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Saturday, Oct 8, 05

The pun and the damage done

Fiona Sampson

Poetry: Rita Ann Higgins writes a poetry in which anger is transformed into irony, social comment into wordplay. Hers is an unstoppable intelligence, which comes off the page in a swirl of humour, deprecation and observation.

Even the title of Throw in the Vowels is so plainly a pun against closure - "I'm not throwing in the towel, there's plenty more where this came from", it seems to say - that you could be forgiven for raising a joyous toast to the poet and her oeuvre. But that would be to miss altogether the dedication to her brother, "who was murdered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 3rd August 2004".

Such a tragedy would be moving if memorialised in any book, but for this collection it makes a particularly striking dedication - and epigraph. The figures of her siblings move through these pages - in a praise-poem for a degree achieved or regret for the brother "Fugued" in some mental hall of mirrors that keeps him cleaning windows for a living - like a chorus who bring meaning to the text.

So indeed do a whole crowd of characters - some larger than life, some unabashedly fictional - from "father nice who couldn't be nicer/ with his smashing sheep's frock" (The Servers) to the "woman in the sweet shop", left by her fiancé, whose "mother's tiredness/ grew into her,/ her mannerisms/ her thanks be to Gods" (The Visionary) and "Seamus still robbing banks/ and ramming Garda vans when he gets emotional" (Grandchildren). We recognise these portraits and sympathise - with the voice that tells the story, if not with the character - even while we recognise the exaggeration of true storytelling; the literary artfulness that packs these explosions of personality into chastely titled poems.

At times Higgins enters this chorus of characters herself: as in the wonderful Loquacia L. Spake, half rap, half post-Plathian psychodrama, about the author's impatience at a girl gossiping on her mobile: "I was bumble/ I was bumble/ I was bitch bitch bee." And it's in the later poems, from An Awful Racket (2001) and the new title collection, Throw in the Vowels, that a serious confessional strand emerges, as Higgins moves beyond her established position as a public raconteur, often using small fictions to illustrate social lacunae, towards more personal, reflexive work. Some of the strongest of these pieces, because so genuinely unexpected, address the poet's difficult relationship with her father. "The only thing I liked/about my father/was his handwriting", His i's Were Empty starts.

Among all the hilarity, the dark voice of the final things remains. Higgins is a moving and powerful elegist, as Black Dog in My Docs - which counts down towards a suicide - and No Chance Encounters, for her murdered brother, show.

Though this reader would wish the poet no more occasions for them, that the culture has Rita Ann Higgins to write such elegies for it is a great good thing.

Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poetry Review. Her The Distance Between Us was recently published by SerenPoetry

Throw in the Vowels: New and Selected Poems By Rita Ann Higgins. Bloodaxe Books, 224pp. £9.95

Rita Ann Higgins


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