Making our own hope and history

 

POETRY: PAUL PERRYreviews New and Selected PoemsBy Michael D Higgins Liberties Press, 180pp. € 14.99

MICHAEL D HIGGINS’s New and Selected Poemsappears during his campaign to become the next President of Ireland. In a foreword, Abbot Patrick Hederman OSB tells us that poetry “should be a guide towards the future and an essential voice in the drama of creating a more habitable planet”. The rhetoric is similar to Higgins’s own aspirational manifestoes and lyrics. His poetry certainly shares his political zeal and humanitarian scope. In fact Higgins does not shy away from the political in his poems. In The betrayal, he visits his father in the poorhouse or “in the liberated era of Lemass, / given a saint’s name, ‘St. Joseph’s’.” He continues:

It was 1964, just after optical benefit

was rejected by de Valera for poorer

classes

in his Republic, who could not afford,

as he did

to travel to Zurich

for their regular tests and their

rimless glasses.

Higgins’s republic would be a different one indeed, we are left in no doubt. In his presidential campaign, he talks about a “real” republic, one of inclusion and creativity. And yet, even with such a civic-minded poetics, there is a deeply personal thread throughout, so much so that there is the feel of memoir about the collection. In fact the five sections of the New and Selected Poems– ‘Early Days’, ‘Of Rural Realities’, ‘The Gaze Not Averted’, ‘Of Irony and Insufficiency’, ‘Of Friendship, Loss and Hope’ – all begin with a prose piece in which we hear about, among other things, the wireless, a father’s illness, a farm on which the young Michael D learns to milk a cow and sow turnips and how he went barefoot in summer. When his father dies, a “sleveen republican offer of a military funeral” is declined. But this is not another misery memoir and the reminiscences at times are accompanied by a more sermonising note. They also invoke other poets such as Austin Clarke, Paul Durcan, Patrick Kavanagh and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. There is also warmth and humour here. Beginning the section ‘Of Irony and Insufficiency’, Higgins writes that “for a republic, Ireland has a very large number of chains of office. Indeed, I recall events I attended as mayor of Galway, where great pleasure was expressed at ‘the presence of the chain here tonight’.”

Formally, Higgins employs a short line which is sometimes slack and arbitrary, but the poems do have something of the social document about them, and read like an authentic record of rural life. This sense of authenticity is amplified with rich detailing strokes such as the “velvet” ears of an ass or the “sciartáns” (a blood-sucking maggot found on cows’ udders) mentioned in The death of the red cow. At other times, the statesman’s rhetoric enters the poems and the register of the language becomes inflated and the verse veers into the territory of platitude; for example when Higgins writes, “memory gives birth / to imagination” in Of utopiasor “is it the fate of sons to become their fathers” in Of sons and fathers. Other filial poems remember his mother. In Dark memorieshe quotes her as saying “If I was starting out again / it’s into a convent I’d have gone”.

Titles such as Foxtrot in San Salvador, Pol Pot in Anlon Vengalso suggest a political awareness beyond Irish shores, but it is poems such as The minister’s black carand Jesus appears in Dublin in 1990 at the Port Docks Board site, and Minister for Justice addresses new Irish citizens who were previously non-persons seeking asylum or workwhich carry the greater outrage and ironic bite.

It is a difficult task to combine political engagement with a poetic vocation. It’s not that poets are the unacknowledged legislatures of the world, as Shelley had it, something which better describes the secret police, Auden quipped in response, but that the independence of a poet is vital. Michael D Higgins has dedicated his life to politics and to public life. As the Easter Rising’s centenary approaches, it begs the question – what would it be like to have a president who is also a poet? As Higgins writes in one poem, “we make our own hope and history”.


Paul Perry’s latest book is The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance, published by the Dedalus Press last year