Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Guest Review: Brown on Higgins

[editor's note: I've posted this review gladly, as it offers an alternative position on a collection that I personally admire a great deal.]

Phil Brown reviews
Frightening New Furniture

My first experience of Kevin Higgins was through the anthology Identity Parade (Bloodaxe 2010). The sample we get of Higgins in this anthology is enough to leave any reviewer somewhat excited at the prospect of getting their teeth into his latest collection. Poems like 'Almost Invisible' and 'The Great Depression' emit such a visceral bleakness wrapped in aural excellence as to leave you with the feeling of being in the presence of ‘the real thing’.

And so, it was with great excitement that I awoke one day to find that the generous Mr. Swift had posted me a copy of Higgins’ latest collection, Frightening New Furniture for review.

That was four months ago now. How naïve I was. I started off by reading the thing cover to cover in two sittings. ‘Hmmmmm’ I thought, ‘There must be something I’m missing here.’ Then I went through with a highlighter and a biro.

That was July, and since then I’ve been regularly dipping into the thing in the hopes of arriving at some sort of conclusive feeling towards the collection. I’ve taken this book to Africa, Scotland, Ledbury, I’ve read it on beaches, aeroplanes, trains, in the staff room of my school, pubs and during lessons. I would suggest that I have spent more time reading this collection of poetry than any other in my life.

‘Man up and write a bloody review then!’ I hear you shout at the screen as I take up valuable Eyewear-space.

Oh, naïve reader, that it were that simple. But, you are right, it’s just a book after all, and I do profess to dabble in the art of reviewing these piles of paper, ink and glue. So let’s start with a wide-shot and hitch into a slow zoom.

So, I suppose I should tell you that Kevin Higgins is Irish, his biography reads as an impressive list of awards, residencies, involvements in the live-scene and he is part of the hallowed cohort in Identity Parade.   Credentials box – ticked.

The reason I find it hard to criticise this collection is that the very thing that I dislike about it seems to be its selling point. Look, there on the back cover, at the quotation from Nigel McLoughlin. Can you see it? “His curmudgeonly grumpy-old-man-ness glaring at the reader wondering what the hell they’re laughing at.” That’s just it McLoughlin… I hate ‘grumpy-old-man-ness’ and Higgins delivers it in droves.

“…Ireland’s become
this minimalist spaceship
where people just sip their decaffeinated water
and listen to David Gray.”

quips Higgins… and

“… grannies nationwide
being denied the traditional
new set of teeth for Christmas…”

not to mention that

“… Burnham-on-Crouch
is having its Woolworths taken out.

The talk is of Somali pirates
and bacteria in the tea towels.

Each new set of government statistics
are the worst figures ever.”

and then

“One by one,
our favourite restaurants disappear…
…Our Red Bull days
have delivered us to the guy
with the rubber glove
now standing over us:

“I am Quantitative Easing
and the only thing
you haven’t tried.””

Beyond simply tying to out-Charlie-Brooker Charlie Brooker, this approach to writing always rubs me up the wrong way. The opening sections of the collection feel like the result of too much Googling – ‘what happened in April 1967?’ and the likes - which more or less sets the tone for much of the poetry to be found here.

All the grumpiness and ephemera and pop-references are generally shallow and poorly handled, distracting the reader from the fact that Higgins is an incredibly good poet. The poetic motifs that thread through this collection are highly effective – one particular trick of Higgins’ is to depict the world’s sounds as conspiratorial and malevolent:

“A trolley
rattling down a corridor telling me things
I don’t want to hear.” (from 'Thursday, April 6, 1967')

and

“The rain saying terrible things
as we drive off, that Christmas
you didn’t die.” (from 'St. Stephen’s Day, 1977')

I am also a fan of Higgins’ knack for describing things as a component of their assets. These little descriptions permeate the collection – ‘morning was breakfast baps and gravel’ ('That Was My Country'), ‘the cheap polyester suit my father became’ ('Cheap Polyester Suit'), ‘I’m this strategic handshake; all the rooms I’ve ever worked and less’ ('Another Monday'), ‘He becomes the old address books he carries everywhere with him ('Yesterday’s Pinstripe Suit').

In a more varied collection of poetry, this nifty motif really would have served as a beacon of congruence between the myriad voices and methods that I would expect in a collection of this length. Sadly, Higgins does not need to employ such subtle devices to give Frightening New Furniture a sense of coherence; with few exceptions, the poetry in this book can be summarised with these two lines from his poem 'Quality of Life':

“But I was happier then.
Not like now.”

In Frightening New Furniture, Higgins is a poet whose work often indicates a disdain for humanity, yet is never as artful in it as Larkin or as darkly amusing with it as Peter Reading. His poetic ‘I’ mumbles like a defeatist about failed revolution and how it all needs to change, yet never offers us any suggestions about how to solve the status quo he so fervently hates. He merely grumbles at how pointless it is trying to change this awful world of ours:

‘inside
yesterday’s perfectly sculpted revolutionary
was always today’s paunchy liberal who slugs
his cabernet, and watches daytime TV
with an elderly Labrador named
Aldai Stevenson, the Fourth.’

You’ve worked with this guy before right? There’s a new guy in charge at the office and he’s got some great ideas about how to shake things up and get the team more focused and working more productively? And then some grumpy old bastard sits at the back talking about how ‘oh I’ve seen all this before, it never works. What’s the point?’ Welcome to the poetic persona of Kevin Higgins.

The real heartbreaker of this collection however, is that it gets incredibly good towards the end. Honestly. Pages 60-93 are pretty much uninterrupted excellent poetry. With poems like ‘Bookshop Romance’ and ‘Relaxation Techniques No. 1’, I have no doubt that Higgins would have won me over as the Irish Hugo Williams. Sadly though, I had to waft through 60 pages of Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised as re-told by Victor Meldrew to get there. Salmon should have taken the title for this collection from Higgins’ poem, 'Unmade', and called it Alone With My Armchair Hates.

Phil Brown is a recent Eric Gregory winning poet, and school teacher, who lives in London.
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