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Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital / Kevin Higgins

Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital

By: Kevin Higgins

In Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital Kevin Higgins uses the blackest humour to throw some occasionally bizarre but mercilessly honest light on the vexed, and often absurd, subject of his chronic illness. In this, his fifth full collection of poetry, he also gives his readers, as they have come to expect, in poems steeped in the influence of Brecht, Swift, and Zbigniew Herbert, his views in undiluted form on everything fr...
ISBN 978-1-912561-72-8
Pub Date Friday, June 14, 2019
Cover Image © Simon Campbell |
Page Count 98
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In Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital Kevin Higgins uses the blackest humour to throw some occasionally bizarre but mercilessly honest light on the vexed, and often absurd, subject of his chronic illness. In this, his fifth full collection of poetry, he also gives his readers, as they have come to expect, in poems steeped in the influence of Brecht, Swift, and Zbigniew Herbert, his views in undiluted form on everything from homelessness and identity politics to anal sex and comedians who used to be edgy during the 1990s. The book includes the satire on the marriage of Tony and Cherie Blair which led to his suspension from the British Labour Party in 2016. And in the final section, he presents us with a contemporary Dunciad which lacerates the poetry scene, both in Ireland and internationally, and takes out several journalists along the way. 

“He is at home in the post-modern world, and moves with ease through his bewildering cast of characters and concerns... Higgins’s poetry engages with this world, making fun of it but with the full intention of making serious points... It is this ability to wring the ridiculous out of the sopping clothes of everyday life that makes Higgins’ work essential reading.” 
Poetry Ireland Review 

“Just because Kevin Higgins’s politics are pants doesn’t mean he can’t write a good poem... I don’t share many of Kevin Higgins’ sentiments, but I like his wit.” 
Ruth Dudley Edwards

“Readers might get the feeling that Kevin Higgins will say anything.” 
The Irish Times

“Wry, trouble-making, poet.”
Danny Morrison 

Kevin Higgins

KEVIN HIGGINS was born in London in 1967.  Along with his wife and fellow poet Susan Millar DuMars, he was founder and co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway. Over the Edge celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023. Kevin published six full collections of poems with Salmon Poetry: The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), The Ghost In The Lobby (2014), Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019), Ecstatic (2022), as well as Song of Songs 2:0 – New & Selected Poems (Salmon, Spring 2017).  His poems also feature in Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (Ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe May 2014). Kevin was satirist-in-residence with the alternative literature website The Bogman’s Cannon 2015-16. 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016. "The Minister For Poetry Has Decreed" was published by Culture Matters (UK) also in 2016. 

Kevin was a highly experienced workshop facilitator and several of his students have gone on to achieve publication success. He facilitated poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre and taught Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute for fifteen years. Kevin was also the Creative Writing Director for the NUI Galway International Summer School and taught on the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, writer and activist Eamonn McCann, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan; and have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times (London), Hot Press magazine, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show, and read aloud by Ken Loach at a political meeting in London. 

He published topical political poems in publications as various as The New European, The Morning Star, Dissent Magazine (USA), Village Magazine (Ireland), & Harry’s Place. The Stinging Fly magazine described Kevin as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”. One of Kevin’s poems features in A Galway Epiphany, the final instalment of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series of novels which is just published. 

His work has been broadcast on RTE Radio, Lyric FM, and BBC Radio 4. His book The Colour Yellow & The Number 19: Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020 was published in late by Nuascealta. His extended essay Thrills & Difficulties: Being A Marxist Poet In 21st Century Ireland was published in pamphlet form by Beir Bua Press in 2021. Kevin passed away on Tuesday 11th January, 2023 at the age of 55.

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. 

Other Titles from Kevin Higgins

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