Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital, by Kevin Higgins, Salmon Poetry, 98 pp, €12, ISBN: 9781912561728
What I hate about you wondering why Trump won
is our failure to look in the mirror
“My View of Things
after Edwin Morgan”
It is estimated that as a species we take fourteen trillion photos annually. These images can be photoshopped to make us look as perfect as any billboard model. In a short story by Borges called “The Draped Mirrors”, a dislike of mirrors is explained as a precondition for narcissism. In Kevin Higgins’s fifth poetry collection, “Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital”, the deliberate draping of our collective mirrors by our political and religious representatives, our poets, and indeed the poet himself is examined through the piercing gaze of a satirist at the height of his powers. The three sections the book is divided into are titled “Sex and Death”, “My View of Things” and “World Festival of Literary Intercourse”, and the whole encompasses fifty-nine poems. The imagery presented to, for, and of the reader is not intended for the solipsistic. If you, like Neo in The Matrix, would have chosen the red pill, representing an unveiling of illusions and harsh knowledge, then this book will not disappoint. Those who would have chosen the blue pill need read no further.
If the purpose of satire is to change the world, or at least to change the ways in which we think about it, do poets like Higgins do more than elicit complacent smiles from those who already share their point of view? The strong responses that his poems evoke suggest otherwise. One of the hallmarks of the poems in this collection is the sheer number of them written after other poets, thirty-one of the fifty-nine here, poets both living and dead. The opening poem of the first section is written after Günter Eich. Eich was at the vanguard of an effort to restore German as a language for poetry after the vitriol, propaganda and lies of the Third Reich. Titled “Sarcoid Years”, in it Higgins writes wryly of his sarcoidosis. This inflammatory disease that affects multiple organs in the body may be triggered by a body’s immune system responding to foreign substances, such as viruses, bacteria or chemicals. Higgins deploys the armoury of the satirist in the eighteen poems that comprise this section to restore English as a language for poetry that transcends the taboos of death and illness and to move beyond the obsession with the self. His deliberate exaggeration and distortion allow for a bawdy humour, particularly evident in his frank references to sexuality. In “The Medicines” written after Thomas Hardy, most probably Hardy’s poem “The Dead Man Walking”, we find the poet diving into the settee for white, yellow and green pills.
And this is the green pill that helps me
Stop killing people,
Except when absolutely necessary
And this is the clear bag of liquid
They drip into my arm every eight weeks
Which makes me want to have sex with everyone,
Even the Minister of Foreign Affairs,
Who my wife insists
Is too young for me anyway.
Higgins is a master of both the parenthetical and the prepositional clause, using them to shatter our expectations. The cumulative effect of the poems in this section is threefold. Poems such as “Someday I’ll Love Kweeveen O’Higgeen”, written after Ocean Vuong, “Susan”, written to his wife, and “For Cynthia”, written after Sextus Propertius, satirise Poetry’s adulation of the self, the tropes of romantic imagery and the body as it is in middle age and not as romantic idealism would have it. Lines such as “You passing through your friends / like a Cà Ri Gà chicken curry stew” are the antithesis of Vuong’s “Your dead friends passing / through you like wind / through a wind chime” and possess a grave humour that is quintessentially Higginsian. The knife edge of any Higgins line attacks the bumbling ineptitude of corruption, so that even in a paean to his wife we find the lines “Your wrists and ankles / are engineering projects whose failure / led to a public inquiry that’s expected / to go on forever.”
Sextus Propertius was a Latin elegiac poet of the Augustan age. Cynthia was the older woman who would inspire him to express his poetic genius. “For Cynthia” is a departure for Higgins, in that he adopts the sonnet as his form, but the lines are still quintessentially those of this dissident of romantic description: “Our bodies / are Wibbly Wobbly Wonders / melting in the sun.” There is nothing beyond the here and now for Higgins. In the poem “Prayer to the Absolute Dark” his nihilism is extended to anything religious. Like Rilke, after whom the poem “Spring Day” is written, he sees religion as the art of those who are uncreative. It is fitting that the poem, which ends this section is the brilliant “Coalition of the Disappointed”, those disappointed being all those who regret the poet’s delay in passing, particularly members of the contemporary poetry scene. For many years, Higgins has run a monthly reading series in Galway showcasing new writing with his wife, the poet Susan Millar Du Mars. When he writes: “Unmentionable now in the company / women of our status aspire to keep ‑ / he once put us standing on high stages, / adjusted microphones for us / got our names in the relevant / provincial newspapers, / and said them / over and over again / on sociable media”, he addresses those whom in the poet’s opinion are the most disgruntled by his continued existence.
In the twenty-eight poems that comprise the second section of this seminal collection, Higgins gives no quarter. It is titled “My View of Things”, and this unveiling is precisely targeted against the rapacity of Conservative economic policy(“After the terrible events earlier”), all the collaborators in the Tuam Babies scandal (“Heavy Clogs”), the Irish government (“Leader of Irish Government Speaks Against Hyperbole”), after Shakespeare, the Blairs (“What Did The Politician Get His Wife?”) after Brecht, the insufferable other in “My View of Things”, after Edwin Morgan, the rationalisms of military policy in Gaza in “Let me Tell You About Them”, the banality of the American response to criticisms about their border policy of separating children from their parents in “The Truth Behind the Wire”, the transgender revolution in “Beige Heterosexuals”, child safety policy and the internet in “Internet Safety for Adults”, language and its relation to gender in “Fixing the National Discourse”, dedicated to Dr Mary McAuliffe, a lecturer in gender studies at UCD, male privilege in “Refusal” after Les Murray, the process by which the activist Jacqueline Walker was expelled from the British Labour Party on a charge of antisemitism in “Anatomy of a Bomb Scare”, John McDonnell’s response to the seven Labour Party MPs who left the party in “Listening Exercise”, the former British prime minister’s Human Rights Act in “The Great Repeal”, the obduracy of politicians in “The Minister for Loneliness” and their usurpation of language in “The Man Who Spoke Slogan”; the section has its triumphant finale in the visionary “Hoodied Bridget”, after Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, where all of the above will see the wheel of justice arrive for them in the guise of the unseen and ignored working class Bridget, a type of underground working class superheroine every politician chooses as their scotoma.
everything you think rightfully yours
being silently unloaded by others like me
made what they are
by years looking at the likes of you
poured into their waistcoat, believing in
the divine right of your money.
What Higgins hates about the supermarket majority shareholder (“After the terrible events earlier”), the deaf schoolmistress, the amnesiac departmental inspector, the censoring editor of a local newspaper, the robotic platitudes of ministers, the cost fetishes of county councillors (“Heavy Clogs”), the dinner invites and three-storey pads of a politician’s wife (“What Did the Politician Get His Wife?”) is neatly summed up in two lines of the poem “My View of Things”:
What I hate about you wondering why Trump won
is your failure to look in the mirror.
This is what the poet has to say himself about the way in which other poets influence and inspire the shape and theme of the poems he has written after them.
When I read a poem by another poet, maybe translated from another language, I see the approach they took to a subject and the shape of the poem and I think maybe I could take that approach to another subject. I use the shape of the original poem like a container into which I pour the liquid of my own poem.
Edwin Morgan was Scotland’s first official “Makar”, and was, like Higgins, committed to a radically democratic left-wing political perspective. Allusion of course is an important weapon in the armoury of the satirist, and there is nothing untoward about its use here, as in the main Higgins is at pains throughout this section to stress that these poems are his own view of things. There is a certain irony in this, as he was expelled by the British Labour Party for the poem “What Did the Politician Get His Wife?” So there is something else at play here, in my opinion, something that leans towards a call for plurality of opinion that the simple dichotomy of left and right does not allow for. In many ways, Higgins’s poems remind me of the old adage about the bird and its wings. Spread out for flight both the left and the right wing are poles apart, but as the bird lands, both wings fold, and the difference between left and right wing is non-existent.
A prominent theme in the history of satire has been its support of patriarchal norms. One of the major problems with the mode is that it is often open to misinterpretation. It would be remiss not to look at Higgins’s satire “Beige Heterosexuals” after Jameson Fitzpatrick in a little more detail, as the transgender revolution is quite possibly the issue of the day. I would suggest that there are two ways of reading this poem ‑ which is also open for debate as that is a binary stance. So let’s say that there are several ways of approaching the truth of this poem. In the first, the poet after which the poem is written is Jameson Fitzpatrick, whose iconic “I Woke Up” delineates the poet’s realisation that everything is political. This is delicious fare for a satirist as nimble as Higgins, but in today’s world, where anything and everything is being held up for political analysis and scrutiny, divides have fissured the left. One of these is the issue of trensgenderism. Higgins is a “cis” man, and as such should stay in his privileged place. As indeed should trans-exclusionary radical feminists. Higgins does not and never has adhered to the shoulds that have been spawned in a world where eighty per cent of the wealth is owned by twenty per cent of the world population. Trans people face bigotry, stigma resulting in serious mental health issues. At the same time, natal or “cis” women also face bigotry, and stigma resulting in the same mental health issues for those who have been sexually abused, raped, shot, hanged or tortured for transgressions of the rules of their gender. By the same token, trans people have also experienced the same, although in countries where the patriarchal norm is the rule, it is harder for natal women to transgress. The issue in Higgins’s poem revolves around the use of the lavatory on the bus she (Gerald) is taking from Ballina to Sligo, and her oppression. Higgins has Gerald travel in the luggage compartment of the bus that is going from Ballina and that he is taking from Sligo. Take this verse for instance:
What I’m trying to say is distance
is the problem with formerly beige
who choose to travel in luggage compartments.
I’m not one of them, so I can both write this poem
and at the same time
not write it.
So Higgins is and is not Gerald, or is it, as in Juvenal’s “Sixth Satire” the misogynistic character of the speaker which is being ridiculed? The anxieties on every side of this revolution cannot be easily dismissed. In many ways, Higgins is charting the way for the left to grow out of the slogans of the sixties and to move into a more layered and nuanced debate on every issue.
The final section of the book contains thirteen poems, and is Higgins’s swipe at the institutional posturing, exclusions and inequalities of outcome of Poetry itself. Entitled “World Festival of Literary Intercourse”, each poem in it tears apart the tropes of clever university poets wearing jackets, Instagram poetic celebrities, universally loved poets like Mary Oliver, poems which have gained the status of national treasure like Clarke’s “The Planter’s Daughter” to clear a space for the absent presence in contemporary poetic norm. In “Up with Clever Literature”, written after Roy Campbell,
the polarising South African satirist whose support for Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War gave him problems with the British intelligentsia, Higgins attacks clever literature that touches on the malaises at the core of society, without ever quite telling it like it really is:
metaphors that blind like a comb-over
so successful the reader forgets the ham
Metaphor may be a requisite for the serious poet, but lazy metaphor that is as ineffectual as a bowl of Angel Delight only props up the status quo, and if Higgins is about anything he is about breaking apart and down the ladders on which the pompous display their proffered erudition. In the poem “Review of Non-Existent Poetry Collection”, Higgins makes clear his derision for lazy and ineffectual writing. This non-existent poetry collection is “as slim and radical / as a student rioting in favour of / privatisation”. I loved the last verse, where he takes a swipe at poor line break:
These line breaks are as agile
as a Masters student
forever threatening to pleasure
his or her professor,
but never actually doing so.
One gets the feeling that this poetry collection does in fact exist, but Higgins forces us to relook at the collections we may have hitherto deemed laudable. This is one of the reasons I dive into a Higgins poem with a feeling of delicious danger. Nothing is sacrosanct, including himself, The sacred cows of literature and the mechanics of the industry behind the promotion of the same are dissected with a razor-sharp beak, an implement that one would be excused for thinking belonged to a member of the corvid genus rather than simply being the human tongue. The most acerbic and successful of these poems was for me “The Caint World Festival of Literary Intercourse”, where the female correspondent of the Dalkey Episcopalian is one of the more memorable caricatures of the collection, deserving of a spot on the now defunct television show Spitting Image. This is where I should imagine one person’s satire is in danger of being another person’s blasphemy. In Ireland poets have an almost mythological status, in the sense that people still believe in the poet’s curse and the power of the pen. The most dramatic recent example of this is the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which has continued to publish in the same manner in spite of the murder of several of its staff in 2015. The paper is part of a long-standing French tradition of militant secularism, and regards the law of 1905, which brought about the separation of church and state in France as having implications much more detailed and far-reaching way than the present process in Ireland or the similar constitutional separation in the USA. The paper claims a right to be offensive, as indeed do all poets which use satire as their modus operandi. It is to our credit that an island as small as Ireland has birthed one of the cleverest and most insightful of satirists in a time when countries are closing the borders on what can actually be said. The irony remains that as language is put through the paces of political correctness, a safety net has been created for political scandal, compassion and tolerance of a different point of view, at the very time when we need language, in particular the language of a poet at the height of his sharpened perpsective, to unveil the double meanings of slogans and populism that serve to further the totalitarianism of the right. Little wonder then that the last poem in this collection, “Treatise on Uselessness”, is one which addresses the perceived uselessness of the gypsies, as maligned a group as Higgins in particular and the satirist in general. I leave you with these nuggets, which like the labyrinth of Crete, will allow you to emerge on the other side much changed and with a need to change the prescription for your glasses, whether you wear them or not, as nothing is ever seen the same way again if you truly engage with a Higgins poem.
Despite millions ingested
by social programmes, we’ve mostly
failed to submerge gypsies
in the internationally agreed system
of an indecent day’s pay
for a decent week’s work.
The collection is published by Salmon Press. Buy your copy now, before the thought police remove all extant copies for the state-appointed incinerators, of what absolutely and categorically The Griffin Prize Board cannot and should not be allowed to read.