TAKING US from the harsh realities of Baile Crua to the cautious serenity of the Spiddal bogs, Rita Ann Higgins’ new book Hurting God - part essay, part rhyme (Salmon ) is a short but intense spiritual autobiography.
Starting with the sentence: “The changes are going to be great in Baile Crua,” Rita Anne immediately, and without apology, sets out her stall in her normal uncompromising fashion and if Mary Coughlan’s ‘Delaney Is Back On The Wine’ was our introduction to the Shantalla Blues, Rita Anne’s Goddess on the bus to Eyre Square could well be the anthem of the Mervue Blues.
The structure of this 70 odd page memoir is unusual, not to say novel, in that a short essay precedes the 10 poems therein. The essays contain most of the autobiographical material while the poems mark the inner reaction of the now mature poet.
In their own way, the essays are yet another description of a frightened and confused girl seeking her own identity and who, through the strength of her own personality and the love of people close to her, comes to terms with her childhood and rebellion, finding a sense of personal fulfilment through her art.
However, the real power of the book is in the poems. In them we witness the poet’s spiritual growth (which occurs almost despite herself ). Initially imbued by Catholic guilt, the first poems in the collection are redolent of helplessness, fear, uncertainty and darkness.
Despite this sense of hopelessness, a familial warmth emerges, especially in one of the finest poems in the collection written surprisingly first in Irish, ‘An Teanga Eile’, and then translated into English.
The sheer simplicity and music of this poem, along with the driving beat of the lines, give it a power that leaves the reader breathless. So much so that the author’s English translation, while good in itself, goes nowhere near having the same effect.
The next two poems demonstrate the Rita Anne spikiness we have come to love as the teenager and young adult struggle to find their place in the world. ‘Be Someone’ has the same wonderful energy of ‘An Teanga Eile’ as the teenager recoils under the ceaseless admonitions of her elders. In ‘When The Big Boys Pulled Out’, the young adult becomes more independent finding her way in a brash new society that is as artificial as it is promising,
The unsure freedom of rebellion and independence is soon compromised by personal illness and the loss of a sibling. The short poem ‘Unadorned’, describing the arrival of her brother’s corpse in Shannon Airport is deeply moving:
In a room in Shannon Airport
where no one lived,
we looped the box
he came home in
a box with a number
none of us knew.
Recovery is at hand however through love as symbolised by the power of the hug and poetic creation, a serious spiritual self emerges that finally finds that cautious serenity in Spiddal, cautious because the Higgins aesthetic is always waiting for what is around the corner.
The essays and poems were written at night after the visits to “Himself” who was being treated for cancer add to their poignancy. The book is a courageous testament as Higgins lays her heart and soul bare and she does so with a wonderful inner strength and a total honesty.
Hurting God is an extraordinary statement bearing witness to a life fearlessly and fully lived. It is a volume of poetry with a serious Galway accent and, to coin the phrase of an erstwhile Woodquay shopkeeper is “mighty, on’y mighty”.
Rita Ann Higgins, along with poets Aideen Henry and Glenn Shea, will read at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, this Saturday at 6pm. Refreshments will be served and all are welcome