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):
Even today, those who review books (or films) for
left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is
‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then
this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good
book’ deserving a positive review. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 11)
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
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’:
He’s been known
to agonise for hours
over a single word
and each one of them
is precisely meant
because, to him,
words are beautiful things,
flowers to be arranged
around the altar of his ego. (The Boy With No Face 18)
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
Society may flash its knickers at him,
but flowers or love songs, he will not bring them.
Instead the audience ripples with nervous laughter
as, from his jacket, he takes a scalpel.
And, his mask slipping just a little,
they see him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it. (The Boy With No Face 25)
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’:
I come from a long line of men,
who saw words not as decorations
but weapons, knives with which to cut
others down to size. (The Boy With No Face 15)
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
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:
Almost every poet I know is prone to exaggerate the
influence poetry can exert on world events. Maybe it’s the cold reality
of poetry’s marginal position in society which leads many of us,
particularly at a time of crisis like this, to talk in loud excited
voices about how poetry can supposedly make politicians sit up and
listen or even ‘change the world’. This benign egocentricity is perhaps a
necessary indulgence to save us from vanishing entirely into our
garrets, or academia, convinced of the total irrelevance of what we do.
If we don’t at least convince ourselves that poetry can matter, then how
on earth can we expect to convince anyone else?
The truth is poetry can sometimes play a role in actually challenging
people’s minds, by convincing the reader (or listener) emotionally of
an idea to which he or she may be intellectually opposed. If a poem can
win the ideologically hostile reader’s heart, then his or her head will
surely follow. Such a heightened experience of poetry can lead to a
transformed world view for the reader. So, yes, the influence of poetry
can be profound. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 7)
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:
Your next-door neighbour will vaguely remember me,
when some hypocrite writes this small obituary:
“He had a real knack for last lines,
but fell in love with his own invective;
became such an expert at cutting throats,
that, in the end, he slit his own.” (Time Gentlemen, Please 28)
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
Today it all goes to the dumpster,
my old political furniture:
the broken bookcase called
nationalisation of the banks;
the three legged dining chair called
critical support for the P.L.O;
the fringed, pink lampshade called
theory of the permanent revolution; (Frightening New Furniture 54)
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
You who’ve come to understand
dialectical materialism like the back of your hand:
your ideas as clinical as surgical instruments:
must know knowledge is a commodity
all too often squandered, that the trick
is not to spot the flaw in every fabric;
to conduct elaborate experiments
in new forms of paralysis. (The Boy With No Face 40)
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:
Tomorrow I’ll be known as
Four Year Consolidation Package.
Lock the cat in the oven and bake
at two hundred degrees centigrade.
Tie your last plastic bag over
your own head. The figures speak for themselves
and there is no table.
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,
This morning the heretic sky
throws down gold you cannot use.
But tomorrow will collar your enemies
against the iron railings of History. (Frightening New Furniture 68)
[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.
In these Recessionary Times, it’s good to get your hands on a tangibly substantial collection of poetry. This is no slim volume of forty pages, padded out with allegedly meaningful white space and implausible back-cover claims of deceptive brevity, but nigh on a hundred pages of poems. Nor is it a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’, because the standard is high and sometimes very high.
Having said that, the book doesn’t start well. ‘Thursday April 6th 1967’ recounts the headlines and hits of the day the poet was born, but smacks more of diligent internet research than a true remembrance of things past. The other prefatory poem, ‘St Stephen’s Day 1977’, works better, as a formative event in the poet’s own life takes precedence over the external facts.
Not that external facts shouldn’t be to the fore, of course. Why wouldn’t they be, with these poems written as the brave new prosperous Ireland melted like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. Poems here capture it sharply, like ‘The New New Ireland’:
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.
‘Cheap Polyester Suit’ dreads the return of pre-Tiger consumption patterns, instant coffee and toilet rolls sans aloe vera. The bad old days we are receding to are envisaged in ‘Ourselves Again’, with rare precision in the lines
in glass rooms numbers moving
through dark computers
declare the future
That qualifying adjective “dark” bears a painful load: these are not the bright white screens of friendly e-mails and frivolous virals, but clunky green numbers on deadly-dark backgrounds crunching numbers and lives.
Twice Higgins employs the device of repeating the first part of a poem in the last part, only backwards. This method will be familiar to socialist poetry fans from Bertolt Brecht’s famous ‘A Bed for the Night’, allowing something to be seen from two different aspects simultaneously (dialectically, if you will). But here, in ‘To a Discarded Lover’, and even more in ‘Unmade’, it just seems to be a stylistic experiment to no particular purpose.
It is clear that the Tiger years were a period of retreat from political activism for Kevin Higgins, of “learning to love / the pragmatist within”, as ‘1994 Revisited in the Shantalla Movie House’ puts it. ‘Birth of a Revolutionary’ portrays his political awakening as sour grapes at failing to get off with someone at the school disco, following which ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’ boils his youthful politics down to “how to overthrow Dad”. Rebellion against parental authority is a perfectly legitimate stage of development, of course, and often plays some part in causing us to question our world, but the idea of it being any kind of fundamental basis for a socialist’s politics is unreal. Settling accounts with your political past is healthy, but these poems ignore the profit side of the account for a one-sided reckoning of losses.
There is balance, however, in the relentless treatment reserved for former revolutionaries. ‘Revolt’ introduces a reformed ex-socialist who insists that “he’s still against / poverty on Wednesdays”. ‘Retired Revolutionaries’ Reunion…’ portrays its disgust in the first person plural:
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.
‘Comrades’ looks back fondly on a time of welcoming stock market crashes and mass unemployment “like boys playing / in hoped for snow”. In ‘Clear Out’ Higgins marks either his fortieth birthday or 25 years since becoming a socialist (both seem to fit the poems’ chronology) by dumping a load of “old political furniture”. (Including “the broken bookcase called / nationalisation of the banks”—be careful what you wish for!) But before you can rush to dismiss one more renegade running into the embrace of capitalism, he finishes by warily contemplating the “frightening, new furniture” that is to take its place. Making that line the title of his collection underlines that this poet is no more certain of what may follow than of what he is leaving behind him.
And it seems plain that what he wants to leave behind is not socialism but rather the prevailing insincerity that tends to accompany its advocacy. ‘Letter to a Full Time Revolutionary’ doesn’t spare the apparatchik blandly grinding out the party line:
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
This is no passionately-held commitment to human liberation, but going through the motions, left-wing propaganda as an end in itself. When a socialist sees poverty and insecurity as his golden opportunity rather than a horror to be feared, “you’d rather anything / than live in a world where / he has a point” (‘His Hour Come Round At Last’). Asking whether this routine ever gets us anywhere is a heretical inquiry answered by excommunication. The ‘Man Disappointed by History’ never questions his failures, never asks if he should get off the merry-go-round and look for some other way of improving the world: “rather than walk off stage, / you leave us wanting / less”.
Higgins may be accused of not providing an alternative to what he criticises, but the objection would be unfair. Socialists who write poems have a certain duty to work as they can for positive revolutionary change, just as much as socialists who drive buses. But they are under no obligation to do that in their poetry, any more than a socialist bus driver has to turn left at every junction. It is far more honest and useful to lay bare a frank belief that no revolutionary movement fit for purpose is evident than to cling to the unconvincing (and, truth be told, unconvinced) avowals that one more go on the merry-go-round will achieve something. It takes some energy to stop something that’s going the wrong way, and only inertia to keep it rolling on.
‘Ode to the Russian Revolution’ is apt here, rejecting the catastrophe that revolution turned into and celebrating the unspecified possibilities it unveiled:
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.
Contrary to the popular belief that sees counter-revolutions bumping off people for raising awkward questions, this poems reminds us that sins of omission were also central in smothering the potential of 1917: “questions they didn’t ask”, points they thought it unwise to make, doubts they found it difficult to acknowledge even to themselves. If this collection does no more than facilitate an atmosphere of sceptical questioning, it will have done the left some service.
Higgins obviously has a great regard for Leon Trotsky, and he’s not a gentleman you admire much if you’re on a rightward trajectory. While Trotsky’s profound sense of culture has often attracted artists, his insistence on revolutionary discipline has usually exerted a stronger force of repulsion. Frightening New Furniture opens with a quote from Trotsky’s review of a writer imbued with pessimism: “Either the artist will make his peace with the darkness or he will perceive the dawn.” This particular artist seems to understand only too well the ambiguous and contradictory situation he finds himself in, discontented with capitalist society but unimpressed with what passes for its alternative. It is the position of many, and his poems here illustrate the problematics that entails, as well the depth of the change we need to undergo to ensure that day breaks instead of night falling.
Review: William Oxley reviews Frightening New Furniture by Kevin Higgins in the Summer 2010 issue of Orbis Quarterly International Journal
Kevin Higgins -- the style of the man and his poetry: Patrick Kavanagh without the rhyme. Or, another thought: like an Irish Frank O'Hara. The 'style', of course, must be demotic, but it is only from the focus that the poetry arises. Here is the poetry arising as he leaves his ailing father at hospital:
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.
The poetry is in the acuity of that 'small pale wave' and the rain 'saying terrible things'. And it just would be 'Merlin's' hospital too! There is a satisfying word precision in Kevin Higgins's modern myth-making.
Away from his Raymond Carverism style (more names come crowding in!), Higgins is a mild satirist, a social commentator, much of whose work is a satisfying reportage that raises wry smiles: I quote from the poem 'The Financial Times':
This year for their birthday, everybody gets
the blame. We find our trousers
repossessed and down around
somebody else's ankles.
And, elsewhere, the satire comes across in phrases like 'where people just sip their decaffeinated water'; 'warding off the ghost of Monday morning future; 'You wake up one day / and find your whole life mislaid'.
Another of Higgins's fellow countrymen who could be a hoot at readings was James Simmons, and I'll bet the author of Frightening New Furniture is too. Maybe not a laugh a line, but every other: 'The runny nose of history now / safely beyond use.' (See 'Calls For St Patrick To Come Out Of Retirement'), with the 'friend' who 'drops in to confirm / the ten years he's been away / wasn't long enough.' Neither is this book, though at 94 pages, no bad length for the money.
Amongst its other delights is its revolutionary politics (failed). Higgins, one assumes, being one of those many fiercely-gentle, ardent left wingers of yore (like the delightful Andy Croft) left bereft and stranded in the Free Market World by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the expulsion of countless Adamskis and Evas from the Soviet Eden, still looking back over their shoulders with regret at the crumbled paradise of Communism: 'the revolutionary group we'd just joined / a corpse passing wind' and 'Paradise has taken a beating'.
... Kevin Higgins's [poetry is] immediate and down-to-earth and (for I cannot resist it), I must conclude with this quote about Frightening New Furniture from the lively pen of Justin Quinn, 'a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show.'
For more about Orbis see
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.
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.
New collections (for each their third) by three Irish poets, each with
its own voice, its own way of wrestling with the language, its own
decisive view of the world. One of my pleasures in reading them was the
sense each one gave of the ways in which poetry can engage immediately
or indirectly with public facts, as well as with the private forces (of
feeling, intelligence, talent, sense of form, love of language, and so
on) which determine its expression. Each volume, so, is political in one
way or another, embodying (as each poet struggles privately with the
language) some decisive attitude to larger and smaller aspects of Irish
life as it is right now, and as it has been in our recent past. Between
them they suggest the instructive, positively agitating intersection
between poetry and its cultural contexts.
(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?