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Scourging Buffoonery

Amanda Bell

Pathogens Love A Patsy: Pandemic & Other Poems, by Rita Ann Higgins, Salmon Poetry, 96 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-1912561902

Cultural memory of the Spanish flu of 1918 is strangely absent from the literature of the period, but the same is unlikely to be said of the current pandemic, given the proliferation of creative writing projects documenting the communal experience of Covid-19 nationally and internationally. In Ireland alone, both UCD and TCD’s libraries are building collections related to the lockdown of 2020, and anthologies such as the Munster Literature Centre’s Poems from Pandemia are forthcoming before the end of the year. Salmon Poetry has been quick off the mark with the publication of Rita Ann Higgins’s Pathogens Love A Patsy: Pandemic & Other Poems, barely a year since the publication of her last collection This Killer City, and there’s no better person than Higgins to capture the zeitgeist.

The book is in three sections; the first consists of thirteen pandemic poems, most of which were broadcast on Brendan O’Connor’s Saturday morning programme on RTE Radio 1. Composed weekly from the lockdown in March to the end of June, Higgins’s poems vividly reflect the unfolding drama and its effect on the collective psyche, following a trajectory from panic through fear to suspicion, and then probing the cracks in social cohesion as she homes in on how the virus amplifies inequality, yet again having a disproportionate impact on the poor, the sick and the old. The pandemic section ends on an ominous note with “Nothing is Random”, the penultimate verse of which comments:

We have changed over these months.
It’s easier to tell ourselves we’re the same.
So much to process
and thinking differently is fatiguing.
We never got that memo,
or the one about mortality either.
You wonder why the person in the mirror
with the broken capillaries
is in your house, wearing your clothes.

It is a fitting point at which to segue into section two: “Poems of Isolation: I’m Hanna Greally (I want to go home).”

This harrowing thirty-one-stanza sequence is based on Hanna Greally’s memoir Birds’ Nest Soup (published by Alan Figgis in 1971), and is in the voice of a woman wrongfully incarcerated in St Loman’s Psychiatric Hospital in Mullingar for almost two decades in the 1940s and ’50s. The sequence is a timely reminder of the collusion of families and communities in suppressing individuals whose existence was regarded as compromising, embarrassing or financially inconvenient:

This was society’s cesspool,
society’s shite bucket.
Craturs were just left here and not claimed.
Thousands of them.
Calculating relatives often signed people in
and just left them here.
Poor devils with leaky brains and acres galore.
Most important of all, it was free.
Three hots a day and a cot.
A prison by any other name.
Only, when you are sentenced in a court
you get a release date.
I’m always hopeful that’s me, Hanna Hopeful.

As elsewhere, the tone bridges outrage and a poignancy so understated and well-controlled as to be almost unbearable:

Here in the left-luggage department
the time passes out with the dust particles
and the dust particles win.
The force of inertia, the tease of tumbleweed.
They interlock like a double genitive.
All that possession and emptiness fills your days.
You come to inhabit terms like
remnant road, rubbish avenue,
abyss with no bliss, thank you miss.
It’s not that we are all lost –
most of us were never found.
We were never lost, we were left.

The final section, “Poems Before Covid”, consists of fifteen poems ranging from a short elegy for Gay Byrne to swingeing critiques of institutional neglect and the failure of redress boards to adequately remedy the wrongdoings. “Change” strikes a disillusioned note:

It’s a six-letter word with no currency
when its demeaned by overuse, overdose.

Honeyed words you proffer, the silver lining is free.
Giving change a spin, giving change a bad name.

Making a mockery out of change.
I’m change, I’m pleased to meet you.
Will you vote for me?
A vote for me is a vote for change.

The collection ends with a drubbing of Oughterard residents who, encouraged by Noel Grealish TD (according to the epigraph), protested against plans for a direct provision centre there:

We are ad-Hockery
We are Rahoonery
We are Buffoonery
We are Baboonery
We are Blaggard-ery
but most of all
we are Oughterard-ery
and Oughterard says no.

As a snapshot of our times, Pathogens Love a Patsy is a reminder that while Covid-19 dominates the headlines, other societal problems are still seething in the background. The cover image by Sefa Ozel depicts human figures lit up by infrared temperature scanners. Scorching, like the poems within.

1/10/2020

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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