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Frightening New Furniture / Kevin Higgins

Frightening New Furniture

By: Kevin Higgins

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In poems laced with the blackest humour Kevin Higgins spares no-one, least of all himself.  In this his third collection of poetry,  he takes the reader through the hubris of boom time Ireland and out the other side into a strange country where everything is suddenly broken again. Just when Ireland imagined itself to have finally escaped history, the statues of virgins and freedom fighters are on the move again.&nb...
ISBN 978-1-907056-25-3
Pub Date Monday, March 01, 2010
Cover Image Plastic Chairs - Steve Lovegrove |
Page Count 96
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In poems laced with the blackest humour Kevin Higgins spares no-one, least of all himself.  In this his third collection of poetry,  he takes the reader through the hubris of boom time Ireland and out the other side into a strange country where everything is suddenly broken again. Just when Ireland imagined itself to have finally escaped history, the statues of virgins and freedom fighters are on the move again.  Higgins goes all the way into the dark to investigate what's left when youthful political idealism - his 'old political furniture' - gives way under the sheer weight of what actually happens.  As ever, the City of Galway is one of his pet subjects, and he takes time out to bring to hilarious life its bookshop romancers and women who decide to be fascinating.

'a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show... A satire which eschews moderation and openly admits its own savagery can only succeed.' 
Justin Quinn, The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry, 1800-2000

'He is the only one of my Irish contemporaries who makes me laugh out loud regularly, not just because the work is funny, but because it has that great sense of character behind it, where one pictures the speaker in all his curmudgeonly grumpy-old-man-ness glaring at the reader wondering what the hell they're laughing at!'
Nigel McLoughlin, Iota

'The left should hurry to welcome this collection. Here is poetry that we can identify with, that tells of our hopes and fears and doubts and questions, that puts our lives on the map too. The fact that one of our own can tell such stories in a way that is so powerful and satisfying is something to be proud of.'
Joe Conroy, Red Banner magazine

'This is work which raises the question of what the political poem can be, for us now, in our several cultures.'
Siobhan Campbell,

'wonderfully inventive imagery'
Laurie Smith, Magma

Kevin Higgins

KEVIN HIGGINS was born in London in 1967.  Along with his wife and fellow poet Susan Millar DuMars, he was founder and co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway. Over the Edge celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2023. Kevin published six full collections of poems with Salmon Poetry: The Boy With No Face (2005), Time Gentlemen, Please (2008), Frightening New Furniture (2010), The Ghost In The Lobby (2014), Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital (2019), Ecstatic (2022), as well as Song of Songs 2:0 – New & Selected Poems (Salmon, Spring 2017).  His poems also feature in Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (Ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe May 2014). Kevin was satirist-in-residence with the alternative literature website The Bogman’s Cannon 2015-16. 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016. "The Minister For Poetry Has Decreed" was published by Culture Matters (UK) also in 2016. 

Kevin was a highly experienced workshop facilitator and several of his students have gone on to achieve publication success. He facilitated poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre and taught Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute for fifteen years. Kevin was also the Creative Writing Director for the NUI Galway International Summer School and taught on the NUIG BA Creative Writing Connect programme. His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, writer and activist Eamonn McCann, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan; and have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Times (London), Hot Press magazine, The Daily Mirror and on The Vincent Browne Show, and read aloud by Ken Loach at a political meeting in London. 

He published topical political poems in publications as various as The New European, The Morning Star, Dissent Magazine (USA), Village Magazine (Ireland), & Harry’s Place. The Stinging Fly magazine described Kevin as “likely the most widely read living poet in Ireland”. One of Kevin’s poems features in A Galway Epiphany, the final instalment of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor series of novels which is just published. 

His work has been broadcast on RTE Radio, Lyric FM, and BBC Radio 4. His book The Colour Yellow & The Number 19: Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020 was published in late by Nuascealta. His extended essay Thrills & Difficulties: Being A Marxist Poet In 21st Century Ireland was published in pamphlet form by Beir Bua Press in 2021. Kevin passed away on Tuesday 11th January, 2023 at the age of 55.

Yesterday's Pinstripe Suit

Who'd once happily have driven
an oil and gas pipeline through
his own granny's front room; or
plopped a twenty storey car park
on the last sliver of green this side
of the Mad Cow Roundabout. His smile
several times investigated by
the Serious Fraud Office,
but they could prove nothing.
His catchphrase:  Today,
I'm jealous of myself.

In the day room he hums to himself
the theme from Eastenders; and
when the others have been shuffled
off to bed watches late night repeats of classic films.
Last night, Jimmy Stewart looked out a window.
Tonight, Janet Leigh steps into a shower.

He becomes the old address books
he carries everywhere with him
(The number you have dialled
has been disconnected), there
with his memories, and then
some antiseptic afternoon
not even them.

You wake up one day
and find your whole life mislaid.

Copyright © Kevin Higgins 2010

Review by Philip Coleman for Irish Left Review, 4th August 2011:

'Against the iron railings of History’: the Poetry, and some of the Prose, of Kevin Higgins

To write a positive review of Kevin Higgins’ work for the Irish Left Review might seem like preaching to the converted. After all, the poet has published poems on this site, and they almost always receive enthusiastic comments and feedback from ILR readers who frequently go on to post the same poems on Facebook and elsewhere online. Readers of the ILR have not been slow about challenging the poet on occasion, but Higgins himself has also expressed reservations about the kind of back-slapping that often passes for criticism, in political as much as in literary circles. He is acutely aware of the problematic relationship that exists between texts and their readers. As he puts it in ‘Borges, Balzac & the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come’, a review of Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, originally published in 2002 and collected in Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray (2006):

Even today, those who review books (or films) for left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is ‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good book’ deserving a positive review. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 11)

At a recent reading in Dublin the critic and poet Kit Fryatt said that Higgins was ‘notable for never toeing a party line’, to which he responded that he is ‘one of those middle-of-the-road people now’. Far from being a writer on the fence, however, Higgins’ poems and essays engage in meaningful and sometimes moving ways with the kinds of disappointment that almost always result from unthinking forms of affiliation, in the private as well as in the public sphere. Through his three published collections to date – and in his prose essays and reviews – he has emerged not only as one of the most incisive and compelling poetic voices to probe what Dave Lordan has termed ‘the austerity era’, but he is also a poet whose work warns against self-congratulation, whether it is conceived in personal, cultural, or political terms.

Writing in The Cambridge Introduction to Irish Poetry, 1800-2000 (2008), Justin Quinn has rightly described Higgins as a poet whose work contains ‘a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show.’ (Quinn 196) The comparison is illuminating, not least because it suggests that the forms of expression and imagination engaged in and by Higgins’ poems embody all of the cunning and deviousness of language as it has been manipulated by his many targets. In the poem entitled ‘To certain lyric poets’, from his first collection The Boy With No Face (2005), Higgins writes of a ‘lyric poet [who] sees / his own reflection everywhere’:

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 the altar of his ego. (The Boy With No Face 18)

These lines satirise the self-regarding egotism of much erotic verse, but they also illustrate some of the strategies the speaker seeks to criticise in the ‘certain lyric poets’ of the title, as each carefully crafted line-break draws attention to the ‘precisely meant’ arrangements of Higgins’ own argument. As an exercise in satire the poem succeeds in part because it is informed by the very methods and modes of expression that it would claim to dismantle. In a sense, the poem works because Higgins wears the mask of the self critiqued in it. In the same way that Jonathan Swift assumed the voice of power in his great works of satire – think of the devastating act of ideological mimicry that is A Modest Proposal – Higgins’ poems often proceed through and by acts of cultural ventriloquism that speak across the noisome void of what he has termed ‘the Bankrupt Years’ (The Boy With No Face 64). It is no accident, indeed, that the title of his second collection – Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) – alludes to The Waste Land, the great modernist poem whose original title was, after Dickens, He Do the Police in Different Voices.

Higgins is not a radical modernist poet in terms of technique, and the comparison with Eliot doesn’t need to be pushed very far. Having said that, his poems engage with ideas of personality and impersonality, ‘tradition’ and ‘the individual talent’, and these explorations invite readings of his work in relation to a longer modernist lineage that extends beyond the Irish cultural frame of reference. Higgins’ poems often dwell on the recent past and on the author’s own experiences growing up and living between London and Galway from the late-1960s to the present, but they are rarely if ever too intensely autobiographical. Always in his work there is an ability to take the images of personal recollection and transform them into a broader public or historical vision. In ‘Nostalgia, 1990’, for example, ‘A miscellany of recollections, / trinkets tossed from a deep black sea’ of personal memory are transmuted, in the course of the poem, into an acknowledgement of the necessary ordering and reordering of experience, and different versions of the past are ultimately said to compete for ‘Polite applause with murmurs of approval.’ (The Boy With No Face 65) Higgins is not shy about admitting the way that the contemporary poetry scene participates in this process of cultural self-validation, and ‘Nostalgia, 1990’ is one of a number of poems in his first book where he teases out the uncomfortable social dynamics of literary culture, the gatherings of ‘literary associates and occasional friends / reading from latest collections.’ (The Boy With No Face 65)

At the same time, Higgins is not willing to simply ‘throw a shrug of the shoulders / to the trend of the times’ as he puts it in ‘The Bankrupt Years’, but he persists in the making of poems and in believing in the agency of poetry, despite or in spite of the cynicism voiced by many of his most memorable speakers. Moreover, his poetry’s recording of the names of figures such as Liam Lawlor and Frank Dunlop in the creation of ‘the austerity era’ is just one of the reasons why it has already demonstrated what might be termed its documentary public value. As he writes in what can be regarded as a kind of early manifesto, ‘The Satirist’:

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. (The Boy With No Face 25)

Or, as he puts it in ‘Knives’, where the poet-speaker’s father is said to have compared ‘Albert Reynolds’ face to a torn slipper’:

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. (The Boy With No Face 15)

There is nothing particularly original in the claim that words can ‘cut / others down to size’, but these are important statements of intent in which Higgins lets it be known that he believes poetry – and his own poems – can work in the public sphere and, at their best, can affect change in the broader social and political contexts of their composition.

This is an issue that Higgins explores in the title-piece of his prose collection, ‘Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray’, originally written in 2004. There he writes:

Almost every poet I know is prone to exaggerate the influence poetry can exert on world events. Maybe it’s the cold reality of poetry’s marginal position in society which leads many of us, particularly at a time of crisis like this, to talk in loud excited voices about how poetry can supposedly make politicians sit up and listen or even ‘change the world’. This benign egocentricity is perhaps a necessary indulgence to save us from vanishing entirely into our garrets, or academia, convinced of the total irrelevance of what we do. If we don’t at least convince ourselves that poetry can matter, then how on earth can we expect to convince anyone else?

The truth is poetry can sometimes play a role in actually challenging people’s minds, by convincing the reader (or listener) emotionally of an idea to which he or she may be intellectually opposed. If a poem can win the ideologically hostile reader’s heart, then his or her head will surely follow. Such a heightened experience of poetry can lead to a transformed world view for the reader. So, yes, the influence of poetry can be profound. (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 7)

In the course of this important essay Higgins goes on to argue that the best thing writers can do is ‘bear witness as honestly and as well as [they] possibly can’, not just to the hypocrisy of people like Lawlor, Dunlop, Reynolds, and others in Ireland, but also to the broader international crises of our time, from the so-called ‘War on Terror’ to what he has described as the degeneration of ‘the high Socialist hopes of the early twentieth century … into … sordid everyday tyranny’ in an essay on Albanian poet Visar Zhiti (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 47) Again, in his piece on Zhiti, Higgins is not afraid to disagree with ‘socialist friends’ – ‘some of them now former friends’, he interjects – who have criticised the works of poets such as Medbh McGuckian or John Ashbery because of their perceived detachment from the world of politics and economic materiality. Unlike those who would ‘act Stalin when dealing with poetry which doesn’t appear to serve the cause’ (46), as he puts it in the same piece, Higgins is a poet – like Seamus Heaney, in this regard – whose work credits the value of poetry as a tool for raising consciousness and conscience in the public sphere. So what if the point appears exaggerated to those who don’t read or appreciate it: poetry always exceeds the occasions of its saying.

Indeed, this point has particular resonance in relation to Higgins’ work as organiser of the Over the Edge series of readings and workshops in Galway, an important forum for many new, emerging, and established writers since its creation in 2004 and which has, together with developments such as the Wurm im Apfel series in Dublin, asserted poetry’s place in society in ways that have certainly helped to raise its profile in recent years. The importance of Higgins, in particular, in spearheading a whole new poetry reading/performance movement in Ireland over the last decade cannot be overstated. Moreover, it is fair to say that his work, like that of Dave Lordan and other poets such as Elaine Feeney and Karl Parkinson, is often written with the public forum of the reading or open mic session in mind. While these poets may be said to participate in an oral tradition that goes back several centuries and ranges across many cultures, it is important then to consider how their work in Ireland, today, challenges the critical, academic, and economic hegemony of the ‘slim volume of verse’, with its focus on the single, silent reader. This aspect of contemporary Irish poetry’s development has only been touched upon in critical studies of the field to date, but where the cultural history of the ‘austerity era’ is concerned the work of Higgins and the other poets mentioned above will be shown to have played a crucial function not just in terms of the ways that their works expand conventional definitions of poetry as a verbal art form, but also for their insistence on a reconsideration of poetry and the poet’s place in the public sphere.

For Higgins, then, poetry is always a public event, and in his three published collections to date he has steadily insisted on the place of the poet in the life of the nation state. This is one of the reasons why criticisms regarding the prolific output of poets like Higgins and, to a certain extent, Lordan, seem to miss the point. In a review of Higgins’ third collection Frightening New Furniture (2010) in Poetry Ireland Review, Richard Hayes, while generally positive about the work, wrote that a ‘slimmer volume’ might have done more to reveal the poetry’s strengths. Fair enough, but it is also important to see the longer poetry collections of Higgins, Lordan, and others as a testament to their ongoing commitment to the process of engaging with the world through art. A volume of Selected Poems will in time reveal the high points and greatest hits of Higgins’ early career, but his three collections published with Salmon Poetry between 2005 and 2010 – weighing in at an average of sixty poems or so per book – attest to Higgins’s belief in the appropriateness of poetry as a form of direct, continuous response to the social, economic, and political realities that would and have at different times sought to obliterate both the poet and his vision, as the example of Visar Zhiti demonstrates. Higgins of course is the first to admit that ‘at least [poets in Ireland] are not in danger of being denounced by the Ministry of the Interior’ (Poetry, Politics and Dorothy Gone Horribly Astray 46) for their perceived apoliticism, but his own work, in any event, is thoroughly involved in the transformations of the public sphere. His prolific output – in addition to the three books under discussion here there are also poems in numerous print and online journals and magazines – is a consequence of his passionate and consistent engagement as a writer of real commitment. Nevertheless, Higgins is, first and foremost, an artist, and it is for this reason that he can agree with Marx when he said that ‘one reactionary Balzac … was preferable to a hundred socialist Zolas’, as he mentions in his review-essay on Hitchens (11).

Art and the processes of poetry – the formal, aesthetic, and critical procedures by which it is made, measured, published, and packaged – are also of interest to Higgins, therefore, and in several poems throughout his three collections he has questioned and indeed challenged the effectiveness of his own methods. This is one of the reasons why he is important not just to readers who might agree with his political or ideological critiques, but also to practitioners and students of poetry itself regardless of their ideological inclinations. His contribution to the development of Irish satire is indisputable, but in poems such as ‘This Small Obituary’ from Time Gentlemen, Please (2008) he reveals an awareness of the dangers of the satirical approach:

Your next-door neighbour will vaguely remember me,
when some hypocrite writes this small obituary:
“He had a real knack for last lines,
but fell in love with his own invective;
became such an expert at cutting throats,
that, in the end, he slit his own.” (Time Gentlemen, Please 28)

This poem is partly about what it means to have a voice, but also about the dangers of using it too much, or of speaking always in the same tone and on the same topic. So while commentators have often focussed on the overtly political and social projections of much of Higgins’ work it is also important to recognise the ways in which he has explored other aspects of experience beyond the realm of politics, including the vicissitudes of private, domestic life. In poems such as ‘The requiem plays, though not for us,’ for example, from The Boy With No Face, or ‘Together in the Future Tense’ in Frightening New Furniture, Higgins writes poems that explore what he calls ‘our very own festival of befuddlement’ in the latter piece (Frightening New Furniture 93). Where he may be said to exhibit a quasi-Larkinesque reticence about sex in and of itself – and the comparison with Philip Larkin, about whom he writes with judicious insight in the Hitchens piece, is also discussed by Richard Hayes in his PIR review – Higgins is also interested in the dynamics of personal relationships and these poems should not be overlooked in any full appraisal.

The wry sense of humour and intimate comedy of many of his more personal poems – including ‘She Considers His Proposal’ and ‘Word from the Other Country’ from Time Gentlemen, Please and ‘To a Discarded Lover’ from Frightening New Furniture – work well in those collections to remind readers that Higgins is a poet whose work moves confidently between public and private domains of experience. It is true, reading through his first three books, that the bulk of his work concerns overtly political or social topics, but in the same way that it is important to recognise the fact that Higgins is a poet with an international outlook – his poems about American foreign policy are among the most incisive written on either side of the Atlantic in recent decades – it is also worth recognising the ways in which his poems engage with the private sphere. What the preponderance of overtly political poems proves, however, is that Higgins is a lyric poet for whom the pressures of the public world are too great, and too serious, to ignore. In fact the poem from which his most recent collection takes its title, ‘Clear Out’, explores the relationship between domestic or personal space and the public world of politics in its imagery and language:

Today it all goes to the dumpster,
my old political furniture:

the broken bookcase called
nationalisation of the banks;

the three legged dining chair called
critical support for the P.L.O;

the fringed, pink lampshade called
theory of the permanent revolution; (Frightening New Furniture 54)

Higgins’ work explores on many levels the application of political and social theory to daily lived experience – it is, again, no accident that his work is suffused with references and allusions to the many writers and readers he has read, from Leon Trotsky to Stevie Smith – but it is also honest in its evaluation of the usefulness or otherwise of theoretical speculation. As he puts it in ‘A Balancing Act’, from his first collection:

You who’ve come to understand
dialectical materialism like the back of your hand:
your ideas as clinical as surgical instruments:
must know knowledge is a commodity
all too often squandered, that the trick
is not to spot the flaw in every fabric;
to conduct elaborate experiments
in new forms of paralysis. (The Boy With No Face 40)

Higgins wears his learning lightly, as did Patrick Kavanagh. Like Kavanagh, indeed, Higgins does not take himself too seriously, but seriously enough that his poems affirm the value of intelligent and well-informed artistic engagement with the world.

At times the comic tendency in Higgins’ work can smack of self-deprecation, and he often comes across as a bit of a ‘B-movie actor who still / can’t believe the part is his’, as he puts it in the same poem (‘A Balancing Act’). This may be related to the pervasive sense of disillusionment with the Left that often informs his work, a disillusionment that is given clearest articulation perhaps in his recent satirical elegy for the Italian Socialist leader Bettino Craxi or, indeed, in a poem with a more local orientation like ‘Community Employment Scheme’, both of which have been published in the ILR. Nevertheless, it is clear that Kevin Higgins’ voice and the force of his poetic project are gaining in confidence and authority with each new collection. A poem like ‘Austerity Mantra’ – first published on the ILR site in September 2010 – is clear evidence of this, with its speaker’s insistence that ‘I am the unthinkable / but you will think me.’ In the final stanza of this poem he writes:

Tomorrow I’ll be known as
Four Year Consolidation Package.
Lock the cat in the oven and bake
at two hundred degrees centigrade.
Tie your last plastic bag over
your own head. The figures speak for themselves
and there is no table.

The ‘figures’ mentioned here refer to the cold statistics of economic forecasting and analysis, but they are also the ‘metaphors’ and ways of saying of Higgins’ unmistakable poems, through which he has recorded one citizen’s engagements with social and political crises in Ireland and further afield for a number of years.

In a recent article in The Stinging Fly Dave Lordan defined ‘revolt’ for the writer as a way of ‘working in words to capture unflinchingly the shocking image of power and, shocking back, to break it up, to weaken it, to reveal it to the other, to disenchant the world for your neighbour, and to change the dead stone back into living human flesh.’ Lordan and Higgins are very different poets in key respects – aesthetically and ideologically – but this definition, while it is clearly applicable to Lordan’s work, is also useful in describing the poetry of Kevin Higgins. It is a body of work that has in its own way sought and seeks at every turn to expose power’s absurd and often petty corruptibility. As he puts it in a poem called, appropriately, ‘Seriously’:

This morning the heretic sky
throws down gold you cannot use.
But tomorrow will collar your enemies
against the iron railings of History. (Frightening New Furniture 68)

[Philip Coleman is a Lecturer in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin.]

Review: Between the darkness and the dawn. By Henry Gibson for Red Banner magazine.

In these Recessionary Times, it’s good to get your hands on a tangibly substantial collection of poetry. This is no slim volume of forty pages, padded out with allegedly meaningful white space and implausible back-cover claims of deceptive brevity, but nigh on a hundred pages of poems. Nor is it a case of ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’, because the standard is high and sometimes very high.

Having said that, the book doesn’t start well. ‘Thursday April 6th 1967’ recounts the headlines and hits of the day the poet was born, but smacks more of diligent internet research than a true remembrance of things past. The other prefatory poem, ‘St Stephen’s Day 1977’, works better, as a formative event in the poet’s own life takes precedence over the external facts.

Not that external facts shouldn’t be to the fore, of course. Why wouldn’t they be, with these poems written as the brave new prosperous Ireland melted like the witch in The Wizard of Oz. Poems here capture it sharply, like ‘The New New Ireland’:

Yesterday is the money
we couldn’t be bothered
to pick up off the floor.
The Collector-General rummages
down the back of our sofas
in the hope of loose change.

‘Cheap Polyester Suit’ dreads the return of pre-Tiger consumption patterns, instant coffee and toilet rolls sans aloe vera. The bad old days we are receding to are envisaged in ‘Ourselves Again’, with rare precision in the lines

in glass rooms numbers moving
through dark computers
declare the future

That qualifying adjective “dark” bears a painful load: these are not the bright white screens of friendly e-mails and frivolous virals, but clunky green numbers on deadly-dark backgrounds crunching numbers and lives.

Twice Higgins employs the device of repeating the first part of a poem in the last part, only backwards. This method will be familiar to socialist poetry fans from Bertolt Brecht’s famous ‘A Bed for the Night’, allowing something to be seen from two different aspects simultaneously (dialectically, if you will). But here, in ‘To a Discarded Lover’, and even more in ‘Unmade’, it just seems to be a stylistic experiment to no particular purpose.

It is clear that the Tiger years were a period of retreat from political activism for Kevin Higgins, of “learning to love / the pragmatist within”, as ‘1994 Revisited in the Shantalla Movie House’ puts it. ‘Birth of a Revolutionary’ portrays his political awakening as sour grapes at failing to get off with someone at the school disco, following which ‘The Recruiting Sergeant’ boils his youthful politics down to “how to overthrow Dad”. Rebellion against parental authority is a perfectly legitimate stage of development, of course, and often plays some part in causing us to question our world, but the idea of it being any kind of fundamental basis for a socialist’s politics is unreal. Settling accounts with your political past is healthy, but these poems ignore the profit side of the account for a one-sided reckoning of losses.
There is balance, however, in the relentless treatment reserved for former revolutionaries. ‘Revolt’ introduces a reformed ex-socialist who insists that “he’s still against / poverty on Wednesdays”. ‘Retired Revolutionaries’ Reunion…’ portrays its disgust in the first person plural:

we who’ve long since retreated
behind well trimmed hedges to write
poems that double as instruction manuals
for clean liberal living…
or swapped
our socialism for honest jobs
selling slaves over the internet, move with ease
among the watercress sandwiches.

‘Comrades’ looks back fondly on a time of welcoming stock market crashes and mass unemployment “like boys playing / in hoped for snow”. In ‘Clear Out’ Higgins marks either his fortieth birthday or 25 years since becoming a socialist (both seem to fit the poems’ chronology) by dumping a load of “old political furniture”. (Including “the broken bookcase called / nationalisation of the banks”—be careful what you wish for!) But before you can rush to dismiss one more renegade running into the embrace of capitalism, he finishes by warily contemplating the “frightening, new furniture” that is to take its place. Making that line the title of his collection underlines that this poet is no more certain of what may follow than of what he is leaving behind him.

And it seems plain that what he wants to leave behind is not socialism but rather the prevailing insincerity that tends to accompany its advocacy. ‘Letter to a Full Time Revolutionary’ doesn’t spare the apparatchik blandly grinding out the party line:

wax ideological, now
Venezuela, now
the latest interest rate rise;
put on a human voice to tell us
about the old woman left
to die in her own mess…
mouth crammed
with all the right slogans.
You get by on a diet of
abstract concepts

This is no passionately-held commitment to human liberation, but going through the motions, left-wing propaganda as an end in itself. When a socialist sees poverty and insecurity as his golden opportunity rather than a horror to be feared, “you’d rather anything / than live in a world where / he has a point” (‘His Hour Come Round At Last’). Asking whether this routine ever gets us anywhere is a heretical inquiry answered by excommunication. The ‘Man Disappointed by History’ never questions his failures, never asks if he should get off the merry-go-round and look for some other way of improving the world: “rather than walk off stage, / you leave us wanting / less”.

Higgins may be accused of not providing an alternative to what he criticises, but the objection would be unfair. Socialists who write poems have a certain duty to work as they can for positive revolutionary change, just as much as socialists who drive buses. But they are under no obligation to do that in their poetry, any more than a socialist bus driver has to turn left at every junction. It is far more honest and useful to lay bare a frank belief that no revolutionary movement fit for purpose is evident than to cling to the unconvincing (and, truth be told, unconvinced) avowals that one more go on the merry-go-round will achieve something. It takes some energy to stop something that’s going the wrong way, and only inertia to keep it rolling on.

‘Ode to the Russian Revolution’ is apt here, rejecting the catastrophe that revolution turned into and celebrating the unspecified possibilities it unveiled:

Not the continent of tractor factories
you became. Nor the photographs of those
later killed by questions they didn’t ask.…
The high white letters of the crowd’s
new sounding slogans, as they move
around the corner on their way
who knows where.

Contrary to the popular belief that sees counter-revolutions bumping off people for raising awkward questions, this poems reminds us that sins of omission were also central in smothering the potential of 1917: “questions they didn’t ask”, points they thought it unwise to make, doubts they found it difficult to acknowledge even to themselves. If this collection does no more than facilitate an atmosphere of sceptical questioning, it will have done the left some service.

Higgins obviously has a great regard for Leon Trotsky, and he’s not a gentleman you admire much if you’re on a rightward trajectory. While Trotsky’s profound sense of culture has often attracted artists, his insistence on revolutionary discipline has usually exerted a stronger force of repulsion. Frightening New Furniture opens with a quote from Trotsky’s review of a writer imbued with pessimism: “Either the artist will make his peace with the darkness or he will perceive the dawn.” This particular artist seems to understand only too well the ambiguous and contradictory situation he finds himself in, discontented with capitalist society but unimpressed with what passes for its alternative. It is the position of many, and his poems here illustrate the problematics that entails, as well the depth of the change we need to undergo to ensure that day breaks instead of night falling.

Review: William Oxley reviews Frightening New Furniture by Kevin Higgins in the Summer 2010 issue of Orbis Quarterly International Journal
Kevin Higgins -- the style of the man and his poetry: Patrick Kavanagh without the rhyme. Or, another thought: like an Irish Frank O'Hara. The 'style', of course, must be demotic, but it is only from the focus that the poetry arises. Here is the poetry arising as he leaves his ailing father at hospital:

            And nothing is said
as we deposit you at Unit Seven,
Merlin Park Hospital. You at the door
giving a small pale wave...
The rain saying terrible things as we drive off.

The poetry is in the acuity of that 'small pale wave' and the rain 'saying terrible things'. And it just would be 'Merlin's' hospital too! There is a satisfying word precision in Kevin Higgins's modern myth-making.
            Away from his Raymond Carverism style (more names come crowding in!), Higgins is a mild satirist, a social commentator, much of whose work is a satisfying reportage that raises wry smiles: I quote from the poem 'The Financial Times':

This year for their birthday, everybody gets
the blame. We find our trousers
repossessed and down around
somebody else's ankles.

And, elsewhere, the satire comes across in phrases like 'where people just sip their decaffeinated water'; 'warding off the ghost of Monday morning future; 'You wake up one day / and find your whole life mislaid'.
            Another of Higgins's fellow countrymen who could be a hoot at readings was James Simmons, and I'll bet the author of Frightening New Furniture is too. Maybe not a laugh a line, but every other: 'The runny nose of history now / safely beyond use.' (See 'Calls For St Patrick To Come Out Of Retirement'), with the 'friend' who 'drops in to confirm / the ten years he's been away / wasn't long enough.' Neither is this book, though at 94 pages, no bad length for the money.
            Amongst its other delights is its revolutionary politics (failed). Higgins, one assumes, being one of those many fiercely-gentle, ardent left wingers of yore (like the delightful Andy Croft) left bereft and stranded in the Free Market World by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the expulsion of countless Adamskis and Evas from the Soviet Eden, still looking back over their shoulders with regret at the crumbled paradise of Communism: 'the revolutionary group we'd just joined / a corpse passing wind' and 'Paradise has taken a beating'.
            ... Kevin Higgins's [poetry is] immediate and down-to-earth and (for I cannot resist it), I must conclude with this quote about Frightening New Furniture from the lively pen of Justin Quinn, 'a social critique as lithe and imaginative as that of the con-merchants who run the show.'
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Review:  Burning the Tiger's vanities, a review by Eamon Grennan, The Irish Times, Saturday 7th August 2010

WITH BACKSTAGE guardians in Paul Durcan (see his titles) and Patrick Kavanagh, Kevin Higgins's work has a buoyant spoken immediacy (often taking the form of dramatic monologues), his poems springing out of colloquial address and celebrating the ordinary through a use of quotidian bric-a-brac, which he often pits - with positive effect - against larger (but no more important) forces. Many of his poems are lively performances, crammed with contemporary cultural references. In addition he is able to strike more muted emotional notes (as in a fine poem for his mother). He has a shrewd eye for the telling detail, matched by a decisive self-awareness. He's a satirist with heart and humour, mixing autobiography with a sharply critical sense of the public world. In his biographical (fictional or factual) journey from radical revolutionary street idealist to zones of liberal middle class comfort ('My face/ the poster for a failed revolution'), he rigs a bonfire of Celtic Tiger vanities into a comico-satirical documentary montage.

Some of his best work is in small biographical vignettes, seeing the past through a glass clearly, or recalling the anorak angst of Days ('Whatever happened to alienation?'). His poems are like world-ranging word documentaries - speedy and to the point. In this vigorous elimination of 'my old political furniture' he sends outdated radical agendas up in smoke. Comedy is part of his poetics, and what I especially like in his work is its swiftness of wit, its tone of buoyant contrarianism and jubilant disappointment, how he is a cocky, wisecracking inhabitant of 'Angryville'.

Sometimes, however, for all his inventively good-humoured extravaganzas, or his sometimes surreal touch with metaphor and simile, the fun can fall a bit flat, endings can pall, the satire can get a bit bland, while attempts at form in some poems tend not to rise above the level of workshop exercises. I'd hazard, too, that some authorial and/or editorial pruning would have made this a stronger, more streamlined volume.

New collections (for each their third) by three Irish poets, each with its own voice, its own way of wrestling with the language, its own decisive view of the world. One of my pleasures in reading them was the sense each one gave of the ways in which poetry can engage immediately or indirectly with public facts, as well as with the private forces (of feeling, intelligence, talent, sense of form, love of language, and so on) which determine its expression. Each volume, so, is political in one way or another, embodying (as each poet struggles privately with the language) some decisive attitude to larger and smaller aspects of Irish life as it is right now, and as it has been in our recent past. Between them they suggest the instructive, positively agitating intersection between poetry and its cultural contexts.

(also reviewed: Invitation to a Sacrifice by Dave Lordan)

Short review by Des Kenny on Galway Bay FM's Keith Finnegan Show April 2010:

"Kevin has been a terrific addition to the literary scene here in Galway. He indeed establishes himself as one of the foremost poets in the West of Ireland with Frightening New Furniture. A wonderful collection."

Review:  Frightening New Furniture reviewed for The Raintown Review (in a joint review with Susan Millar DuMars' Dreams for Breakfast)
The personal is political lives on in Kevin Higgins’s third book of poems, Frightening New Furniture.  That fact, along with Higgins’s deft humor, is reason to celebrate.  Originally coined by Carol Hanisch in her 1969 landmark feminist essay of the same name, the phrase gave voice to the idea that personal identity and experience cannot be separated from politics, nor should they be.  It is through our personal experiences that we understand the need to be political, to stand up, to fight when necessary.  Higgins offers a contemporary version of this by focusing on the past forty years of Irish history.  He shines a clear eye on his countrymen and countrywomen as they cope with the rapid growth and impact of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger period and the crushing economic downturn of the last few years.  

From the outset, Higgins connects the personal and political dots.  In the first poem, “Thursday, April 6, 1967,” he recounts the day he was born through various newspaper headlines, from major international events (conspiracy in the murder of John F. Kennedy) to the telling local weather forecast (“sunny intervals,/scattered showers…”).  He ends the poem describing how he fits in this scenario:
I kick my legs oblivious
            to the politics and weather outside
            this big, white place
            I’ve landed in.
While his newborn self may be oblivious to world events, his adult self, in recounting them, knows the shadows have been cast, and the only escape is denial.  In these poems, Higgins doesn’t let us wallow in denial; he holds our feet to the fire and forces us to look at what we’ve done.  We are all accountable.
The book, divided into five sections, covers various aspects of political (and sometimes personal) struggle.  Higgins never suggests that battles are easily understood or won, more that they cannot (and should not) be ignored.  Sometimes, they are downright frustrating, as seen in “Activist’s Lament:”
            This morning, for the last time,
                        the whole table listened when I spoke.
            Tomorrow, I begin my new career
                        as a set of wind up chattering teeth
            abandoned years ago in the bottom drawer.
The frustration is palpable, but we must battle on.
There are poets who would make this journey a slog and a bore – not Higgins.  He offers personal and political insight through wry humor and the twist of irony.  We meet, in “The Birth of a Revolutionary,” a teenage boy who leaves for the school disco where he sees his crush with another beau:
            In the morning, someone else
            will come down
            and will not want his Frosties:
A Rebel Without Deodorant.
A young man destined to do his bit
to help the world into difficulty.
And in “House Guest,” a would-be revolutionary outstays his welcome with his poor hygiene, petty theft, and self-righteous attitude:
When not away on a demo chanting
            “Victory to Iraq!” his afternoons are spent
            doing despicable things to worse women
            in your bed.  The pile of twenty pence pieces
            on your bedside locker diminishes daily.
As human beings we are a mass of contradictions, and, as Higgins shows us, as political beings we are often more so.
Although the furniture may be new and it may be frightening, and the cast of characters may take two steps backward for every step they take forward, each step has a purpose, both personal and political, and Higgins nudges us toward action when he must, such as in these lines from “Getting Somewhere:”
                        I’m a man
            destined to turn up early
            for my own funeral, to spend 
            the morning redoing my tie
            and wondering where the hell
            everyone else has got to?

...strongly recommended.  

Other Titles from Kevin Higgins

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