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  REVIEWS

MEDBH McGUCKIAN reviews

Philomena's Revenge (Salmon Publishing)

If poetry is or from the North has followed some Anglo-Irish monophase from Yeats, that from other cardinal directions derives from the prose poetry of Joyce, O'Brien and Beckett. Rita Ann Higgins at her best shares an epiphanic quality with Ni Dhomhnaill, Durcan and Meehan;

I liked the way
my mother
got off her bike
to the side
while the bike
was still moving
graceful as a bird.

I must confess to being more than attracted to this confident third collection, since my maternal grandmother, to my mother's chagrin, added Philomena to my Christian names. This adolescent virgin was subsequently deleted from the canonization lists and pronounced invalid, which shook my grandmother's devotion not a jot, just as her violent namesake in the title-poem is "shifted", "given the treatment", by the so called health authorities. Tragedy results from the subjugation of the Dionysian to a saintlike, animal obedience, with the once rebellious daughter answering to a truncated dog's nickname reminiscent of Fido, and repeated hard 'g's:

Get the gate, Philo,
Get the gate, girl.

As powerful a condemnation of ECG as Janet Frayne's, the bullet ending in an example of one of Rita Ann's most enjoyable poetic skills - her ability to suggest a whole network of scenes, relationships, prejudices or opinions into a single biting phrase, often no longer than a couple of words. "Platonic my eye" she will say, or take the ludicrously poignant climax of the 'Trapped Doctor' making love to his wife:

Gloria love, Gloria,
let on I'm tall.

Despite the mockery, there is an edge of compassion akin to Wordsworth's guilt towards the mad, lunatic, innocent, of Victorian rural England, in her obsession with the malfunctioning psyche of latter-day Galway, with the difference that her experience of the natural individual's struggle for something approaching self-fulfilment in a supernatural society is clearly first-hand. Her irony oscillates from humour to saeva indignatio. It is not an intrinsically feminist document in so far as there are as many ballads about heroes as heroines, as many male victims and cracker-ups as female sufferers. Their neuroses range from the mild maladjustment of "nearly fitting in" to the alcoholic disassociation of Uncle Someone, Uncle nothing who wants "to let in the dog we don't have", "whose cough is getting more like a bark every day".

"He leaves the ironing board open" is the most sympathetic of these sketches: they act as ballast for broadsides like 'Misogynist' or 'Crooked Smiles', where men wearing cardigans and tattoos are as jovially dominant as you would expect them to be from Rita Ann's pen.

This narrow attitude might seem depressingly out-of-date, were it not for the half-dozen or so prison poems, anti-institutional satires of a Russian terseness. She assumes the role of outraged spokeswoman protesting on behalf of a whole group of non-conformers being forced to behave legally. In this world the warders are what men are in the other. No Northern poet has dealt so directly with the problem of political prisoners, but her technique is more successful in pure dialogue or narrative, where there is no authorial intervention, all is implied. Her subtly moving 'Cloud-Talker' drives her point home through indirection and transferred emotion; the roofers would pass while the jailed and absent did not, do not.

Though the short line form is maintained throughout and the theme of denial and subversion developed from one character-study to the next, there is variety of wit and angle. The concentration on Ireland is relieved by excursions to New York, Sussex, other international war situations. Occasionally, she spotlights the worse fantasy world of the normal happy consumer who does fit in. She uses question and answer, catalogues, sometime childhood memories with their naive viewpoint. To define her own imaginative territory she frequently coins her own Higginisms: "Claddagh-ringers, duffle-coaters", "out-with-a-bang-merchants", "Mass card glances", "know-your-loaf philosophies", "oil the oesophagus way", "the paraffin child". 'Butter Balls' employs a Dickensian language in the key of m and b:

Oh mean miserable minister,
misser of minor misdemeanours.

Several poems cynically rework the traditional keen or women's lament. But the richest and least journalistic are in the mode  of Browning's dramatic monologue, discarding the reportage in the third person to enter as separate human personality, however split:

Kill Cassidy's the boy for you
He'd knock a son out of you no problem...
but Knock Shrine's your man.

Gems like 'His Mother Won't Die' are utterly convincing in their capture of the speaking colloquial voice. And the consummate ' I Want to Make Love to Kim Bassinger', in which the most unfortunate square peg of all, a suppressed lesbian, endures agonies at the hands of the hairdresser in hopes of "shifting the bull of the ball" is revenge drama indeed, and as little likely to date, either North or South.

 

 

Rita Ann Higgins

rahiggins@eircom.net

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