Sex, death and Swiftian satire

Kevin Higgins on his new poetry collection

Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital is the arresting title of Kevin Higgins’ new collection of poetry, which is published by Salmon and will be launched on Saturday, June 14, at the House Hotel.

This, his fifth full collection, sees Higgins deploy his trademark black humour to throw some occasionally bizarre but mercilessly honest light on the vexed, and often absurd, subject of his chronic illness and 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 a couple of journalists along the way.

I caught up with Higgins on Tuesday morning as the final counts from the local and EU elections were ongoing and, given that politics are such grist to his poetic mill, I asked for his thoughts on the overall results; “They make me think there is as much a danger of the rise of the far right in Ireland as elsewhere,” he muses. “If you look at Peter Casey’s vote, he won’t get in, but it’s obvious from the exit polls that a lot of people lied about voting for him and if it wasn’t for Ming, Casey could have got in easily. Ming can tap into people’s discontent and he is rural and small town in a way that the Labour Party here has abandoned. There will be a certain relief among the establishment that they can have a nice chap like Ciaran Cuffe rather than Sinn Féin to deal with; the sort of person they could invite to dinner in Blackrock! In Britain, the situation is insane. There will be a lot of pressure now for a second referendum but I think that would be a catastrophe though I hope I’m wrong. It could be like the 1983 abortion referendum here; even if Remain won, and it could only be narrowly, I dread to think what wild emotions it would dredge up.”

While the world’s current state of chassis spells worry and stress for the ordinary citizen it must be rather a boon for a satirist? “In the last five years it has been relentless and it has been great fun and I’ve loved writing these poems,” Higgins admits. “When I started writing poetry, in 1996, the world was relatively stable, even boring, whereas since 2014 nothing has gone right and it has been hugely entertaining for me, obviously in a dark way. We’ve had Brexit, Trump, and every day something comes in that makes me think ‘that could be a poem’. I’m just now finishing the proofs of the book and swinging into the news comes Maria Bailey. I keep getting requests to write poems about this, that and the other; this week it was where was my poem on the demise of Theresa May. The way the poetry tends to go for me is that I’ll have a poem that is satirical in an outward way, about events, and then there will be a poem that is more internal about this illness and all of that though there is a satirical, surreal side to that as well.”

The book’s opening section is entitled ‘Sex and Death’ and addresses Higgins’ illness with candour and typically trenchant humour and vivid imagery –‘my lungs belong in a shop/ that sells second-hand bagpipes to the gullible’ – he writes in ‘The Reckoning’.

“My health is an ongoing struggle; it is a bit better than it has been,” Kevin tells me. “I have this weird auto immune disease that causes scarring on my lungs. It wasn’t caused by smoking because I’ve only ever smoked about 10 cigarettes in my whole life. I’ve had it for about 12 years and it got bad about five years ago. I was coughing more and feeling more tired. They put me on steroids and steroids, champagne and social media are great craic when combined! No, I didn’t like the steroids really. Now they have me on these infusions that I go out to Merlin Park to get every eight weeks which is where the title poem comes from. It has a weird side effect of first I have no energy then, a couple of weeks later, I am absolutely buzzing. I have to find a balance, especially with the all the work I have to do. So it goes, a lot of people have a lot worse. My only worry would be not being able to work, that is the battle.”

Power, pomposity and pretension are skewered repeatedly throughout the book and, showing a parity of disesteem, Higgins is just as willing to take a pop at figures on the left as on the right. But does his satirical impulse stem as much from a disillusion with youthful ideals as a puckish delight in firing literary darts at deserving targets? “Both sides are there, both the disillusion initially and the enjoyment in firing the darts,” he admits. “When I started writing poetry I initially saw it as a way of getting away from politics but in the long run that has been a total failure as I’ve ended up right back in the middle of it. I wanted to find my own space and voice and particularly in using humour and wit in dealing with things that became increasingly important. I find over-earnestness offputting. I like the voice that satire brings; Jonathan Swift is my ultimate hero. If you can make someone laugh at what they think they believe you can go some way toward changing their mind I think.”

Not all the poems are in a satirical register; the quietly powerful ‘Sold’ conjures a family home through simply listing memories it evokes; ‘The window I once climbed in / The room where I learned my Latin./ The telephone that was twice cut off. / The hallway light that was always on. / The kettle I was constantly boiling. / The window by which our Christmas tree stood. /The bathroom the President of Ireland once used. /The bedroom in which a student unsuccessfully slit her wrists. / The doorbell the Socialists rang to summon me./ The letter box my school reports came in through. / The front door I still have a key to. /The room I saw her die in.’

There is also a quasi-surreal, funny and beguiling love poem to Higgins’ wife, ‘Susan’, which begins; ‘Your hair is a wide brown meadow / through which the wind has just begun / to whisper the word winter. / Your eyebrows are caterpillars / perpetually on the verge of /moving off in opposite directions. /Your ears, two appropriately placed question marks.’

That poem is cited as ‘after Andre Breton’ and quite a few of the poems in the collection are styled as being after famous writers such as Saul Bellow, Christina Rosetti, Bertolt Brecht, Brendan Behan, John Cooper Clarke, Rilke and others. “They are like exercises in form,” Higgins states. “When I read a poem by another poet, maybe translated from another language, I see the approach they took to a subject and the shape of the poem and I think maybe I could take that approach to another subject. I use the shape of the original poem like a container into which to pour the liquid of my own poem. I find that inspiring and it feeds into my work because I teach a lot of poetry workshops so am always looking for new poems and that is enriching.”

Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital will be launched at the House Hotel at 6pm, on Saturday, June 14, where the guest speaker will be Molly Twomey.

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