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CITY TRIBUNE 4th May 2001

New collection of poetry engages on many levels

An Awful Racket
by Rita Ann Higgins
Bloodaxe Books 7.95

The latest collection of Rita Ann Higgins poems, which was launched last week, will engage readers at many levels, though it may sometimes be too rich a diet for the faint of sensibility. There is the usual humour - often mordant -, farce, pathos, despair.

Those of the collection which are set in Mervue and environs spill over with the realities or urban life in the Irish 20th/21st centuries, against a backdrop of poverty and even deprivation. As social mirroring it is searing but it is also moving in its revelation of the human experience and rebellious spirit.

The impact of the poetry rests substantially on its use of language, assured if often savage in the selection of words, uncompromising in use of spades to describe bloody spades. Inventiveness is also a feature of the language - Megaphoner-all-aloner was losing it with the golfers 

The imagery is stark and brings us face to face with realities we might prefer to gloss over. A dramatic quality is a feature of the poems which have all their heart individuals in all their nonconformity, sometimes perversity, but often richness of interaction with life.

The poems in their scope range widely. In one sense they spring from the most ordinary activities, from bingo to house painting, but the magic of the alchemist slants the perspective to reveal the humanity within. Humanity of its nature is never far from death and many poems deal with loss, the sense of loss looking back on the death of a father,

Now he's dead
I'm dying
for his shadow
a loved nephew,
Your mother rings from your
I say, where are you?
She says, I'm at Michael's grave
And it's looking lovely
even Pope John XXX111,
Our mother cried and cried
Saint Jude and Saint Agnes
let her down big time.

On the passage to death humanity has many other concerns and the urges of the flesh are not neglected,

In no time shyness slipped off her hips
tonight she would wear lipstick
she would be young and giddy
she would pirouette for nothing.

To talk of "reading" the poetry is to misrepresent the nature of the interaction between the reader and the work. The poet writes for herself and the resultant poem is a distillation of thought and emotion. To appreciate fully the distillation the reader must approach the poem with an attentive eye, a keen ear, a reflective mind and an open heart. Indeed the words of a poem may sometimes reveal more than the poet herself intended to reveal.

The apparent ordinariness of the scenes of some of the poems in this collection and the sharp wit with which Rita Ann invests many of them could lead the casual reader to press on too quickly to the next. I am put in mind of an analogy from the kitchen of my home where we have a piece of glass, hexagonal or some such, hanging in the window. It is a plain piece of glass to look at but when the sun shines in the window the glass displays the most brilliant colours which vary depending on the position from which you view it.

The analogy may be applied to poetry in general to a greater or lesser degree, varying with the intensity of the poet's imagination and the oppositeness of the language in which that intensity is clothed.

Despite the wit with which the reader will frequently be regaled the mood of the Higgins poetry is sombre and bleak. Here are lines from The Jugglers about queuing for a hospital appointment,

they use another language,
a keep them guessing language,
a language never heard up our
and I've heard some choice
language believe you me.
They might be educated
but they're just as intimidating
as the pushers.
You go in feeling bad,
you come out feeling worse.

The author is a courageous chronicler of modern day society, of those who struggle with its many traumas and disappointments and of some who sadly do not cope.
Pascal McDaid.