LAUNCH INTRODUCTION SPEECH BY MOLLY TWOMEY (presented by her at the Galway launch in June 2019 at The House Hotel).
It’s an honour to launch Kevin Higgins’ latest collection, Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital. When Kevin asked me to do this, I wondered if it was a joke, but it’s a very Kevin thing to do. He has always been so generous to new writers, providing them with a platform through Over the Edge and consistent encouragement through his classes both in person and online. I first met Kevin in 2015 as a student in NUI Galway, a year after he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, though none of us would have known it. That poetry class was the liveliest hour of my week. Kevin introduced me to poetry, he showed me that I had a voice and that what I had to say mattered. Without that class, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be writing today.
As we all know, Kevin is famous for his biting satire. His early poem, “Knives,” published in 2005 with the memorable line that words are not “decorations but knives” still stands today. Only a few weeks ago, his poem “Listening Exercise,” where he makes fun of Labour MP John McDonnell, was pulled from the Morning Star by Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. A clear indication of how sharp and powerful Kevin’s work has become over the last decade.
So, you’ll understand my surprise when I opened the first section and found heart rendering poems, arguably, love poems. Full of cats, brown clock radios, morning papers, cups of tea and not one but two chocolate eclairs. There is a strong sense of appreciation for the ordinary or what Kevin calls “a festival of making do.”
Despite having lungs like “rooms in which the low wallpaper is slowly falling down,” Kevin has not lost his sense of humour and knack for self-deprecation. He considers donating his private parts to a museum and refuses to re-mortgage this “sad sagging thing on the sofa”. This humour can only come from illness, pain and years of contemplating mortality. The maggots and bacteria eating flesh, bitten fingernails and the mould of the grave are bleak but raw and genuine. Kevin encourages the reader to live for the present, to make love to the world in all its imperfection because, in the end, it will swallow us “as it must”.
In section two, “My View of Things,” Kevin highlights inequalities across all areas of our society, from homophobia to classism, there is no subject left uninterrogated. For me, the most striking poem in this section was “Heavy Clogs,” based on the mother and baby home in Tuam. It isn’t the nuns Kevin puts on the stand but the schoolmistresses, the county council workers, the journalists, the ordinary people like you and I, guilty of silence and pretending as if the earth wasn’t one big “sarcophagus”. Kevin encourages anger in the reader and that’s where his power lies. It’s these poems that hold society accountable and hopefully prevent tragedies like this in our future.
According to The Irish Times, at the end of 2018, there were 5,997 people living in direct provision. What was meant to be a short-term solution has now become a national crisis and Kevin takes on the persona of national authorities to demonstrate the manipulation of the public. Lines like “the wire we put around them, isn’t even barbed,” and an eight-month-old baby who is found guilty and “expires” makes the reader question the excuses dished out for the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. I laughed at these poems but was also left with a deep sense of shame for ignoring these issues because its easier than facing them.
I did find myself in these poems, which is highly uncommon when reading the poetry of an older man. Often, when choosing a collection, I reach for young female writers as I am more likely to find something relatable, but Kevin sees all levels of society. He is so adeptly aware of gender, class, race and age. He represents the supermarket shareholder in his hotel by Lake Geneva but also “the checkout assistant with holes in both her shoes / whose soul he quietly owns.” As a receptionist on minimum wage in an economically thriving business, I felt seen in his work and that’s rare but vital for me.
In this collection, Kevin also takes on the literary world and challenges what a poem is. In the last section, “The World Festival of Literary Intercourse,” he refuses to submit to the glorified images of the muse that saturate Irish poetry. In a brilliant poem, “The Bailiff’s Daughter,” he takes Austin Clarke’s “The Planter’s Daughter” and completely flips it on its head. The daughter is not “the Sunday / In every week” but the “bitter Wednesday evening / In every week / when your last toenail went black.” The sound of her is a “Kate Bush song / shrieked / By a cantankerous priest / With cancer in his throat.” Similarly, he takes Mary Oliver’s romantic “Wild Geese” and turns them into “Feral Hogs” dragging “their bacon selves’ home.” Kevin is a poet who sees things as they are, he does not waste time with the mystical, preferring the corporeal and the pleasingly disgusting. I’ll take poems full of caterpillar eyebrows and false teeth over poetic waffle any day.
Ultimately, this is a collection that explores what it is to be alive in modernity, that contemplates injustice in our society but also reflects on the certainty of death. This collection will make you laugh, cry and gasp in shock and it might too, change your view of things.