A poet with a chronic illness tackles Covid-19 with dark gallows humour

Somatic therapist Aisling Richmond introduces the latest collection by Kevin Higgins

Kevin Higgins with his portrait by Christopher Banahan

Kevin Higgins with his portrait by Christopher Banahan

 

I first knew of Kevin at a distance, as a widely published poet and curator of the Over the Edge writers’ group. Two years ago, I came to know Kevin much more intimately, when he came to me for support with his diagnosis of sarcoidosis.

Naturally enough, during our sessions, creative writing soon became a way for Kevin to process his experiences. We’d tap into the rich vein of a theme, which I’d invite him to explore further through his writing. The following week, he’d return, reaching one hand into his coat pocket, the other holding his usual takeaway cup of Barry’s tea, to produce a crumpled piece of paper on which was written a poem, fleshed out and fully formed since the session before.

These writings would soon join Kevin’s other poems and essays to form this new collection. His writing is so valuable. He not only shares his personal story of living with a chronic illness in his own unique and darkly humorous way, but also he captures something of the collective experience of living with the Covid-19 pandemic.

The title distils the essence of these times so well; where the normal and abnormal strangely co-exist. What should be casual and mundane – the colour yellow and the number 19 – refer instead to a world that has dramatically changed; with yellow as the colour of Ireland’s public Covid signs and 19 the number of a global pandemic.

Illustration: Gunilla Anderson
Illustration: Gunilla Anderson

With his “dark gallows humour” as he calls it, Kevin brilliantly subverts our cultural trend towards positive psychology, spin and denial to explore the taboo themes of death, disease, decay and disruption. In his poem Of The Coming Plague he has a conversation with death, wondering if it’s been terribly underrated and the victim of a smear campaign and instead might actually be like champagne and orgasms.

He writes about issues of intimacy in the poem Apart, where items such as “kitchen brushes” and a “retractable ostrich feather duster” come to the aid of the amorous in social distancing times.

As well as these life and death challenges which his humour greatly redeems, Kevin also writes openly and honestly in prose about what it’s like to live with a chronic auto-immune disease in Covid times, as he grapples with vulnerabilities both physical and psychological. His poem The Vulnerable speaks to the fear that many in our society must surely feel, of being the ones who will be left behind, conjured by the poignant image of a man left standing on the platform as the train leaves the station.

The lines that “Death is very small, but everywhere” also speaks to collective fears in these strange times, where under lockdown, he writes, “travelling to one’s own front gate becomes an exotic travel experience”.

But the disease that Kevin sees is not just contained within himself or related to Covid, but within society at large. As he himself says, he writes “satires on the crazy state of the world” where Who Runs Ireland, What Keeps Them Standing and The Advent of Mr Nothing are portraits of an untrustworthy and vacuous political centre;

“All the messiahs safely crucified;

the choice again, as it should be,

between the Imp of All Lies

and Mr Nothing.”

The poem Normal, which opens the collection, challenges the mantra of “let’s get things back to normal”, rejecting as it does the hollow core of business as usual.

Here the role of the artist is to stand at the edges of society and to hold a stark mirror up to it. By making space for the transgressive and taboo, the rebel vision calls for much-needed cultural change, and the poet’s words become an invocation to awaken. That personal and collective illness are interwoven in this book is deeply moving for me and holds echoes of DH Lawrence’s poem, Healing.

“I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections…

I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self…

…which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.”

Kevin’s writing is unflinching in its honesty. With a depth of vulnerability and a searing satire of society, it calls for an awakening. With a sharp taste that’s sweetened by his deliciously dark humour, it is a tonic that deserves to be drunk of deeply and shared widely in these challenging and unprecedented times.

Aisling Richmond is a somatic therapist and is studying fr a PhD in psychology and transformative leadership. The Colour Yellow & The Number 19: Negative Thoughts That Helped One Man Mostly Retain His Sanity During 2020 is published by Nuascealta

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