Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital
Page Count: 98
Publication Date: Friday, June 14, 2019
Cover Artwork: © Simon Campbell | Dreamstime.com
About this Book
In Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital Kevin Higgins uses the blackest humour to throw some occasionally bizarre but mercilessly honest light on the vexed, and often absurd, subject of his chronic illness. In this, his fifth full collection of poetry, he also gives his readers, as they have come to expect, in poems steeped in the influence of Brecht, Swift, and Zbigniew Herbert, his views in undiluted form on everything from homelessness and identity politics to anal sex and comedians who used to be edgy during the 1990s. The book includes the satire on the marriage of Tony and Cherie Blair which led to his suspension from the British Labour Party in 2016. And in the final section, he presents us with a contemporary Dunciad which lacerates the poetry scene, both in Ireland and internationally, and takes out several journalists along the way.
“He is at home in the post-modern world, and moves with ease through his bewildering cast of characters and concerns... Higgins’s poetry engages with this world, making fun of it but with the full intention of making serious points... It is this ability to wring the ridiculous out of the sopping clothes of everyday life that makes Higgins’ work essential reading.”
“Just because Kevin Higgins’s politics are pants doesn’t mean he can’t write a good poem... I don’t share many of Kevin Higgins’ sentiments, but I like his wit.”
“Readers might get the feeling that Kevin Higgins will say anything.”
“Wry, trouble-making, poet.”
Kevin Higgins is co-organiser of Over The Edge literary events in Galway, Ireland. He teaches poetry workshops at Galway Arts Centre, Creative Writing at Galway Technical Institute, and is Creative Writing Director for the National University of Ireland – Galway Summer School. He is poetry critic of The Galway Advertiser. His poetry is discussed in The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry and features in the generation defining anthology Identity Parade – New British and Irish Poets (Ed. Roddy Lumsden, Bloodaxe, 2010) and in The Hundred Years’ War: modern war poems (Ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, April 2014).
Kevin’s poetry has been translated into Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, German, Serbian, Russian, & Portuguese. In 2014 Kevin’s poetry was the subject of a paper ‘The Case of Kevin Higgins, or, The Present State of Irish Poetic Satire’ presented by David Wheatley at a Symposium on Satire at the University of Aberdeen. He was Satirist-in-Residence at the Bogman’s Cannon (2015-16). 2016 – The Selected Satires of Kevin Higgins was published by NuaScéalta in 2016; a pamphlet of Kevin’s political poems The Minister For Poetry Has Decreed was published, also in 2016, by the Culture Matters imprint of the UK based Manifesto Press.
His poems have been praised by, among others, Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, and Sunday Independent columnist Gene Kerrigan; have been quoted in The Daily Telegraph, The Times (UK), The Independent, The Daily Mirror, Hot Press magazine and on Tonight With Vincent Browne; and read aloud by the film director Ken Loach at a political meeting in London. In 2016 The Stinging Fly magazine described Kevin as “likely the most read living poet in Ireland.” He has published five collections of poetry with Salmon, most recently Song of Songs 2.0: New & Selected Poems (2017).
Kevin has read his work at Arts Council and Culture Ireland supported poetry events in Kansas City, USA (2006), Los Angeles, USA (2007), London, UK (2007), New York, USA (2008), Athens, Greece (2008); St. Louis, USA (2008), Chicago, USA (2009), Denver, USA (2010), Washington D.C (2011), Huntington, West Virginia, USA (2011), Geelong, Australia (2011), Canberra, Australia (2011), St. Louis, USA (2013), Boston, Massachusetts, USA (2013) & Amherst, Massachusetts, USA (2013), & New Mexico, USA (2018). Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital is his fifth full collection of poems.
LAUNCH INTRODUCTION SPEECH BY MOLLY TWOMEY (presented by her at the Galway launch in June 2019 at The House Hotel).
It’s an honour to launch Kevin Higgins’ latest collection, Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital. When Kevin asked me to do this, I wondered if it was a joke, but it’s a very Kevin thing to do. He has always been so generous to new writers, providing them with a platform through Over the Edge and consistent encouragement through his classes both in person and online. I first met Kevin in 2015 as a student in NUI Galway, a year after he was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, though none of us would have known it. That poetry class was the liveliest hour of my week. Kevin introduced me to poetry, he showed me that I had a voice and that what I had to say mattered. Without that class, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be writing today.
As we all know, Kevin is famous for his biting satire. His early poem, “Knives,” published in 2005 with the memorable line that words are not “decorations but knives” still stands today. Only a few weeks ago, his poem “Listening Exercise,” where he makes fun of Labour MP John McDonnell, was pulled from the Morning Star by Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. A clear indication of how sharp and powerful Kevin’s work has become over the last decade.
So, you’ll understand my surprise when I opened the first section and found heart rendering poems, arguably, love poems. Full of cats, brown clock radios, morning papers, cups of tea and not one but two chocolate eclairs. There is a strong sense of appreciation for the ordinary or what Kevin calls “a festival of making do.”
Despite having lungs like “rooms in which the low wallpaper is slowly falling down,” Kevin has not lost his sense of humour and knack for self-deprecation. He considers donating his private parts to a museum and refuses to re-mortgage this “sad sagging thing on the sofa”. This humour can only come from illness, pain and years of contemplating mortality. The maggots and bacteria eating flesh, bitten fingernails and the mould of the grave are bleak but raw and genuine. Kevin encourages the reader to live for the present, to make love to the world in all its imperfection because, in the end, it will swallow us “as it must”.
In section two, “My View of Things,” Kevin highlights inequalities across all areas of our society, from homophobia to classism, there is no subject left uninterrogated. For me, the most striking poem in this section was “Heavy Clogs,” based on the mother and baby home in Tuam. It isn’t the nuns Kevin puts on the stand but the schoolmistresses, the county council workers, the journalists, the ordinary people like you and I, guilty of silence and pretending as if the earth wasn’t one big “sarcophagus”. Kevin encourages anger in the reader and that’s where his power lies. It’s these poems that hold society accountable and hopefully prevent tragedies like this in our future.
According to The Irish Times, at the end of 2018, there were 5,997 people living in direct provision. What was meant to be a short-term solution has now become a national crisis and Kevin takes on the persona of national authorities to demonstrate the manipulation of the public. Lines like “the wire we put around them, isn’t even barbed,” and an eight-month-old baby who is found guilty and “expires” makes the reader question the excuses dished out for the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers. I laughed at these poems but was also left with a deep sense of shame for ignoring these issues because its easier than facing them.
I did find myself in these poems, which is highly uncommon when reading the poetry of an older man. Often, when choosing a collection, I reach for young female writers as I am more likely to find something relatable, but Kevin sees all levels of society. He is so adeptly aware of gender, class, race and age. He represents the supermarket shareholder in his hotel by Lake Geneva but also “the checkout assistant with holes in both her shoes / whose soul he quietly owns.” As a receptionist on minimum wage in an economically thriving business, I felt seen in his work and that’s rare but vital for me.
In this collection, Kevin also takes on the literary world and challenges what a poem is. In the last section, “The World Festival of Literary Intercourse,” he refuses to submit to the glorified images of the muse that saturate Irish poetry. In a brilliant poem, “The Bailiff’s Daughter,” he takes Austin Clarke’s “The Planter’s Daughter” and completely flips it on its head. The daughter is not “the Sunday / In every week” but the “bitter Wednesday evening / In every week / when your last toenail went black.” The sound of her is a “Kate Bush song / shrieked / By a cantankerous priest / With cancer in his throat.” Similarly, he takes Mary Oliver’s romantic “Wild Geese” and turns them into “Feral Hogs” dragging “their bacon selves’ home.” Kevin is a poet who sees things as they are, he does not waste time with the mystical, preferring the corporeal and the pleasingly disgusting. I’ll take poems full of caterpillar eyebrows and false teeth over poetic waffle any day.Ultimately, this is a collection that explores what it is to be alive in modernity, that contemplates injustice in our society but also reflects on the certainty of death. This collection will make you laugh, cry and gasp in shock and it might too, change your view of things.