Joe Conroy welcomed a poetry collection in Issue 32 (June 2008).
Kevin Higgins, Time Gentlemen, Please (Salmon Poetry)
The least controversial definition of poetry is ‘writing that doesn’t go all the way to the right-hand side of the page’—which, given the parlous state of the rainforests, demands a greater justification for publishing it. But this book would pass any such test without breaking sweat, containing a substantial range of poems that bring a smile to the lips and a spark to the imagination. Readers of this magazine will know of Kevin Higgins in poetry and in prose, and his second collection confirms him as a poet the left should be listening to.
Often he deals with the usual material of poets always and everywhere: love requited and unrequited, the successes and failures of human relationships, nature, death and the rest. Anyone who avoided these would be no poet at all, and these eternal themes are treated here with an originality born of having lived and considered experiences, an originality that evokes recognition.
It is an unusual but quite refreshing thing to note about a poet of the left, but in his first collection The Boy With No Face (also published by Salmon, in 2005) Higgins actually succeeded better with such ‘non-political’ poetry than with the ‘political’. (Those quotation marks are there to signify the fluid and ultimately invisible boundary between the two, but you know what I mean.) Here, however, no such dissonance can be heard, and his political poems break higher ground. It’s not just that he avoids the pitfalls of versified sloganeering—although that is still something to be grateful for in itself—but that he doesn’t become any less poetic for being political.
Poetry dealing with the milestones and millstones of your life is nothing new, but it is rare to read poems that openly deal with the specifics of a socialist’s life. All of us go through more or less the same kind of things, but you go through them a bit differently if you’ve been determined since your youth to turn the world upside down. ‘My Militant Tendency’ (p 33) talks of being a teenager, but not by the commonplace reference points of songs on the radio or fashions followed:
It’s nineteen eighty two and I know everything.…
I’d rather be putting some fascist through
a glass door arseways, but being fifteen,
have to mow the lawn first.…
Instead of masturbation, I find socialism.
While others dream of businessmen bleeding
in basements, I promise to abolish double chemistry class
the minute I become Commissar.
Likewise, in ‘To Curran’s Hotel’ (p 34) the demolition of a local pub brings to mind left-wing meetings attended there rather than pints sunk and girls scored there. While other poems testify to someone who is no stranger to the usual ups and downs of personal life too, the particular swings and arrows of a life lived on the left are as fit a subject for poetry as anyone else’s.
A tense and awkward father-son relationship is painfully familiar, but ‘Dad’ (p 42) tells of one with politics added to the mix. Son tells father that all his ideas are wrong, to which father replies that if son had his way, Moors murderers would be let free to promote their memoirs. But in the end the son all but thanks his father for deciding to “allow me / to keep contradicting myself / until I find out what it is / I’m trying to say”.
A poet reacting to a historically meaningful site has been done many times before, but ‘St Petersburg Scenes’ (p 31) comes at it from the left:
_____________________a man, whose
role in his own Bolshevik fairytale
has long since earned him a place
on the FBI’s least wanted… gazes
meaningfully into the past.
This kind of self-deprecation in the presence of world-historic significance is rare but essential for any sane socialist, the injunction from the Parisian barricades to take the revolution seriously but not take ourselves too seriously.
Sometimes a poem here hits a nail on the head of the left’s faults. In ‘The Annual Air Show Protest’ (p 62) Higgins affirms that he would sooner campaign for Paris Hilton on a unicycle than fall in with the dreams of hoary nostalgic Stalinists. The influence of George Orwell is obvious in ‘From Grosvenor Square to Here’ (p 59):
Sentences that run on and on,
like a hacking cough. Exclamation
marks which can be seen coming
a mile off, as you load them onto
your machine gun tongue and fire!
You’ve hawked that suitcase
full of broken old slogans all the way…
if rigormortis could talk
this is how it would sound.
A wise man once said that someone who is seen on every picket is no good on any picket, because he’s only there for the sake of picketing. ‘The Cause’ (p 52) paints a cautionary picture of someone starched into the role of a professional protestor, going through the motions without feeling a thing:
Each morning he decides
what he’s against today,
puts on that screaming red beret
and goes; is years past the point
where the campaigner became
the mad fucker with the sign
But where do you go if you don’t go down these roads? ‘Death of a Revolutionary’ (p 39) describes a socialist leader carrying his “plastic bag / still packed with propaganda, / but the world going the other way”. While there was a time when “My every thought [was] part / of your master-plan”, the poet sits and concludes that “I do not say, as you did: / ‘We have kept the faith.’” Is this a rejection of a specific type of socialism, or of the whole idea of it? When you listen to The Who’s classic ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, you ask yourself whether this embittered look back in anger at 1968 and all that is a denial of revolution or a call for a better one. As the sublime Keith Moon drumming duels with the intelligent synthesiser, you draw your own conclusion, whatever Pete Townshend intended notwithstanding. It is only right that poetry throws up tough questions without easy answers, the ambiguity forcing you to think for yourself—and the poet’s own reading is not the only one possible.
Higgins’s criticisms of the left pave the way towards its renewal, not its repudiation, impetus for creating a left that is honest and liberating. Other poems show how little time he has for those who go over to the dark side. If there are fifty ways to leave your lover, there are many more ways to leave socialism. ‘Betrayals’ (p 50) tells witheringly of someone who takes refuge in a detoxed lifestyle when the workers refuse to play the progressive role allotted to them. ‘Page From The Diary Of An Officially Approved Person’ (p 57) is the story of a bought-and-paid-for poverty industrialist whose “new blonde hair / and state-sponsored smile are twin planks / in the Government’s anti-poverty strategy”. A revolutionary swaps his principles for a suburban marriage, a career in management and an early death in ‘Ending Up’ (p 53-4):
Catastrophe comes in many guises
and not always with the strident voice
of a doomed member of the Baader-Meinhof.
It also arrives, more quietly,
on the Essex side of the M25.
‘The Candidate’ (p 58) saw only the choice of “making up worlds that will never be… or grow up to be / Junior Minister for Counter-Terrorism”. He chooses the latter, and dreams of persecuting those who didn’t.
‘Firewood’ (p 61) is a good example of poetry reaching the parts that prose cannot. Eyewitness accounts of the genocide in Darfur are interspersed with glib comments from the wings (the left wing, unfortunately) like “It’s problematic to describe this as genocide. / The solution is not military intervention.” The common response to such horrors calls out for something or someone to go in and do something. While the US Marines are unlikely to improve anything they touch, the simple humanitarian instinct is ultimately far more worthwhile than the unfeeling rehearsal of pat slogans from a safe distance. To express the contradictions, doubts and tensions involved here is difficult, but this poem does a good job of it.
‘Careful Driver’ (p 84) provides the one line that exhibits a plain lack of imagination: “a bad week in Bognor Regis”. Now, I’ve never been to Bognor Regis, but I’ve a feeling that Kevin Higgins hasn’t either. To employ that much-maligned English seaside resort to conjure up humdrum mundanity smacks of the tired clichés of 1970s comedy with all its frilly shirt fronts and inaccurate Frank Spencer impersonations. But the fact that this slip stands alone among seventy-odd poems underlines that here is a poet who sands and polishes his words, who probably has a load more not yet finished enough to earn the light of day.
There are a couple of poems here just for us. The images and references will go over their heads in Poetry Ireland, but us socialists can catch them if we keep our eyes open. ‘The Interruption’ (p 16) stands in a long line of poems inspired by works of art, but the picture brought to life here (without being mentioned) is Boardman Robinson’s 1918 cartoon where a dinner party of capitalists is interrupted by the hand of Bolshevik revolution.
In ‘Kronstadt, Winter Song’ (p 32) “ghost insurgents / wander the white, / chasing remembered sparks / of Aurora”. This image of Aurora works (as all the best literary critics say) on several levels. The aurora borealis is a fantastic natural light show, of course, and Aurora was the goddess of the dawn. But a socialist reader may remember that it was the ship Aurora that launched the attack on the Winter Palace in 1917. The Kronstadters longed again for the spectacular dawn, but it was a spectacular dawn of real workers’ revolution.
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. Anyone who responds to good poetry will find in Time Gentlemen, Please a collection to read and enjoy, but socialists especially can learn more from it of what we are and what we need to become.