It's quiet hard to
find Rita Ann Higgins own voice amidst the multitude of
other personalities that inhabit the pages of Sunny
Side Plucked (Bloodaxe). This section of work from her
four previous collections shows Higgins as a chronicler of the
lives of her community: ordinary folk from Galway whose experience
- far from poetic - is scarred by poverty, oppression and pain.
Anger is the dominant emotion: most forcefully directed against
the indifferent servants of a ruthless state, whatever welfare
officers or prison warders. This is verbal warfare, polished with
satirical bite, puns, or mesmerising repetitions:
Some people know
what it's like,
. . . .
to be out of work
to be out of money
to be out of fashion
to be out of friends
. . . .
and other people
What saves these
poems from becoming harangues is Higgins' careful avoidance
of any attempt at describing her subjects' emotions. Instead, with
impressive economy, she presents a brief outline of a situation,
and one or two details. She is uncompromisingly outspoken in her
exposure of male violence and female submission, and witheringly
witty on the realities of Catholic religious faith:
We adore thee O Christ we bless thee.
because by thy cross thou hast redeemed the world;
sincere pleas to dear Jesus, that the eldest might
get off with a light sentence, pledges of no more smoking,
and guarantees of attendance at the nine Fridays.
In Higgins' urban
territory, stoical endurance, dignity and resilience are the norm;
as in the hospital ward for elderly women, 'pain [is] well out of
sight'. She is also a poet of great passion; when sexual desire
replaces her anger, she reveals an appetite of hearteningly
gargantuan proportions. In 'The Did-You-Come-Yets of the Western
World'. the nervous questioner is dismissed out-of-hand ('he is
smaller / than a mouse's fart') while she awaits a lover capable
of sufficient awe:
In time one will crawl
out from under thigh-land.
Although drowning he will say,
'Woman I am terrified, why is this house shaking?'
And you'll know he's the one.
belongs to the oral tradition and it is impossible not to miss the
three-dimensionality of a performance. However, the poems survive
publication because of her verbal dexterity, wit, and the boldness
with which she bends poetic form. While there is little change in
her work over the years, within her chosen territory Higgins is
capable of considerable range, and it is most refreshing to hear
more vernacular language in contemporary poetry. Having said that,
I especially like her more figurative, imaginative flights, like
that of the humble, would-be suitor, smitten by the beauty of his
'Goddess in the Mervue Bus':
Once when she yawned
I saw myself
on a lonely molar
waiting for the crunch.