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Monday, 21 April 2008

Review: Time Gentlemen, Please by Kevin Higgins

Kevin Higgins recently had this said of him, in Justin Quinn’s The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000, "Chapter 12, The Disappearance of Ireland":

Kevin Higgins (b. 1967) has demonstrated a good satirical savagery when facing the new Ireland. His first collection, The Boy with No Face (2005), contains many poems in conventional lyrical modes (in which he is weaker) and others with a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show. He has perhaps acquired much of his sharpness by taking part in poetry slams. ... A satire which eschews moderation and openly admits its own savagery can only succeed.

His second collection, Time Gentlemen, Please, is just out with Salmon, in Ireland. I think it is an extraordinary book, easily better than The Boy With No Face. There are any number of rising Irish poets, at any time, but Higgins must now count high among that list, alongside Wheatley, Morrissey (who recently won the National Poetry Competition), and a few others. They are very good, very intelligent poets. Higgins is something else. He has something that I admire, as a critic, more than anything else: style. Not just style, a completely original style. Indeed, though I usually cringe at this term, he has a "voice" all his own.

Or rather, his voice combines elements from other voices - Orwell, Morrissey (of The Smiths), Larkin, Kavanagh - in ways no one could have expected, or defended against. His tonal elements are unique because his own ontological position is so (in this sense invalidating the argument that language writes us - sometimes Galway does): he writes of miserabilist experience, down and out in Ireland, as a former Marxist now happily married, and seeing the onanistic error of his former ways. This grim, ironic, and rather acid backstory is combined with a pointed use of quasi-surreal image, and startlingly sure and nasty quips, that almost constitute a new sort of trope - half-metaphor, half-gripe. A lot of poets play with the punning equivalence between Karl and Groucho - but Higgins really does bridge the worlds of Marxist theory, and Marx Bros. praxis, with steely verve. I think he is the funniest Irish writer of his generation - which is saying a lot - and no other Irish writer has ever made me laugh aloud so often, other than Oscar Wilde. In some sense, his poetic is the reverse of Wilde's - a fart for fart's sake - as he avoids beauty and aims directly for "Truth" - which he then skewers. I'd say he was a Swiftian satirist, but that would belittle his poetic achievement. The poems, themselves, are aesthetic objects, full of complexity, irony, and nuance. He is simply the very best comedic poet of his Irish generation. But I must go further - he is the best politico-comedic poet - which is a rarer, and stranger combination (one thinks of Paul Durcan, but even he can't hold a candle to Higgins).

I suppose I could name drop all day, so I want to quote a few lines. The collection is in five sections, and offers a generous 70-plus worth of poems - enough for two slim volumes from some presses. In almost every poem, something happens that is jaw-droppingly odd, and usually involves an unexpected simile related to the shabby world of local or global politics (or the shabby streets of Galway, before the Celtic Tiger); in a sense, Higgins has found his objective correlative in Pravda, or CNN - as encountered in a grimy pub. He has transformed and updated Eliot's sawdust floors, and found new equivalents. No other poet writing in Ireland is as actually modern, or accurate, in connecting the flaws in human experience, to the ways of poetic expression. He's Prufrock, marooned in the West of Ireland, and no less cosmopolitan - the world has come to Galway City, at long last, via undersea cables.

Here are just a few examples:

"Morning slick as a tabloid supplement";
"each day's // metallic tap-water taste";
God is "a balding former Congressman for Wyoming";
"Instead of masturbation, I find socialism";
"the rich / green Lord Tennyson sea";
"the day on the verge of its first Kit Kat";
or, comparing the memory of his dead father to "this / orchestra of car-alarms / at four a.m" ...

and so on, for many more poems and pages. Time and again, Higgins uses humour, sharp observational skills, and bile, to compose brief, imagistic poems of original mood and rare power, to amuse, move, sadden, and inform. His work, therefore, is neither entirely lofty-Irish, and surely not opaque enough to excite the austere-experimental type - but it is undeniably poetry of full integrity, and major Irish poetry, for our time. I look forward to his next collection, as I would the reunion of The Smiths. It would / will be miserablist heaven.
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