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Deadly Precision

Amanda Bell

Our Killer City: isms, chasms and schisms: essays and poems, by Rita Ann Higgins, Salmon Poetry, 122 pp, €12, ISBN:  978-1912561094

At the core of this miscellany is the title poem, commissioned to celebrate Galway’s bid to be European Capital of Culture 2020; and the accompanying essay, “Manifesto for Poetry”, commissioned for The Poetry Review by editor Emily Berry in 2017, which gives the background to this poem, and also functions as a type of ars poetica.

Writing a poem for commission is notoriously tricky, and like many before her Higgins took a circuitous route to her subject: “Letting the title ‘Capital of Culture’ and the theme ‘making waves’ invade my thoughts did eventually trigger something in me – albeit perhaps not quite what the committee had in mind.” Peter Reading’s “Marfan” comes irresistibly to mind here – written during his Lannan Fellowship in Texas, it includes the line: “When this gets published I shall have to be / beyond the City Limits in a Greyhound.” But Higgins isn’t going anywhere. The six-page poem, which – unsurprisingly – was not read for the judges of the Capital of Culture bid, was published in Galway’s City Tribune in 2017; it takes a flying kick at the failure of successive ministers to tackle the healthcare crisis, homelessness, misogyny in NUI Galway, sewage in the river Corrib, violent crime, and public policy which marginalises and discriminates against artists while trotting them out to fly the flag for tourism. “To hell with local artists / what do they bring to the city? / Nothing but ripped jeans, / hippies with hobbies the lot of them.” The envoi is: “We have a great little city here, / a pity little city, a shitty little city.”

Although Higgins describes her piece as an “over the top satirical poem”, all the accusations levelled at her native city are amply reinforced in the other essays and poems included here; they add up to an excoriating critique. “There is no poetic language, no euphemisms or no metaphors needed to describe the ongoing homelessness crisis on the streets of Galway … This is the so-called arty city which will be lauded with the Capital of Culture crown in 2020.” Elsewhere, in relation to Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh, she indicates the type of culture she does approve of: “the all-inclusive kind”.

The collection stems from Higgins’s “This Woman’s Life” column in the Sunday Independent, and was put together at the suggestion of Brendan O’Connor, her editor there. Previously unpublished essays and poems are also included. Like the column, the collection consists of “a bit of humour, a bit of personal stuff, a few gossipy anecdotes, and a bit of deep thinking”. The second part of the book includes two long poems about the Capital of Culture (the title poem and “Capital of Cock-a-leekie Inferno”), along with a critical essay on Eavan Boland which was originally published in a special edition of PN Review; an essay about starting out her writing career at workshops with Jessie Lendennie; and a lyrical essay about a trip to Lake Garda with her daughter, a version of which was aired on Sunday Miscellany.

Higgins switches and mixes tone with alacrity, and to great effect. An essay with the title “Flying Rashers are soon forgotten” segues into analysis of anti-Traveller sentiment in the maternity hospital; and “Fungus at the Back of my Fridge” into a discussion of homelessness. The brilliant “No One Ever Kisses You”, an essay and poem of the same name, is a swingeing attack on the outsourcing of social security checking services. The title comes from the lines: “It’s like speed dating / only no one ever kisses you.” The poem is strongly evocative of Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake. “Give me a Hundred, I Love the Parables”, a short three-part essay, is a mash-up of bible studies, the Irish words for kiss, and the use of the word “trespassers” by the HSE to describe patients who overstay their welcome in hospital beds, and who may be removed by using minimum force. Succeeded by the poem “They Trespass Against Us”, this is social commentary at its best.

It’s not all polemic – there are lyrical touches in essays such as “Rogue Thoughts in Coole Park”, in which she writes: “An adjective like blissful was swanning around in my head but I never let it out for fear of shattering the stillness.” There is a sense that the lyrical cannot be indulged in until the problems of the world have been tackled first.

A particular feature of this collection is the use of juxtaposition: essays appear side-by-side with poems which tackle their subject from a different angle. It is fascinating to see this aspect of the poet’s process, with the background which informs a poem laid out in prose form. It also refutes any impression of Higgins’s poetry being “throw-away” – conversational in tone it may be, but each word is selected with deadly precision.

Rage often overlays grief. A recurrent theme in the collection is that of small losses – “I can rattle off the small losses and there were many. The bigger losses are harder to nail down. They queue jump and they chime at the back of the throat. They rarely reach whisper. They never reach howl.” The big loss informing Our Killer City is that of Pat Mackey, the poet’s son-in-law, who died of cancer in 2017, and whose experience of the HSE is the subject of an essay and poem both titled “No One Mentioned the Roofer”:

In Galway’s so-called cancer Centre of Excellence a dying man became invisible. He had no relative, surgeon or doctor who might get him into oncology a little quicker. He became like the character in Kafka’s short story “A Hunger Artist”, who was just swept out with the straw from the cage in the end. He was invisible and unimportant, nobody cared.

We don’t get angry about things we don’t care about. Higgins obviously cares a lot – about Galway and about the people in it. “Essays are a great way to find out about writers,” she says, in “The Asinine By-laws Department”. Indeed.

1/5/2019

Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing.  www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie.

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