unflinchingly the shocking image of power and, shocking back, to break it up, to weaken it, to reveal it to the other, to disenchant the world for your neighbour, and to change the dead stone back into living human flesh.’ Lordan and Higgins are very different poets in key respects – aesthetically and ideologically – but this definition, while it is clearly applicable to Lordan’s work, is also useful in describing the poetry of Kevin Higgins. It is a body of work that has in its own way sought and seeks at every turn to expose power’s absurd and often petty corruptibility. As he puts it in a poem called, appropriately, ‘Seriously’:
[Philip Coleman is a Lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.]
Review: Between the darkness and the dawn. By Henry Gibson for Red Banner magazine.
Yesterday is the money
we couldn’t be bothered
to pick up off the floor.
The Collector-General rummages
down the back of our sofas
in the hope of loose change.
in glass rooms numbers moving
through dark computers
declare the future
we who’ve long since retreated
behind well trimmed hedges to write
poems that double as instruction manuals
for clean liberal living…
our socialism for honest jobs
selling slaves over the internet, move with ease
among the watercress sandwiches.
wax ideological, now
the latest interest rate rise;
put on a human voice to tell us
about the old woman left
to die in her own mess…
with all the right slogans.
You get by on a diet of
Not the continent of tractor factories
you became. Nor the photographs of those
later killed by questions they didn’t ask.…
The high white letters of the crowd’s
new sounding slogans, as they move
around the corner on their way
who knows where.
Review: William Oxley reviews Frightening New Furniture by Kevin Higgins in the Summer 2010 issue of Orbis Quarterly International Journal
And nothing is said
as we deposit you at Unit Seven,
Merlin Park Hospital. You at the door
giving a small pale wave...
The rain saying terrible things as we drive off.
This year for their birthday, everybody gets
the blame. We find our trousers
repossessed and down around
somebody else's ankles.
Review: Burning the Tiger's vanities, a review by Eamon Grennan, The Irish Times, Saturday 7th August 2010
WITH BACKSTAGE guardians in Paul Durcan (see his titles) and Patrick Kavanagh, Kevin Higgins's work has a buoyant spoken immediacy (often taking the form of dramatic monologues), his poems springing out of colloquial address and celebrating the ordinary through a use of quotidian bric-a-brac, which he often pits - with positive effect - against larger (but no more important) forces. Many of his poems are lively performances, crammed with contemporary cultural references. In addition he is able to strike more muted emotional notes (as in a fine poem for his mother). He has a shrewd eye for the telling detail, matched by a decisive self-awareness. He's a satirist with heart and humour, mixing autobiography with a sharply critical sense of the public world. In his biographical (fictional or factual) journey from radical revolutionary street idealist to zones of liberal middle class comfort ('My face/ the poster for a failed revolution'), he rigs a bonfire of Celtic Tiger vanities into a comico-satirical documentary montage.
Some of his best work is in small biographical vignettes, seeing the past through a glass clearly, or recalling the anorak angst of Days ('Whatever happened to alienation?'). His poems are like world-ranging word documentaries - speedy and to the point. In this vigorous elimination of 'my old political furniture' he sends outdated radical agendas up in smoke. Comedy is part of his poetics, and what I especially like in his work is its swiftness of wit, its tone of buoyant contrarianism and jubilant disappointment, how he is a cocky, wisecracking inhabitant of 'Angryville'.
Sometimes, however, for all his inventively good-humoured extravaganzas, or his sometimes surreal touch with metaphor and simile, the fun can fall a bit flat, endings can pall, the satire can get a bit bland, while attempts at form in some poems tend not to rise above the level of workshop exercises. I'd hazard, too, that some authorial and/or editorial pruning would have made this a stronger, more streamlined volume.
(also reviewed: Invitation to a Sacrifice by Dave Lordan)
Short review by Des Kenny on Galway Bay FM's Keith Finnegan Show April 2010:
"Kevin has been a terrific addition to the literary scene here in Galway. He indeed establishes himself as one of the foremost poets in the West of Ireland with Frightening New Furniture. A wonderful collection."
Review: Frightening New Furniture reviewed for The Raintown Review (in a joint review with Susan Millar DuMars' Dreams for Breakfast)
The personal is political lives on in Kevin Higgins’s third book of poems, Frightening New Furniture. That fact, along with Higgins’s deft humor, is reason to celebrate. Originally coined by Carol Hanisch in her 1969 landmark feminist essay of the same name, the phrase gave voice to the idea that personal identity and experience cannot be separated from politics, nor should they be. It is through our personal experiences that we understand the need to be political, to stand up, to fight when necessary. Higgins offers a contemporary version of this by focusing on the past forty years of Irish history. He shines a clear eye on his countrymen and countrywomen as they cope with the rapid growth and impact of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger period and the crushing economic downturn of the last few years.
From the outset, Higgins connects the personal and political dots. In the first poem, “Thursday, April 6, 1967,” he recounts the day he was born through various newspaper headlines, from major international events (conspiracy in the murder of John F. Kennedy) to the telling local weather forecast (“sunny intervals,/scattered showers…”). He ends the poem describing how he fits in this scenario:
I kick my legs oblivious
to the politics and weather outside
this big, white place
I’ve landed in.
While his newborn self may be oblivious to world events, his adult self, in recounting them, knows the shadows have been cast, and the only escape is denial. In these poems, Higgins doesn’t let us wallow in denial; he holds our feet to the fire and forces us to look at what we’ve done. We are all accountable.
The book, divided into five sections, covers various aspects of political (and sometimes personal) struggle. Higgins never suggests that battles are easily understood or won, more that they cannot (and should not) be ignored. Sometimes, they are downright frustrating, as seen in “Activist’s Lament:”
This morning, for the last time,
the whole table listened when I spoke.
Tomorrow, I begin my new career
as a set of wind up chattering teeth
abandoned years ago in the bottom drawer.
The frustration is palpable, but we must battle on.
There are poets who would make this journey a slog and a bore – not Higgins. He offers personal and political insight through wry humor and the twist of irony. We meet, in “The Birth of a Revolutionary,” a teenage boy who leaves for the school disco where he sees his crush with another beau:
In the morning, someone else
will come down
and will not want his Frosties:
A Rebel Without Deodorant.
A young man destined to do his bit
to help the world into difficulty.
And in “House Guest,” a would-be revolutionary outstays his welcome with his poor hygiene, petty theft, and self-righteous attitude:
When not away on a demo chanting
“Victory to Iraq!” his afternoons are spent
doing despicable things to worse women
in your bed. The pile of twenty pence pieces
on your bedside locker diminishes daily.
As human beings we are a mass of contradictions, and, as Higgins shows us, as political beings we are often more so.
Although the furniture may be new and it may be frightening, and the cast of characters may take two steps backward for every step they take forward, each step has a purpose, both personal and political, and Higgins nudges us toward action when he must, such as in these lines from “Getting Somewhere:”
I’m a man
destined to turn up early
for my own funeral, to spend
the morning redoing my tie
and wondering where the hell
everyone else has got to?