BOOKS: THE SUNDAY POEM

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work
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No 19 Rita Ann Higgins

A poet from Galway in the West of Ireland, with a brilliantly spiky, surreal blend of humour and social issues. Her poems are a witty mix of the erotic and the upfront political from a

female perspective, with wonderful rhythms that effortlessly incorporate direct speech. In

Ireland, there have been television and radio programmes about her and she has published several collections (Salmon Publishing, if you ask in Dublin bookshops). She is a member of the Irish Academy, Aosdana. One collection here so far, Sunny Side Plucked, from Bloodaxe.

This poem shows the way her imagination lunges out from the mundane to the surreal. Talking into a banana (one of those inhuman microphones on stalks in council offices, through which you chat to someone divided from you by bullet-proof plastic) is surreal enough. Then in the next line jobsearch scheme becomes a jobsearch dream. This is Wizard of Oz land - mad fantasy, bananas. A dream partly because it rhymes with scheme, partly you are not going to find a job, ever. The way it is put swings you out of the grey unemployment office to a cartoon world of talking bananas. Through this process of lolling between two worlds, the poem makes its bitter social anger bearable. You meet the shock of what she is saying head-on, but other elements - fantasy, wit, surreality - make sure you do not flinch away. It delights and intrigues while rubbing your face in below-the-poverty-line injustice.

These fireworks of fantasy and painful reality are formally contained within a single frame like a strip of neutral natural wood: the unemphatic observation Some people know what it is like ... and other people don't. As soon as you hit the bulk of the poem, the no-holds-barred language announces the level of political ferocity you are going to meet. The first four lines have a devastatingly swift forward rhythm, with their short words (everything's "short" in this bit) carried by consonants that shift from the comparatively soft n and nt (cunt, front, children, rent) to the harder t (short, short, short, light, short) to the hardness of k - school books, the crunch-phrase of these first four lines. You've got to have those books. The children must get out of this and education is the only way.

The next four lines lengthen for the longueur of waiting rooms of Welfare which are (self-refutingly) full of smoke. Sound-wise, we move from to be short to to wait. This is the first active verb (we are about to plunge into another passive, be half-strangled) but it has as much impotence about it as the first verb be called cunt. In your situation, the only active thing to do, is wait - even with a four-year toothache. Like be half-strangled by varicose veins, the bracketed phrase, the same tooth, is funny but at the same time turns up the anger. Content-wise, we move on from the first desperation, money for the kids, to your own health. But the same hostile system stonewalls you at every turn: from rent to school, from the ironically titled Community Welfare to the list. The people who operate this system, who call you names, look at teeth, put you on lists, do not appear: it is all impersonal, ineffable, implacable.

You now get more active. In the next couplet, you start to talk. But there is no one there to talk to, and all that talk ends in is dream. All very funny, talking into bananas, but not real and it gets you nowhere. The next four lines, the out of sequence, make this the third spittingly short word ending in t you have faced. Be short, to wait, be out. Work, the first thing you are out of, leads straight on from the no-job dream. The second, money, follows from that. The third and fourth are more personal. Out of fashion has two meanings: this woman needs clothes and friends as well as the basics for her family and health. But as Bessie Smith sings, nobody knows you when you're down and out. You are out of fashion among your better-off friends, as well as out of little luxuries. The jokily singular friend sums all that up. The last friend has disappeared with the last penny.

With that thought, the poem begins to sprout people. The first is welcome - The Vincent de Paul man from the Irish Catholic charity. But the rest want money you cannot give. You move from being out to being in, but the things you are in get madder and more painful, and the person who describes them, the only voice in the poem, who has to cover for you with impossible despairingly jokey (but bracketed) excuses, is your child. First you are in; then you are suddenly in space, ie, out, away from home. Then you keep being in Puerto Rico. Why there? Anyone's guess, but apart from the harmonies of week with Rico, the bunching of ks with blanket and coal, I bet it's something to do with West Side Story. "Puerto Rico, my heart's devotion, let it sink back in the ocean," is the place of poverty where the Jets and their struggling families came from. That great song "I Like To Be In America" sums up the everlasting immigrant dream, just as strong in Ireland as Puerto Rico. America - where even poverty is dreamed to be better. Puerto Rico - which reminds you that unjust poverty is everywhere.

Now you move into a typical Rita Ann Higgins cocktail of cut-throat tragedy and witty surreal logic: dead for the coal man, from an overdose of coal in the teapot. And back to pathos (in hospital unconscious) for the man who wants the very first thing you were short of. The rent has come back to haunt you. The next three lines make the poem's mounting anger on behalf of this woman explicit. Each is linked, in chain stitching, to a word from the one before. From second hand to second class; from second class to no class (which, among many ambiguities, flicks back to school books).

The last four lines, with their climax of short angry words, end in on. Lists are a very ancient poetic tool. Formally, this one is set up in rhythmic bunches of lines mostly related to each other by one short word: for, into, out of, in and finally on. Like Paul Durcan (Sunday Poem No 15), the incantatory repetition (every line beginning to be, as Durcan's poem repeats its pattern of forty-five years ... and you say) plugs into the Catholic Mass and the shadow of prayer. Higgins turns prayer-like repetition into a litany of anger about despair. The Vincent de Paul man does turn up, but so do all the hostile demands - which you can only escape by being, or pretending to be, in hospital unconscious. The last line, ringing back to the first, turns that whole simple commonplace observation into a savage and furious shrug.

c Ruth Padel, 1999

`Some People' is taken from Sunny Side Plucked (Bloodaxe)

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