Scroll down to read reviews of The Boy with No Face from the following journals and websites:
Poetry.org | The Galway Advertiser | Magma | Poetry London | Vallum Contemporary Poetry | The Canadian Review of Books | Todd Swift's Blog | Books Ireland | Littoral Magazine | The Red Banner | The Black Mountain Review
Review of The Boy With No Face in Poetry.org, June 2005
BY DONNA POTTS
On the back cover of his first published collection of poetry, The Boy with No Face, Kevin Higgins is lauded for his potential to become "Ireland's contemporary answer to Larkin." And his satiric, self-deprecating, stylistically spare poems do invite the comparison. The book's opening poem, "Confetti," dispenses with portraying a life in all its fullness as "too much, too much," favouring a minimalist examination of "bits and pieces" reminiscent of Larkin's response, some five decades earlier, to a young lady's photograph album: "too much confectionery, too rich, I choke on such nutritious images." Higgins's "Letter to a Friend about Girls" is openly acknowledged to be "after Larkin," and its confessions of teenage ineptness with the opposite sex are written with the same grim outsider's perspective on ostensibly worldly, sexualized insiders as Larkin's "Reasons for Attendance" and "High Windows."
Yet it is not enough to leave him languishing in Larkin's shadow. He's funny in a way that Larkin rarely was, aside from perhaps the grim humor of baby Easter chicks mauled to death in "Take One Home for the Kiddies" or his wry advice for the young that opens, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad..." Early in the collection, Higgins riffs off of his self-deprecating title as he contemplates leaving a steady job behind in exchange for the more economically and psychologically uncertain life of the poet: "You'll visit your mother more and more often, / become what the girls at the office / call "the Norman Bates sort." Larkin once grimly described his himself as an "indigestible sterility," but the description certainly evokes pathos rather than laughter. Higgins's descriptions invite laughter from beginning to end, as he adroitly personalizes, in the concluding lines, the metaphor of losing face: "the smirk has slipped, sunny Jim. / The face on the floor is definitely yours."
Higgins approaches the subject of Irish national identity with the same good humour and honesty that he tackles his own, as in "I Am Ireland." Whereas poets like Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, and Padraig Pearse (Higgins's inspiration for his poem's form), have been compelled to approach it with an unwavering reverence that would be unthinkable (especially lately) in American or British poetry, Higgins instinctively recognizes the need to temper this vision, providing a satiric twist to Joyce's description of Ireland as a culture of death and paralysis: in one poem, Ireland's posthumous homage to William Joyce (whose radio broadcasts as "Lord Haw Haw" for the Nazis during WWII resulted in his execution by the English for treason) is emblematized by Mary Robinson posing with his skeleton; in another, an alcoholic Shop Street Crooner's devotion to this or that dead hero, who "fought for Ireland ... mice ... squeaking in his prison cell" is certainly viewed as part and parcel of a personal failure to embrace life.
In poems such as "Café Du Journal" (a Galway coffee shop) and "A real Galwegian," Higgins's meticulous observations of Galway life provide not just local color, but a complex register of the changing surface of a newly affluent Ireland, for which the tide of immigration has only recently reversed, and new technologies have taken their toll (Ireland is now the most expensive country in Europe, with the highest rate of mobile phone use and one of the five most expensive shopping districts in the world). His take on international affairs is appropriately absurdist, even surreal, as in "Talking with the Cat About World Domination the Day George W. Bush Almost Choked on a Pretzel."
Higgins's description of the scalpel-wielding satirist is his poem "The Satirist" is likewise an apt description of his own approach, as he takes on everyone from egotistical lyric poets to reinvented local experts, from has-been socialists to capitalists to those who lack all conviction, from cowardly lovers to libertines:
... his mask slipping just a little,
they seem him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it.
If Higgins's poetry is Larkinesque, it is equally possessed of a Whitmanesque breadth of vision and a Dickinsonian depth, culminating in a voice - funny, incisive, and genuinely modest - entirely his own.
© poetry.org, 2005
Kevin Higgins on Why Humour Matters
BY KERNAN ANDREWS
The Galway Advertiser, Thursday 3rd March, 2005
A DEVILISHLY funny and frank way of looking at Galway and the wider world mark the poetry of Kevin Higgin's first collection 'The Boy With No Face' (Salmon Poetry), launched in Galway last week. Higgins is one of the best known poets in Galway, teaching poetry classes and hosting the Over The Edge: Open Readings each month in the Galway City Library.
In 'President Robinson Pays Homage To Lord Haw Haw, 21 October 1996', he sends up Paul Durcan's lionisations of the former president and portrays her as a political opportunist: "Paying homage to Haw Haw...it taught her the crucial role of the individual in history."
However 'Brief History Of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home' is quite left-wing in its outlook and scorns the political apathy and inaction of those "who never had the National Guard sent in against them; who left everything as they found it/" Such views make Higgins politically hard to pin down. but he sees writing as having a deeper role to play than just being political. "I don't think political orthodoxy works with any form of art", he told me at the launch in the Galway Arts Centre Nun's Island Studio, "I like subversion and turning things on their head and you have to write from what you absolutely believe in."
The Boy With No Face is filled with satiric humour, not only about people who set themselves up on a pedestal, but with witty observations about Galway city. In "Real Galwegian", he recalls 1980s Ireland when a night out "was just a sad pint of Smithwicks, and the barman telling/a complaining Yank how the lock broken/on that toilet door has been that way/for nearly twenty years, and not/a single shit stolen yet."
Poetry too often conjures up images of earnest, dour, loners, pouring angst into self-pitying paeans to themselves. The image is mostly false but unfortunately it has stuck. Higgins however is a welcome relief to that. Humour doesn't get the credit it deserves for the way it makes bearable or comprehensible life's absurdities, and like a good comedian, Higgins wry depiction's achieve this. "Humour is an integral part of what we are - from frivolity to black humour",he says. "If there is no flicker of humour that turns me off. You can say outrageous things through humour". Of course Higgins' interest in language, subversion, satire, and honesty in his point of view comes as no surprise when one reads the autobiographical 'Knives': "I come from a long line of men,/who saw words not as decorations/but weapons, knives with which to cut others down to size." "That's an important poem for me", he says. "The words I quote from my grandfather and father in that poem were things they said. I didn't make them up. In the poem I was investigating where that honesty comes from. I cannot stand pomposity. If you can make someone laugh at your enemies you have won. Pope and Swift could do that and that's what I'm interested in."
Review of The Boy With No Face in Magma, Summer 2005
BY ANDREW NEILSON
At times he can come across as a slightly more mordant, Irish Roddy Lumsden. His best work is short, snappy and satirical, such as Café Du Journal. But Higgins is more politically engaged -- as in The Hidden Hand, inspired by Nigel Lawson's famous quote on the free market... Kevin Higgins is brimful of ideas and makes real efforts to entertain his readers at all times... The Boy With No Face is certainly a charismatic performance.
I don't normally comment on a collection's packaging, but someone is putting the work in and I was particularly impressed with the presentation of The Boy With No Face. When I think of Irish poetry publishers I usually get to Gallery Press and no further, but Salmon Poetry, based in County Clare, are just as well established and clearly producing excellent-looking books.
"There's a hard-boiled grittiness here - he is a kind of anti-celebrant. His bathos can be refreshing, and the anger lurking just beneath the surface (in poems such as 'A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home') invigorating."
Henry Shukman, Poetry London, Summer 2005
Review by Kimberly Burwick in Vallum Contemporary Poetry (Montreal, Canada)
Upon entering Kevin Higgins' debut collection of poems, The Boy With No Face, one immediately hears echoes of Andre Breton's famous words,
Leave everything. Leave Dada. Leave your wife. Leave your mistress. Leave your hopes and fears. Leave your children in the woods. Leave the substance for the shadow. Leave your easy life, leave what you are given for the future.
Higgins' work, like Breton's, depends upon such black humour: it is the sole mechanism by which Higgins' poems are driven forward.
To accept the dark and droll world of The Boy With No Face, one must trust that the speaker is using humour not sheepishly but skillfully, as a way of gaining access into an international web of political and literary misfits and idols. What Higgins does in his poems is invoke names (Irish politicians, dissenters, playwrights and dancers; American presidents, poets, filmmakers and economists) as a way of leveling the playing field, or more specifically, as a way of knitting together his fractured, postmodern troupe of actors, each of whom has a dramatic presence in the book. Thus, if one is intent upon understanding the real humour and workmanship of The Boy With No Face, one must be willing to explore each reference (or evoked name) carefully, and create a map of the satirical world of the poems.
Higgins' poem 'I Am Ireland? is, in a sense, the raison d'etre of the The Boy With No Face. It should be noted that this poem is dedicated to the poet Padraic Pearse, the executed commander-in-chief of the Irish rebel forces in the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Higgins begins this minimalist sequence with:
I am Ireland:
I am the Love-child of Brian Keenan and John Waters.
I drive Lebanese terrorists and Sinead O'Connor bonkers.
I will go on forever.
When we envision this ghostly hybrid (the love-child of Brian Keenan, the Irish hostage held in Lebanon over four years, and the Irish journalist who fathered a child with Sinead O'Connor) we see the level of fusion and black humour that Higgins is going for in The Boy With No Face. As readers, we are able to go with these associations because of the language used, the simple diction and the end-stopped line. Yet Higgins does not stop there. He goes on in the poem to name himself as the progeny of Enya and Lord of the Dance Michael Flatley, Frank McCourt and his brother, The X Factor's Louis Walsh and Milli Vanilli. By the time we reach the final line -- I keep a hyena in my front garden and I am ready! -- we see the speaker defending the fantastic world he created.
There are darker poems in this collection that favour bleakness over pure humour, poems like 'In The Cold Light of Day.' This poem begins in the same simple diction -- 'When you examine the scum in your favorite mug' -- and leads us straight into the speaker's quiet fascination with the comedy and drama of despair. This gritty tone is one of Higgins' strengths, the dark and grimy whine free of pretty metaphors and ear-pleasing assonance.
In fact, most of Higgins' poems work by slinging pithy phrases and shaping them into a political context. In 'Talking With the Cat About World Domination the Day George W. Bush Almost Choked on a Pretzel,' what works its way into the poem is a kind of dramatic monologue, the voice outfitted with sassy one-liners such as -- 'time to deliver / for me and you, Puss. Our battle-cry??'. The nonsensical in The Boy With No Face works because Higgins' sense of dark humour does not falter; if anything, it graduates to the steadfast witnessing of an unnatural world.
Kimberly Burwick's first collection of poems, Has No Kinsmen, is forthcoming in Summer 2005 with Red Hen Press. Her work has appeared in Fence, The Florida Review, Hayden Ferry Review, Barrow Street, River City, Poetry Wales, The Paris/Atlantic and Nthposition. She is an adjunct instructor at the University of Connecticut.
Review of The Boy With No Face by Chris Jennings, Books In Canada: The Canadian Review of Books July 2005
Kevin Higgins might be glad to have published his first book, The Boy With No Face, in 2005. Otherwise, his dense list of international publishing credits might have qualified him for inclusion in The New Irish Poets - as good as he is at what he does, his style would be an odd fit in Guinness's anthology. It's loose, conversational, idiomatic, and mordant qualities that, when judged by the standards of TNIP [The New Irish Poets, Bloodaxe, 2004], might produce responses like the one the speaker of Higgins's "In the Cold Light of Day" receives: "Your work could be much more technically crisp."
He is more sharp than crisp and more successful satirically than lyrically. "Knives" offers a fairly concise insight into Higgins's poetic persona: "I come from a long line of men, / who saw words not as decorations / but weapons, knives with which to cut / others down to size." Many poems, especially early in the book, address an unidentified "you" ("you seem to have found yourself"; "[y]our girlfriend will dump you"; "[w]hen you examine the scum in your favorite mug").
When "I" appears, it's often in caricatured imitation: "I am Frank McCourt's next book / and, even worse, I'm his brother." It's the privilege of the satirist to point out others' flaws, and the unspecified second person bridges the gap between an individual and a particular flawed type. Many of Higgins's short sketches therefore skewer their subject in a representative moment. "The Libertine" reduces its portrait to a couplet: "Plagued with infections, vice has its price, / he just passes them on, like good advice." Several poems draw on the mirror as trope: "Look in the mirror! / The smirk has slipped, Sunny Jim. / The face on the floor is definitely yours." This borders on self-reflexive satire, as though "you" were a thin reflection of "I". Linked together by common vices, the early poems seem to scrutinize fragmentary facets of a larger self.
The narrative of "The Boy with No Face" "abandoned, burned while saving a friend, turning to inhalants at eleven" succeeds because Higgins's tempo and repetition convey anger better than sympathy: "I'm the boy with no face. / I wander at night, stand around the fires that blaze in the dead zones / at the stopped heart of this city. Casual acquaintances. / Sniff glue and petrol, learn to shoot up." "Blackhole" seeds anaphoric subordinate clauses within anaphoric sentences: "This is the place where council estates come complete / with built in big dogs and gunshots, where a dull sun bakes the furnace air / as tower-block windows give that careless look / that only tranquilised eyes can throw". The poem has a venom to its urban vision that conjures a bitter, articulate speaker. There's very little in Guinness's anthology that explores this style, and it's the standard by which Higgins's work should be measured as he moves forward.
In Brief: Three Good Books Of Poetry From 2005 by Todd Swift
I am one of those who believes that 2005 was a very good year for all sorts of poetry published in the UK and Ireland - just look at the T.S. Eliot Prize short-list - hardly a dud there, and arguably six books that could win without much fuss over any injustice or cronyism. I'd say which book I want to win, but a handful of the poets up for it are, admittedly, friends of mine - and, in fact, I am torn a little.
It does seem odd that Hill's Comus was not selected, along with a few other collections, that might easily have slipped in for notice, but, since this was a bumper year, did not.
Three collections of poetry which I very much enjoyed, and did not, perhaps, receive the accolades or gongs they deserved, include two from Bloodaxe, and one from the smaller Irish press Salmon.
Sally Read gave us her debut collection early in the year. The Point Of Splitting (Bloodaxe) from its edgy title to disturbing cover onwards, is a sexy, dark and actually at times twisted exploration of eros and thanatos, with stops along the way to deal with issues such as nursing, men teaching women to load guns, and the joys of anal sex. Sensationalism aside, what struck me was the ability to shape and control the competing claims of lyricism, form, wit, and a strong, even unique, visual sense. Poems like Soldier ("Exhausted, you trace my bare arse with one idle hand") or the haunting and even unforgettable "Instruction" are very good. Read is on my list of the best new poets now emerging in the UK, and I very much look forward to her next book.
I have known the work of Kevin Higgins since meeting him briefly in New York City three or four years ago, at a poetry launch. His reading at Bob Holman's Bowery Club impressed me - he was not like other contemporary Irish poets - more louche, more savage in his wit, with less need to toe a party-line (even though political in concern at times) - in short, more in the line of Jonathan Swift than Yeats and heirs (who are often a little too concerned with the sublime decorum of things). So, yes, Higgins was funny, and bold. He also writes a sort of poem that no one else does, currently. To my ear, that makes him an original - after all, the hardest thing for a poet to do is actually sound as unique as each person thinks themselves to be. Let me be clear on this - Higgins has forsaken a direct interest in form, or the lyric, to stake out territory that is far more bleak, blunt and necessary - he speaks as an angry man at the turn of a new century, one who refuses to be bought or sold, but knows the value of words that aren't simply being used for display, disguise - he is a sort of master of expressing disgust, and praising the shabby.
Just as Read takes me in to worlds no poet has before (bedrooms where men and women openly admit to their interest in weapons; rooms where nurses pack the dead away with calm and indifference) Higgins actually invents a world as much his as Graham Greene's was to him: a compromised, dusty edge of Galway, suddenly made shiny and new by Globalism; Higgins is the voice of discontent, and his next collection, when he shifts in to a more interior key, after mapping the outer edges of a world being transformed utterly, will be a revelation, I suspect. At any rate, no other younger Irish poet has written so many visually arresting and witty poems about the New Ireland as can be found in Higgins' The Boy With No Face.
Esther Morgan, whose work I have been pleased to publish at nthposition.com has produced a very fine second collection, The Silence Living In Houses (cover pictured above), out from Bloodaxe. A poem like "Balancing Act" presents her lucid, elegant and disturbing voice precisely: "The blood tilts inside her head: / in a continuous present / a girl is carrying a tumbler".
I found poems like "Small-boned" and "Half Sister" chilling, eerie, haunting - of course, the book takes as one of its aspects the Gothic theme of houses haunted - by former acts, by present memories. This is a difficult sort of trope to make new, and Morgan does this. Indeed, the opening section of the book, "The House Of" is a sustained, small-boned triumph, and is especially recommended. Once again, Morgan, like Read and Higgins, stakes much on a strong visual offering to the reader. At the end of "Endurance" the house as ship is figured so: "the house rigged in ice and going down".
As Morgan says "I worry at my argument of bone" - and she does so with terrible care, alerting the reader to the sinking and the rising spirits that haunt each dwelling place, whether that be a home, or a poem. Morgan's third collection, when it comes, will almost certainly establish her, once and for all (as if more than this book was needed) as one of the best younger poets now writing in the British isles. http://toddswift.blogspot.com/
Books Ireland, January-February 2006
Review by Rory Brennan
The changes in what a poem can be and do over half a century are shown in Kevin Higgins' new work. At the start a poem was almost a sacrosanct object with aspirations to Flaubertian perfectionism, an object d?art seeking a glass case. Now a poem can be waved around like a banner and screamed from the rooftops like Ginsberg's Howl, itself a poem that has taken five decades to win the day -- or at least win the light of day. Poems are no longer just private acts between consenting readers and writers, they are licensed to be flaunted and declaimed in the marketplace, which after all is where they started as chants, prayers, war cries, stories tied together by rhyme. Higgins reads his work in Europe and the US and lists seventy or so outlets where he has been published. This is poetry to be read aloud rather than crafted verse for readers in armchairs. Hence it has a good deal of the shock and punch of the stand-up comic, and I intend that as high praise. One of Higgins? themes is the preciousness of the poem as literary artefact, for example the love lyric. No, it's not about love, it's about the poet boasting he can still find someone to have sex with. He parodies the classic "I am Ireland" with "I am the lovechild of Brian Keenan and John Waters" or "I am Enya'?s next album". A customer chatting up a Czech waitress "only wants her Sudetenland". Capitalism gets a proper bashing here but will somehow survive: "I believe in Milton Friedman and he believes in me". What makes Higgins' work so fresh is that the objects of his wrath are both contemporary and powerful. He does not kick people when they are down, like the fake satirist, or flog dead horses for a comfortable audience. His targets are doing damage now and he's out to get them. He is the boy in the title poem, the faceless one in the pit of St Petersburg, the perennial loser in all wars of ideology. It would all lacerate your heart. No, Higgins is not Swift but I still hope they'll put up a plaque to him in Galway Cathedral -- or spray-paint one of his poems on a wall, which would probably please him more.
Littoral Magazine (UK)
Review by Adrian Green
It has been suggested that Kevin Higgins could turn out to be Ireland's contemporary answer to Larkin, but surely Larkin never had the lightness of touch to penetrate the dark corners of humanity with such sharp-witted humour that the reader is smiling and wincing with the pain of it at the same time? The relationship is that of The Satirist with his audience
"...his mask slipping just a little,
they see him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it.
But this satirist is a poet. In The Red Shoes he declares "Poetry, I suppose, is my dance." His subjects are politics, relationships, Irish history -- 21st century life really, and he is always likely to catch the reader unawares with unexpected but sharply observed comment. No-one is exempt from his satire and the names he invokes bear following up -- they are not included simply for decoration.
The tone varies from the sardonic "quote" and aside in To Certain Lyric Poets to the surrealist fantasy of I am Ireland. Of the lyric poet, he writes
"Even, 'her hair on the pillow
like freshly fallen snow',
is there to let us know
he still gets laid,
although in this case,
she probably passed
through Robert Graves's hands first"
In I am Ireland, he writes
"Great my glory:
I am Enya's next album
and Michael Flatley's other testicle rolled into one."
Even here, though, the humour is not without bite -- the poem is subtitled "after Pádraic Pearse", poet and leader of the Easter Rebellion in 1916. There is a strong thread of political and historical awareness throughout the collection, but also a bleak domesticity in the descriptions of a disintegrating relationship as in The Slow Revenge:
"Already wearing the lines of the coming decline,
you'll soon be whinging for wedding bells,
because on clear nights you're wide awake
with the knowledge, that the world gets
its slow revenge on single men
in upstairs flats:..."
The poems are deceptive. They read easily, without apparent obscurity, so it is no surprise that the author is an accomplished and popular performer of his own work, but there is always that extra seam to be mined on re-reading. This is one of the most satisfying first collections I have read in several years.
Red Banner issue 24
"Knifeman" - Review by Tomás Mac SÃomáin
For Kevin Higgins, words mean, are serious: as serious as a brandished knife. In The Boy With No Face, his first collection, the poem 'Knives' (p 15) sets the tone:
I come from a long line of men,
who saw words not as decorations
but weapons, knives with which to cut
others down to size.
There are knives and knives in it! Higgins's scalpels, stilettos, daggers, kitchen knives, Swiss Army knives, Stanley knives, carving knives, meat cleavers, machetes (etymological cousin of the hatchet) etc., etc. -- irony, parody, satire, sarcasm, black humour and a scathing wit (sometimes at his own, the poet's, expense) -- hack, stab, cut, thrust, slice and peel away layers of ideological sludge and officially approved (if not promoted) gormlessness to lay bare the desolate inner and outer landscapes of these, our postmodern post-nearly-every-goddamn-thing times. In 'The Satirist' (p 25), the poet selects a scalpel from this impressive cutlery collection as he inadvertently, mar dhea, lets slip the aim of his poetic mission:
Society may flash its knickers at him,
but flowers or love songs, he will not bring them.
Instead the audience ripples with nervous laughter
as, from his jacket, he takes a scalpel.
And, his mask slipping just a little,
they see him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it.
From this we gather that Higgins's knives are definitely not at the service of the gentle art of navel gazing, popular with certain officially accredited and much applauded poets who, whenever and whatever they say, always manage to say nothing. The pretty-pretty self-glorifying products of this activity are lampooned in 'To Certain Lyric Poets' (p 18):
He's been known
to agonise for hours
over a single word
and each one of them
is precisely meant
because, to him,
words are beautiful things,
flowers to be arranged
around an altar to his ego.
One of the objects of Higgins's knifings is our much revered, if not by now sacred, Celtic Tiger, in whose lair the cultural icons and symbols of an earlier Ireland have been uprooted, cast on the midden of history, and replaced. Thus in 'I am Ireland' (p 19), a take-off of Pearse's 'Mise ?ire', the reality of the current assimilation of Irish popular culture to the all-prevailing Anglo-American consumerist norms is accompanied by the adoption of correspondingly new cultural icons:
I am Ireland:
I am the love child of Brian Keenan and John Waters.
I drive Lebanese terrorists and Sin?ad O'Connor bonkers.
I will go on forever.
Great my glory
I am Enya's next album
and Michael Flatley's other testicle rolled into one.
Great is my shame:
I am Frank McCourt's next book
and, even worse, I'm his brother.
Another side of the neoliberal coin is represented by the collateral misery of Russia's traumatic lurch from Soviet state capitalism to the anarchic chaos of the free market. The poem which lends itself to the title of the collection (p 66) deals with the vicissitudes of a homeless eleven-year-old living rough in freezing St Petersburg, the former Leningrad. Parts of his lifestyle are not unknown in the heartlands of global capital, nor within a thousand miles of inner-city Dublin, for that matter:
I live in the damp basements and freezing cellars of humanity
scuttled away under St. Petersburg.
Pulverised walls eaten with mould threaten in on my space,
down among the stagnant smells, the rubbish and the rats,
on the bed I makeshifted from old pieces of cardboard.
I'm the boy with no face.
I wander at night, stand around the fires that blaze in the dead zones
at the stopped heart of this city. Casual acquaintances
Sniff glue and petrol, learn to shoot up.
This is the best of all possible worlds, 'a rich man's world' as the Abba song had it, where "the hidden hand of the free market" (in a quote attributed to Britain's former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson) is what conducts the whole shebang ('The Hidden Hand', p 35):
work in mysterious ways; can
make a million bucks vanish
just like that. I made Joseph Kennedy rich,
tossed Robert Maxwell off his yacht,
I am the be all, the end all; the hidden hand
which makes you dance.
All of this is 'political', of course. Higgins's accurate identification of warts on the somewhat less than fair face of our reality puts his poetry outside the canon of certain ivory-tower academics for whom analysis of the text itself is all, and for whom context is nothing, if not anathema. Art mixed with politics? The sublime with the vulgar! C'mon, you've got to be joking! I refer such text-only junkies -- they exist: I've met one or two -- to the words of Terry Eagleton (Literary Theory ? An Introduction, p 194-5): "There is, in fact, no need to drag politics into literary theory... For any body of theory concerned with human meaning, value, language, feeling and experience will inevitably engage with broader, deeper beliefs about the nature of human individuals and societies, problems of power and sexuality, interpretations of past history, versions of the present and hopes for the future." Mutatis mutandis, this consideration cannot but apply with equal force to the very object of literary theorising, literature itself, poetry... Try to fully understand the poetry of Pablo Neruda, W H Auden, Miguel Hernandez, Ernesto Cardenal, Somhairle Mac Ghill-Eain, Stephen Spender, Rafael Alberti, Allan Ginsberg, Hugh MacDiarmid etc., etc. -- all of whom, like Kevin Higgins, wear (or wore) socialist hearts on their poetic sleeves -- without taking their political stance on matters that concern us all into account!
See how far that will get you! With the collapse of the Soviet bloc, more than the Berlin Wall tumbled down. For with it fell -- irrationally, unjustifiably, one may say -- the street credibility of socialism's ideological base. Unlike the aforementioned poetic lefties (all dead now with the exception of Cardenal) Kevin Higgins -- and all of us -- inhabit that bleak Lyotardian universe from which the great Illustration narratives -- especially Marxism -- with all their hopes, utopian dreams and protagonists appear to have been banished, like pookas from the Irish countryside, for ever. Thence, in 'The Fás Man Cometh' (p 36):
In my new position
as an apparatchik of the new Irish Order...
Old mind-sets must be set aside.
Labour in Irish History? I've left it behind.
And as for The Internationale?
I've managed to forget every last word.
The rout of the political left and its failure to recover and renew the vitality of its programme is conveyed by the pessimistic title of the poem 'The Bankrupt Years' (p 64) and its graphic images of loss:
The streets have been cleared of unmanned barricades
and we are left with only empty gestures to be made.
The curtain is raised over a vacant stage
upon which no more great parts are played...
There are no pieces to be put back in place again,
only the ashes of history falling through fingers.
Yeats's "receding wave" at least left the consolation of the music of pebbles rattling on the shore. The empty verbiage of global capitalism's organic intellectuals ('intellectual' in its loosest possible sense), garrulous disc jockeys and gobshite journalists, smarmy chat-show hosts and airhead personalities, all enthusiastically committed to the continuous propagation of mindlessness, offers no grounds for consolation of any sort:
A blanket of blind fog gives camouflage
to the blatant blather of knaves and bunkum from numbskulls.
Their minds are so open that nothing stays there.
The all-pervasiveness of such vacuity totally alienates the poet from a status quo whose continuity is conditional upon mindlessness: "I'm a wrong thing wandered into an erroneous context", he says ('Else', p 39)... He also senses the political danger inherent to a situation where people are systematically educated and manipulated to not-think, to not-ask the questions that cry out to be asked. Thence, emerging from the desolate urban wasteland of 'Blackhole' (p 67), Yeats's "rough beast" appears again and slouches towards Bethlehem, Belfast, Brussels, Boston, Bermondsey or wherever to be born:
This is the place where young men come out
into the shadows behind the cemetery walls
to paint swastikas on headstones
and play football with skulls
That, with the media-orchestrated disappearance of Illustration (i.e. 'progressive') values, the sinister germ of totalitarianism may be harboured in the mediocre and unlikely bodies of certain neighbourhood acquaintances is the message of 'Desperate Weather' (p 33). A future 'strong' leader could just as well be called An Taoiseach as Der F?hrer, Il Duce or El Caudillo. Time ripens for the appearance of such an individual when the lack of political savvy allows only the most simplistic solutions for complex problems to be contemplated ('The Leader', p 32):
He's the sort of man who hasn't read
Mein Kampf just yet. But he'll be here,
like the old man buying The Racing Post
who growls about 'invaders' or the skinhead
with the petrol bomb whose hour is striking now.
A sort of Spenglerian Untergang des Abendlands mood imposed on the youthful optimism of what was once thought to be the ?bergang des Morgenlands, a fin de si?cle weariness, seems to vitiate the poet's will to struggle against the dull conformity to a world where "Flowers shrink and cower, / as their shades dull to blend / with the sameness all around" ('Lethargy', p 69).
All that seems to be left is to throw a shrug of the shoulders
to the trend of the times and to trudge,
through this desolate cackle, on out of my age.
['The Bankrupt Years']
Does this mean surrender to a status quo? Does "trudge... on out of my age" signify the poet's acceptance of the futility of resistance to the dominant forces of the age? Or simply his turning away in distaste from the age's more egregious banalities? His obvious contempt for those (almost) closet radicals who figure in 'A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely And Then Went Home' (p 37, previously published in Red Banner 14), and the corresponding implication of his own, the poet's activism, weights the evidence in favour of the latter interpretation:
On this day of tear-gas in Seoul
and windows broken at Dickins & Jones,
I can't help wondering why a history
of those who made their point politely
and then went home, has never been written.
Those who, in the heat of the moment,
never dislodged a policeman's helmet,
never blocked the traffic or held the country to ransom.
Someone should ask them: "Was it all worth it?"
All those proud men and women, who never
had the National Guard sent in against them;
who left everything exactly as they found it,
without adding as much as a scratch to the paintwork;
who no-one bothered asking: "Are you or have you ever been?"
because we all knew damn well they never ever were.
What constitutes good poetry these days, then, when 'everything and anything goes' and when the recognition that 'one man's meat is another man's poison' is well-nigh universal? Formulation of objective criteria related thereto, valid for all places and times, is an impossible and futile task. All one can say without fear of contradiction is that the function of poetry is to delight. In this regard, The Boy With No Face is a work of rare distinction. A book to get your hands on, read with pleasure... and reread. For Kevin Higgins has the rare knack of finding words and images that fit and illuminate the affective temper of these, our metanarrative-free times. For all of that, his poems are conceived in a spirit of ironic playfulness, a scrupulous avoidance of what he himself has called "the sort of po-faced over-earnestness which so often plagues politically engaged poetry" ('Mentioning the war', Red Banner 16).
Christopher Caudwell -- who didn't 'make his point politely' (an International Brigadier, he was killed in action in Madrid in 1937) -- suggested that "Poetry soaks external reality -- nature and society -- with emotional significance. This significance, because it gives the organism an appetitive interest in external reality, enables the organism to deal with it more resolutely..." (Illusion and Reality, p 241). More resolutely? Maybe! Maybe not! Kevin Higgins himself has mentioned "the powerlessness of poetry in the face of the onward march of politics and war" ('Mentioning the war'). Poetry, like music, does not -- nor can it -- provide solutions for political problems. By so doing, it would cease to be poetry. If literature, especially poetry, has any clear function, it is to loose language from its cosy clich?-ridden cohabitation with 'reality' and, hopefully, heighten emotional response to whatever subject it deals with in the process. Gifted poetic talents like Kevin Higgins rescue language from the "blatant blather of knaves" in which it is immured, and harness its vitality so as to tell it like it really is. It is for all of us, poets included, to find words to tell it like it should be -- and work to make it so.
-- from Red Banner issue 24
PO Box 6587, Dublin 6
Review by Michael S. Begnal for The Black Mountain Review
There is no way that this review can be objective. It is well known that Kevin Higgins and I edited The Burning Bush literary magazine together for the first four of its eleven issues, and that we occasionally found ourselves at odds after he resigned from the magazine (back in the year 2000). The point of our dissension was expressed through the age-old form v. content argument. Higgins had rediscovered a dormant Marxism, and for a while he seemed to be arguing that a political message should be the primary concern of poetry. I, conversely, was accused of being an apolitical aesthete who promulgated 'art for art's sake'. Both of these perceptions turned out to be limited and ultimately inaccurate, notwithstanding the invective of some of the articles that were published at the time.
I say all this not so much to set the record straight about myself - I've already done that quite sufficiently elsewhere - but to point out that I come at The Boy with No Face (Higgins' first collection) with a critical eye and a certain amount of experience battling the author in writing. No small thing, this. I once heard another poet refer to the act of 'doing a Kevin Higgins' - by which he meant attacking someone in an article or review with savage excess. But that's not what I'm going to do here, because I think that Higgins' position has evolved from the rottweiler mode of the early 00s, and, more apropos of this review, the collection is really quite good.
So let us turn to the book itself. When I first encountered Higgins back in 1997, I suppose I had the impression that he was something of a decadent; at times he seemed almost Baudelairean in his approach. Traces of this survive, in poems like "No More Tears", "Absent without Leave" ("The girl in the plaid school-skirt...") or in the two-line "The Libertine" ("Plagued with infections, vice has its price,/he just passes them on, like good advice"). The underbelly of old Galway is neatly portrayed in "To Hell and Back Again":
...or, better still, not to bother
leaving your filthy flat all day at all,
but, when the last ray of sun has, finally, gone away,
to shamble down to the kebab house
for a pickled onion and a portion of chips
because you don't have the cash
to use the brothel around the back...
Darkness and alienation do seem to suit Higgins just fine, and phrases like "dimly lit rooms", "back-street hatch" and "droop low in dejection" occur throughout.
Equally to the fore, though, are the political poems, implying a social consciousness and involvement. Higgins has a real talent for satire and humour, and this is what sets him apart from many who attempt the genre. There is no propaganda or the lumpen sloganeering of a lesser-grade political poet. Witness "A Brief History of Those Who Made Their Point Politely and Then Went Home" (one of the best poems in the collection):
On this day of tear gas in Seoul
and windows broken at Dickins & Jones,
I can't help wondering why a history
of those, who made their point politely
and then went home, has never been written....
"The FÃS Man Cometh" is a dissection of "an apparatchik of the New Irish Order", while "The Leader" identifies a certain type of fascist that the author implies is latent in Irish society. One of the most incisive of the satires is "President Robinson Pays Homage to Lord Haw Haw", a biting attack on the lazy liberal Southern establishment via the figures of Mary Robinson and the exceptionable Paul Durcan. Occasionally, it seems to me that Higgins' satire can become a little too caustic when loosed upon private individuals - really funny, but a bit cruel too (perhaps Catullus is the precedent here). There are, however, offerings of an apologia of this in "The Satirist", and in "Knives":
...I come from a long line of men
who saw words not as decorations
but weapons, knives with which to cut
others down to size.
While there is a definite leftward viewpoint articulated in the political poems, there are no easy answers. "No Such Republic" declares, "Socialism, like the buses, is running late", while in "The Bankrupt Years" the speaker appears resigned and declares that he will "trudge,/through this desolate cackle, on out of my age". The poem "Confetti", placed in the important position of collection opener, actually offers something of a postmodern strategy -- metaphorically, if not in actual form -- which would raise the hackles of any Terry Eagleton follower. All of this must put Higgins at odds with some of the socialist poets he has formerly been associated with, and yet The Boy with No Face outpaces them poetically by a not inconsiderable distance.
A third aspect to this collection has Higgins in the role of, as cover blurb says, "Ireland's contemporary answer to Larkin". That is, he writes about everyday things in accessible language, with a degree of mordancy . "Families and How to Survive Them" is similar in tone to Larkin's "This Be the Verse", and given that another piece is written "after Philip Larkin" it struck me that maybe Higgins is wearing this influence a little too conspicuously on his sleeve. On the other hand I thought I could also see traces of the American poet Frank O'Hara, who treated the quotidian somewhat more imaginatively than Larkin. "January" is a poem which shows Higgins at his best in this mode:
...As we watch our breath drift
across the kitchen, central heating
is a luxury as distant as trays
of oysters at the Galway Races.
The year struggles to its feet,
like a lamb stranded in deep snow...
There are probably a couple other minor flaws in this collection -- the twee "The Red Shoes" seems out of place in the oeuvre of a cynic like Higgins, wincingly stretching a metaphor of poetry as ballet dance. But such jangling moments are far fewer than in many first collections. Whatever about that, and whatever one thinks of Higgins' critical tactics or his ambiguous Marxism, he is an extremely good writer and a unique voice in contemporary Irish poetry. The Boy with No Face pulls off the interesting feat of inhabiting several different genres at once, while not being limited by any one of them.