Now the bubble has burst, we're left with our real treasures
CULTURE SHOCK:IN A BRILLIANT poem, Aerialist, in his recent collection Of All Places, John McAuliffe captures the sense of having been absent from the Celtic Tiger. McAuliffe, from Listowel, works in Manchester and so missed the daily lived experience of the boom years. In Aerialist, he writes of coming back to Kerry for a family holiday and being charged a fortune to get into a circus. This leaves him “wishing briefly I’d stayed, done an MBA and, some violence / to the language, lived it deal by deal.”
The lines are, in part, an in-joke. They consciously echo Derek Mahon’s reflection, in Afterlives, on his own physical absence from the Troubles: “Perhaps if I’d stayed behind/ And lived it bomb by bomb / I might have grown up at last / And learned what is meant by home.” The bathos of echoing “bomb by bomb” with “deal by deal” is entirely intended, the deadly transformed into the deluded. But the overall point is serious enough. A lot of Irish writing was, physically or mentally, absent from the boom, from the vulgarities and absurdities of a society being deconstructed deal by deal.
The boom was resolutely unpoetic, its hard-faced greed posing an impossible challenge to the lyricism that is the first resort of Irish writing. There is now a need to somehow make up for that absence, to engage with the afterlife of a period that was hard to write about when it was unfolding.
A writer who was never absent is Rita Ann Higgins. The publication by Bloodaxe of her new collection, Ireland Is Changing Mother, makes it timely to mark her steadfastness and courage, her unusual ability to be true to her own voice. That voice is more distinctive than it should be. It shouldn’t be unusual to hear a smart, sassy, unabashed, female working-class voice in Irish writing. But it is. Higgins’s achievement doesn’t depend on that rarity value, but it is certainly amplified by it.
Higgins is, quite consciously, an artistic outsider. One poem in the new collection, Burden of Proof, is written in the voice of someone in the box office of a theatre in Galway, questioning a would-be punter who is looking for a ticket at a concession price: “What are you, unemployed or unemployable? / . . . Who’ll pay Mark O’Rowe / for all that rape and rancour / if we let you in without proof.” Another, His Brazen Hair, is about a man on the ground outside a Brian Bourke exhibition at the Fairgreen gallery.
In other hands, these poems might seem like self-serving gestures: look at me, I’m not part of the establishment. But Higgins’s voice, forged over 25 years since the publication of Goddess on the Mervue Bus, in 1986, has a unique fusion of wry, deadpan humour on the one side and absolute sincerity on the other. She doesn’t congratulate herself for her sympathy with those who are (in this case literally) outside the world of art. She simply sees and writes. Her humour and playfulness keep sentimentality and self-righteousness resolutely at bay.
And what’s always mattered is where she sees from. Higgins’s point of view has always been bottom-up. This doesn’t mean her poems are peopled by victims. She has made what is still the most direct and powerful statement of the class divide in Irish society in Some People: “Some people know what’s it like / . . . to be in for the Vincent de Paul man / to be in space for the milk man / (sorry, mammy isn’t in today, she’s gone to Mars for the weekend . . . / and other people don’t.” That’s every bit as resonant now as it was in 1988. But the anger in her work is transmuted into invention and absurdity, and it rubs shoulders with other deliciously deadly sins, like lust and pride. Sex is important to Higgins’s way of seeing people: it turns them into individuals, gives them some kind of private power.
And Higgins is always a great observer. There’s a wonderful poem called Immortalsin the new book. It’s about that most unpoetic of subjects, boy racers “in Barbie Pink souped-ups / or roulette red Honda Civics”, and their molls with “eyebrows to slice bread with, / and landing strips to match.” She’s alive here to female desire and to the sexual charge of young men, and that awareness prevents the poem being condescending. She wraps them both in the aura of death, not to provide a puritan warning but to heighten the intensity of those fleeting energies.
The boom years had no great effect on Higgins’s voice, on her point of view or on her style. She had a manic linguistic energy long before the hysteria of the Tiger era quickened the pulse of the culture as a whole: Higgins could be regarded, in one of her guises, as Ireland’s first rapper. And the world to which her imagination responds was never that of the dealmakers. The jugglers – the term she coined for the frazzled poor of the Tiger years – were struggling to keep their balls in the air even when “we” were rich.
What this means is that Higgins doesn’t have to reinvent a postboom persona. Her sceptical vision hasn’t changed; it’s just become more like common sense. Her political satire hasn’t lost its edge, but it no longer reads as a cry in the wilderness. The world of faux-affluence (“The ones who camped out in the floods / to get the semi with the decking”) has collapsed into the territory of abandonment she has mapped so well for so long.
Thus, Higgins can give us, in The Builder’s Mess, the best image yet written of a ghost estate: “The Olympic rats run in and out / of unfinished drainpipes, / up bare-stairs, / devouring lagging jackets / in hot presses that never had heat.” The image is, as all good poetry should be, at once specific and metaphorical. It is a detail that contains a larger whole: a hot press that never had heat is the Tiger in a nutshell. Now the bubble’s burst, we’re left with our real treasures, and Rita Ann Higgins is one of them.