This is Rita Ann Higgins’ ninth collection, a poetic memoir about her working class, Catholic upbringing, a collection about loss, language, poetry and travel. There is a strong thread of repression and fear running through her work, which describes the drudgery of women’s lives, the poverty of poverty, and the sadness of realisation, all softened by touches of humour and tenderness.
The structure of the collection works particularly well. Each of the ten essays or poetic monologues is paired with a poem which complements it, distilling the essay’s message, intensifying its mood. This makes for a collection of real integrity.
The eponymous “essay” spotlights small details of ordinary, domestic life – “Septic tank talk was all talk and if it wasn’t septic tanks it was County Council talk…Are you going to the dispensary, Missus? No, I’m waiting for the County Council to come and fix a leak in my gutter.” Higgins captures memories of a 1960s childhood which are highly personal, yet which also tap into a wider collective remembrance – threading daisy chains, trapping wasps in jam jars, anticipating a bar of Turkish Delight. Woven into these images are memories of fear – of “a father” (as Higgins always refers to her emotionally distant father), and of a God who is easily slighted. The piece ends, “I knew that I was hurting God and that I would have to pay, sooner or sooner.”
The poem which follows, “This Was No Ithaca”, picks up on the theme of the sterility of the lives of women enthralled to “their loving Godling”. It opens, “The women of Baile Crua/never filled their heads/with yellow and pink rollers/letting on to be going somewhere/when there was no somewhere to go.” No Ithaca indeed.
Higgins’ combining of everyday images with the surreal has an unnerving effect, perfectly evoking ways in which we all use metaphor to make sense of those experiences and feelings for which labels are inadequate. “Crocodile Tears” opens, “My parents were in two places at the same time – they were out walking around the council estate we lived in and they were behind the wallpaper watching us run amok.”
Similarly, although Higgins writes in a lilting, conversational tone throughout her poetry and much of her prose, the injection of litanies has a transcendent, almost spiritual effect. In “The Faraways”, “Dread is a creaking gate in a neighbour’s yard or an upturned wheelbarrow. Dread is difference. Dread is seeing the stars in the shape of a hunter. Dread is the black owl. Dread is an old woman’s dream. Dread is a red-haired cailin on a boat.”
Of course, the collection is very personal (the original version was pulped following interventions from offended family members) but Higgins’ personal is also very much political. Behind the closed doors of home and church are the largely unwritten rules and strangleholds of husbands, God and community. And Higgins is equally at home behind the closed factory door. In “Brides of the Stitch ‘n Time”, the multi-nationals have arrived, providing work, money and “kissing stories” for the shirt factory girls. But the company flits abroad for cheaper labour, leaving the unemployed with nothing more than happy memories; happy indeed, “But as one of the girls from the shirt factory said to me one day in town outside Liptons, ‘Where can I cash that?’”.
Whether it’s describing the grim incomprehensibility of childhood, the death of her brother, passengers at Malaga airport, or contentment at Spiddal, this is indeed a collection, “full of sing, full of sorrow.”