Rita Ann Higgins
(Salmon Poetry, 2020); pbk: €12.00
The Coronavirus has dominated our lives over the last couple of years in more ways than one. Whether it be in the looting of toilet paper or many of us becoming experts in DIY, this pandemic has changed our lives in what looks like forever. In Pathogens Love A Patsy, Rita Ann Higgins presents the frustration and experience of these past two years, and also how far our new normal is from where it once was
The collection has three sections. It opens at the very beginning of the pandemic, asking that initial question of what we are to do with ourselves with all the extra time. Panic shop? Meditate on who you are? Higgins tries to focus on the funnier and more hopeful side of it all.
Take positive action.
Enrol in a night class on handwashing.
Duration ten weeks. No refund.
But those carrying their own sink
will get priority.
(‘Seal the Freezers’)
In this, we see Higgins’ unique way of using humour, which pokes fun at the darker underbelly of our pandemic-stricken lives. Her poems explore irritation and isolation. Humour becomes a way of dealing with both. For example, in ‘Cocoonery’ the set rules and rhymes of the instructions that emerged,
Stay at home, wash your hands.
Get intimate with your garden
is greeted with
If you get symptoms –
In my initial reading, I was confused at Higgins’ ordering of her collection as she starts with the beginning of the pandemic, moves to isolation, and finishes with poems before COVID 19. I had thought it would have been the reverse. However, on reflection Pathogens Love A Patsy starts with our new normal because it is our present. This has become our daily routine, our 9-5.
The second section breaks from consideration of the pandemic to take in the isolation of Hanna Greally, a woman mistakenly detained in a psychiatric hospital for two decades. Here, we see Higgins shine a light on the more depressing side of this pandemic. Whilst Hanna’s isolation is different to ours, many of us can still relate to that feeling of not being in control of our own lives. Like Hanna, we wait for a simple word or notice that our freedom is coming. We continue to wait until, like Hanna, we are reunited with our families again. Whilst Hanna still sees the positivity of one day getting back outside, for now, she is trapped:
If I ever get a box room
I will cherish it.
(‘I’m Hanna Greally’)
In the third section, Higgins takes us back to our life before the pandemic, creating a shock when we consider what we have grown accustomed to. Her first poem in this section is appropriately titled ‘Homage’ and describes the simple politeness of inviting a neighbour around for tea after some milk is bought for her. In the life we now know, we’d hesitate to invite a neighbour inside. It is no longer seen as impolite to not invite them inside; rather by keeping them out, we are keeping them safe.
Though this past life may seem alien to us now, she reminds us that this was our life and things can return to normal.
Get fresh air into your lungs.
Hug your cat or your dog,
take affection where you can.
Pathogens love a patsy, move on.
(‘Pathogens Love a Patsy’)