Friday 20 April 2018

Distinctive voice of furious social engagement still hits the spot

Poetry: Tongulish, Rita Ann Higgins, Bloodaxe Books, pbk, 96 pages, €15.75

Poet Rita Ann Higgins near her home in An Spideal, Co, Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes
Poet Rita Ann Higgins near her home in An Spideal, Co, Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes

John Boland

Interviewed by this newspaper in 2013, Rita Ann Higgins described an airport encounter with an airline official as "the most humiliating experience of my life". Writers, however, sometimes get to have the final say and in this new collection of her verse, Higgins exacts her revenge.

Airline bosses may not give two hoots about her recounting of the incident, but 'Cryanair' will find lots of readers nodding in agreement with her depiction of petty officialdom's unyielding rulings over luggage.

"I asked him if his mother knew/how he was treating people," the poet tells the departure-gate martinet, to which he responds 'I'm a Cryanair soldier, lady./We don't do Mother Theresa crap./Pay the money or leave the bag'. And at the end, with more queues forming, 'There was misery to measure/and he was hand-picked to do it./He turned on his heel./I'd swear I heard a click'."

The poem is characteristic of this Galway writer. Sixty last year, Higgins came to writing quite late but then almost immediately found her unique voice and has kept faith ever since with a demotic persona that's almost offhand in its plain-speaking informality - if you're looking for crafted sonnets or rhyming couplets, you've come to the wrong poet.

It's also a voice of furious social engagement. There are many personal, indeed startlingly intimate, poems in Higgins' various volumes, but she takes a particular glee in skewering the pomposities and hypocrisies of establishment Ireland and she's moved to withering anger about the injustices perpetrated on those whom the state has treated with cruel disregard.

Ireland is Changing Mother was the title of her 2011 collection, though clearly not for the better, as is shown by a number of poems in the new volume. For one thing, it's still full of venal politicians, one of whom holds forth from the steps of Leinster House: "Will I give back the 70k severance pay?/I'll make a statement later today./I won't take the hump/but I might take the lump".

And although official Ireland, through The Gathering, may have pleaded with the diaspora to pay us a lucrative visit, we're still "waiting for crumbs at the crossroads" while "prancing and Riverdancing" and playing the fool.

And in 'The Women of 1916', Higgins muses on how, long before a Constitution that enshrined women "within the home", a plan had been "set in train/to banish these biddies/back to their kitchen sinks" - the "banishing tool of choice" being "the airbrush".

And so she concludes the poem by invoking the end of Yeats's 'Easter 1916'. "I write it out in a verse," she says before listing the names, not of MacDonagh or MacBride or Connolly or Pearse, but of women whose participation in the Easter Rising was never mentioned in our history lessons.

Not all of the 56 poems are as striking - some are positively gnomic, while others amount to little more than obvious squibs. But the majority confirm Higgins as among our most distinctive poets, and one of our most accessible, too - indeed, it's not hard to see why herself and Paul Durcan have a following among people who otherwise feel intimidated by contemporary verse.

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