After the pulping
POETRY/MEMOIR: KIT FRYATTreviews Hurting God: Part Essay, Part Rhyme, By Rita Ann Higgins, Salmon Poetry, 85pp, €12
‘IT’S CALLED Poking God, isn’t it?” says my interlocutor over coffee. He has read in the newspapers that the first run of this book had to be pulped; a family dispute of some sort. He thinks I might have some literary gossip. I don’t. “ Hurting God,” I reply, and he sighs at the implied melodrama of it.
The cover, a collage of rosaries, Mass cards and holy medals, might likewise do more to convince browsers that they are not in the company of a misery memoir. The hyperbole of the title is not Rita Ann Higgins’s own but that of a beloved mother who has internalised the strictures of a religious establishment preoccupied with the examination of conscience to the exclusion of attention to good deeds: “All this carry on was hurting God. I knew by the look on my mother’s face. She had a hurting God look . . . God was crucified by bungalows and washing machines, and venetian blinds and by tight slacks on women.”
Higgins herself prefers to poke than to wound; in a less conservative culture, her claim to the role of “disturber” (made here in the prose piece The Faraways)might seem self-dramatising. But her sustained commitment to social justice, combined with disarming unpretentiousness and a good humour never precluding anger, makes her a welcome rarity among Irish poets.
The book’s subtitle is, however, genuinely misleading. It is no dismissal of Higgins’s cadenced prose passages to say that none achieves the kind of argumentation that “essay” implies; there’s no evidence that she has even attempted an essayistic style, however colloquial or intimate. Instead we are treated to a lively parataxis that we mistake for faux-naïvetéat our own risk. Higgins is as often artful as she is inexact, sometimes both in the same paragraph. In A Future Pickled with Funerals(the embalming metaphor of that title is so maddeningly semi-realised I think the imprecision might just be deliberate) she sets up a ripple of sound and figuration, only to ruin it with carbuncular cliche and a redundant final clause: “My mother said, ‘Run after God but never run after the ball. Let the ball run away. Your dreams can be made up of other chases, say the wind, say the moon, say the blackbird, say the rabbit, say the hare’. We had a four or five or six year old reason to cry, floods of tears, and he was buried in the graveyard near the racecourse, near enough to watch us play.”
There are as few rhymes in the poems as there are arguments in the prose; the best of them, The Priest Is Coming We Can Feel It in Our Bonesand When the Big Boys Pulled Out, are reprinted from Higher Purchase(1996). A clutch of newer work, we learn from the acknowledgments, is forthcoming next year in Ireland Is Changing Mother. This Is No Ithacabodes well for that Bloodaxe collection; readers can hope the Paul Durcan pastiche of Malaga O’Malagais an isolated mis-step.
It is as difficult to see in what sense Hurting Godis new, as Karen Steele puts it in her preface, as it is easy to see that it is often delightful. The mixture of mutually illuminating confessional verse and prose memoir can surprise no one who has encountered the substantial modern tradition following Robert Lowell’s Life Studies; much of the material is, or will soon be, available elsewhere. Nonetheless, Hurting Godis a sampler by a one-time bride of the stitch ’n time well worth picking up.
Kit Fryatt lectures in English literature at Mater Dei Institute of Education, where with colleagues she co-ordinates the activities of the Irish Centre for Poetry Studies