Wednesday 24 May 2017

Poetry born out of our Celtic Tiger's terrible greed

Rita Ann Higgins chronicles Ireland's era of excess in powerful poems, writes Ciara Dwyer

Rita Ann married her husband Christy when she was 18.
Rita Ann married her husband Christy when she was 18.

Ciara Dwyer

THE collapse of the Celtic Tiger is one of the themes running through Rita Ann Higgins's new book of poetry, Ireland Is Changing Mother.

She chronicles the excesses of that era before things started to crumble and then the debris afterwards. As she says: "My vantage point is the whirlwind around me."

It's all there in her powerful poems -- the hard hats and the photo ops, the chauffeur-driven limo between airport terminals, Fas expenses and Gucci dreams. In the days before the ghost estates appeared, young couples with "dreams of unborn babies up their sleeves" queued for houses which hadn't been built.

"It was like being in a tumble drier that whole time and it couldn't last," she says.

"We were in an economic and social madness. Everything was getting bigger. Even after a funeral there was no longer soup and sandwiches. Now it was sit-down meals. Whatever you think of the past, you have to double it, treble it and there is our greed on a plate. We didn't all party. That's just a politician's cliche, but a lot of us indulged. It was the time when everyone was getting their back, sack and crack waxed and there were nail bars popping up all over. I even went to nail bars and I had my nails done. I had a white rim around them because everyone else did. Why would you do that? It was pig ugly."

As she laughs at such ridiculous fads. It's clear that she can be as critical and analytical of herself as of the world around her.

"It was all in a lush of money and then all of a sudden someone gave us a kick in the pants and sent us right back to the dole queues of the Eighties," she says.

The Galway-born poet is in full flow when suddenly she pauses. She gazes in the distance. At first I suspect she is gathering her thoughts, or searching for the right word, as poets are very precise in their language. I linger in silence with her. She is still looking away when she speaks again.

"Aren't those two men beautiful?" she says. "Those two black men."

And sure enough on the other side of the hotel lounge I spot two well-groomed men strutting past. They look like they are in their early 30s. They have shiny black skin and tight trousers which accentuate their firm thigh muscles and pert bottoms. We happily gawk at them, lapping up their physical beauty and letting our minds fill with lascivious thoughts. And why wouldn't we? Taking a moment to admire male beauty is as crucial a part of daily life as any talk of our crumbling society. Welcome to the world of Rita Ann Higgins.

She tells me that in Galway, on a green close to her house, a team of black fellas get together to play football. She writes of them in a poem.

"When they breeze onto the pitch,/ like some Namibian Gods/ the local girls wet themselves. They say in a hurry, O-Ma-God, O-Ma-God!"

"There really is a team called the Namibian Gods," she says, "and another one is called the Bally Bane Taliban."

Rita Ann soaks up the world around her, relishing small but wonderful details like this, and then in her poetry she embellishes them with a story, a drama and very often a sense of the surreal. While she can be deadly serious about the world and all the decay and corruption, there is also much humour and honesty to her and her work. As she says: "It'd be very hard to take without the humour."

There is bravery in the way that she doesn't censor herself in her poetry. In Dirty Dancer, an old man, with a huge wart on his lip, flicks through a porno magazine in a Tai Chi garden in Hong Kong. In another poem called Tongued and Grooved, she captures a look and a kiss between a man and a woman. It's lustful and luscious and moments later the woman staggers away woozy. It's nice to be reminded of such moments. And there are laughs in sex as well. She writes of a couple having an affair, doing it in a warehouse at the docks and how when the woman undressed, her lover liked to sing Mario Lanza. Afterwards when she was having a fag, "She always said bravo, blowing smoke in his face".

"Sometimes they did it twice/ and for the big finish/ he'd blast out Santa Lucia."

Higgins's poetry gives me great belly laughs. I'm grateful for that and when I tell her, she acknowledges how important laughter is in her life and tells me that her family is steeped in it. She is very close to her daughters, Heather and Jennifer, and her husband Christy. "I'm lucky to have them," she says. Heather will often send her a text simply saying, "make me laugh". She tells me how she paid Jennifer €20 to read Madame Bovary. (She is always asking her girls what they are reading because literature is of huge importance to her.) Rita tells me that her husband is hilarious. They met at the Oslo, a dance in Galway.

"He had gorgeous, blond, long curly hair like Roger Daltrey and had flowers sewn into his jeans. He was fabulous."

She married him when she was 18. And it was just as well that his surname matched her maiden name because as she said: "Do I seem like the type to change my name?" Rita Ann is very much her own woman and yet Christy is crucial to her core. He buoys her up.

"I say to him, the day you stop making me laugh, you're finished."

That must be what keeps her looking so youthful. It's hard to believe that she's 56 and a grandmother too. Heather is married and has a little boy called Oisin. (The new book is dedicated to him.) Rita Ann and Christy are such doting grandparents that they often take the child out of the creche because they are mad to play with him and smother him with love. Heather had to tell her parents to stop this as it was breaking the child's routine. Rita laughs at the way they had stalked the child and tells me that they are mad for Jennifer to have a baby, with anyone, so that they can have more grandchildren to adore.

Rita Ann grew up in Ballybrit, one of 11 children. (When her mother died, her father married again and had two more children.) She credits her late mother Margaret Mary with giving her great self-esteem and confidence.

"She'd always be praising you or telling you that red looked lovely on you." Rita looks back on her childhood with fondness and remembers how her mother would make the most simple, yet delicious dishes such as fried potatoes and an egg. Her late father Sean was big into the Irish language and that is something which Rita Ann has carried on. She studied Irish and she tells me that she always carries a piece of paper with some Irish on it. She'd hate anything to happen to her and not have a word of it on her person. She pulls out a ragged sheet from her handbag. She has written out some irregular verbs and all their tenses. On the train up to Dublin she was studying them.

Rita Ann is always reading, always learning. This is probably because she was a late starter. Books held no interest for her when she was younger.

"Why would you read books when you had boys to chase?" she says. "They just didn't come into the equation." How can you argue with that?

She left school at 14.

"It was much nicer not to be at school."

By the time she met Christy she had lived a lot. She had worked in a newsagent, set up her own walking tours of Galway, sold encyclopedias and worked in factories.

"You worked in factories, bought new jumpers in Dunnes at the weekend and you went to hops and dances and you wore white because the light showed it up. By the time I met Christy I'd been to all the dances and bought all the jumpers. The next stage was getting married, settling down and having kids."

Shortly after Rita Ann had her first child, Heather, she felt unwell. She was perspiring and coughing a lot after the birth and it turned out that she had TB. It was brought on by the birth.

"It changed my life forever. I was 22 but TB makes you feel really old. But then afterwards I got younger and younger."

While in hospital, Rita Ann read two books -- Animal Farm and Wuthering Heights. She fell in love with Heathcliff and she loved the rebellion in Animal Farm. Books became living things to her and when she was discharged from hospital she signed up for evening classes and began to write. Writing made her feel good and eventually she found her form in poetry. It wasn't long before she found success with it.

Christy was hugely supportive and stayed home minding the girls so she could go off and do readings. Rita Ann has never stopped writing and in the past few years she has been writing at an even greater pace. She has written a play about Hanna Greally, the poor woman who was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in the midlands in the Forties and Fifties, even though there was nothing wrong with her. (Hanna wrote a memoir of that time -- Bird's Nest Soup.) And the poetry kept spilling out of Rita too, even when the family hit some dark days when Christy got cancer.

"I was writing even more when Christy got sick. It makes you more focused. But when someone is ill, you're steeped in it too. We were very close but we became even closer at the risk of losing him."

Thankfully it is now two years since Christy's cancer and he is better. The life of that time is in Rita's poems too -- there are lines about the oncology ward, there is panic charging back to the car outside the hospital, hoping it isn't clamped and there is a simple train journey, where, while she is moving, she is cut off from the world of cancer and doctors and saying the right thing. Life is good for Rita Ann again. She likes to laze on the couch eating Tayto crisps and getting laughs watching two episodes of Frasier. (She adores Niles, a character in the show.) She swims and walks the bog in Spiddal.

She tells me that she is resilient. She loves Mondays because she sees them as a new beginning. Soon she is off to the States to give poetry readings with some other female poets. Although she is glad to be going on the trip, she doesn't hold back on her opinions.

"They asked me what I thought of it and I told them that doing an all-female thing, like an all-female anthology was so yesterday. You can have your own brand of feminism. My feminism is about people. I like men and women."

Instead of opting for polite lies, Rita Ann goes for honesty, always. Sometimes it's not easy but that's why she and her poetry are a joy. Telling it straight is how she soars.

'Ireland is Changing Mother' is published by Bloodaxe Books, €11.30

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