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POETRY REVIEW Winter 1996/97

The Home Front

by Elizabeth Lowry

Sunny Side Plucked (Bloodaxe), 8.95

ISBN 1 85224 375 9

Whatever their final preference, Rita Ann Higgins's and Paul Meehan's fans should be pleased by Bloodaxe's decision to bring out the selected poems of these two popular Irish poets simultaneously. Side by side, their complementary approaches are thrown into even sharper relief: while Paula Meehan is sophisticated and allusive, Rita Ann Higgins goes in for plain speaking; where Meehan takes considered detours into
academe, Higgins doesn't give a damn. For the reader with a ten pound note to spend, choosing between them will largely be a matter of taste.

Higgins's poems are really anecdotes -- it's not how she tells them, so much as what she tells that matters, although the absence of an obvious technique can sometimes be a happy effect of her work.  Sunny Side Plucked contains a generous sample of her signature sketches of urban Irish working-class types: young mothers on welfare, lottery players, blanket men and coal men, charity cases for the Vincent de Paul society,
butter voucher and coupon savers. These are rounded out here and there into gritty character studies, the best of which stick in the mind because of the unfussy way they are presented -- bored Evangeline pining on her way to Folan's shop for "a villa / off the something / coast of France" ('Evangeline'); tarty Karen Reilly who is shot in the back while driving a stolen car down the Falls Road ('The Trouble with Karen Reilly'); restless Philomena, whose ranges are cured after she is given "the shocks" ('Philomena's Revenge'), and 'Tommy's Wife', bleakly
anonymous, slowly drained by her marriage to Tommy (who "likes Guinness, sex and unemployment"). 

Galway-born Higgins knows this world, its aspirations and frustrations, and is able to capture its detail and its voice. The particulars of her backdrop -- net curtains, leather jackets, home perms, the Saturday night dance, Chesterfield sofas and phone tables bought on hire-purchase -- are filled in with economy, establishing a minimalist setting for brisk dramatic monologues with suitably colloquial-sounding titles such as 'Anything is Better than Emptying Bins', 'Its All Because We're Working-Class' and 'It Wasn't the Father's Fault'. At its most successful the transparency of Higgins's vision contributes to a flatness of expression which gives its own depressing point to the material. 'It Wasn't the Father's Fault', for instance, is an impassively nasty little story about a child whose father beat him up with a baseball bat, with the result that "he was / never right since":

behind the kitchen table
one Sunday before Mass
his mother said,

"If Birdie Geary
hadn't brought
that cursed baseball bat
over from America,

none of this would have happened."

The bathos of that last remark, in which natural feeling hasn't so much been suppressed as steamrollered out of shape, suggests emotional depletion with greater immediacy than a stanza of commentary could have at this point. Higgins's characters queue for the dole, save up those vouchers, and everyone keeps on going to Mass; but the missed connections are also heartbreakingly in the air in 'The Deserter', narrated by a woman whose unsatisfactory marriage has been given an injection of tenderness by the death of her husband ("he made a lovely corpse"), the prosy advice of 'If You Want to get Closer to God' ("Knock Shrine's  your man ... plenty of wheelchairs / plenty of buses"), and the drab promises of Consumpta the hairdresser in 'I Want to Make Love to Kim Basinger' ("hot oil / is the jigger you need ... you'll taste your tea then / and it won't be wearing a moustache, / mark my words"). Promises, platitudes. Where Higgins herself appears as a character alongside the Karens and Consumptas, her poetic ambitions are treated with appealing self-mockery. An afternoon spent trying to learn her trade in the reference room of the Galway County Library is scuppered by a bowsy with a cough who has settled on the poetry section as a change of scene from the local soup kitchen. Here the banal keeps breaking in, rather as it does in the poems themselves:

I started with Heaney,
you started to cough.
You coughed all the way to Ormsby,
I was on the verge of Mahon.

Daunted, I left you the Ulster Poets
to consume or cough at.

In fact, Higgins is consistently self-deprecating about her bookishness. The odd literary or classical theme is ruthlessly cut down to size by being relayed in Irish slang -- her Donna Laura calls Petrarch a "louser", Hera refers to Zeus as "loveen", and 'The Flute Girl's Dialogue', a downmarket version of the Symposium, begins with the freewheeling lines "Plato, come out now / with your sunburnt legs on ya." 'The Quarrel', in which the story of the Trojan war is transplanted to a Shantalla tenement, has Apollo practising the lyre, "mad to get / on The Late Late Show", while Zeus''s activities -- in the vicinity of Coole Park, presumably -- make "swans all over Sligo" take "cover,  much cover". Yeats must be turning in his grave.



Rita Ann Higgins


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