Kevin Higgins’ sixth poetry collection under the sardonic title “Ecstatic” starts with a dedication to the recently married Julian and Stella Assange, and this initial gesture is a perfect set-up for the poetic world we are about to enter. Prepare to be disillusioned, experience embarrassment for your government, mourn the death of journalism (and common sense at large), only to get to the core of the human condition and be inspired to choose love over gold, fear and power.
“Ecstatic” is your reality check and a test to face the truth, however ugly, without a flinch. Just like a wedding ceremony in a London high-security prison, in Higgins’ poems our life becomes a celebration of humour, devotion and the beautiful mundane in confinement of global politics and oppressive social circumstances.
The collection opens with the figurative lines: “The dread of being together / forcing us back to sleep”. And from there we are continuously forced to wake up and examine the world, look attentively at things that disconnect us, even if it is painful. This book is asking the reader to question not just their biased views, but the nature of thinking itself.
Kevin Higgins is the Daniel Kahneman of poetry, human behavior and judgement are scrutinized through the lens of his uncompromising language. Sharp as a razorblade, not a line missing, his poems are full of what could be idiomatic phrases but are actually invented by the author: “no one hates Holocaust denial more / than the old woman who runs a bed and breakfast / five miles from Auschwitz.”
These harsh truths could be overheard in an honest conversation between two old friends in a local pub, but instead they are now made available to a large audience of readers. We are dealing with the author brave and authentic enough to balance on the edge and take the risks to preserve the integrity of true art, so rare in our conformist times.
Occasionally, it leaves you wondering if the expressions so easily coined all throughout the collection have always been part of colloquial speech, which might be the highest achievement for a poet. Being so close to the vernacular, that at times their voice is hardly distinguishable from that of the people.
That being said, while perfectly attuned to the national discourse, Kevin’s poetry remains culturally multilayered and intellectually challenging, often metaphysical. With the focus on Higgins’ signature ruthless satire, this collection will make you laugh, bitterly and loudly, and you will hate yourself for it. Immune to inertia, his wit will keep you on your toes.
From absurdist poems verging on the surrealist aesthetic (“Not time yet / to commit suicide again…”) to the beautifully shameless and staggeringly funny erotica (“Her spine is a repossessed grand piano / you still play to yourself in your sleep”), this eclectic collection covers a surprisingly broad range of subjects. Its structure develops from the specific to the general, as an extensive metaphor for inductive reasoning.
We are allowed to take a peek at images of personal history, masterfully conveyed childhood memories of Coventry in 1973, share private yet universal grief for lost friendships, embrace the inevitable aging and sickness, and tenderly reflect on how our lovemaking changes as we grow older. This collection teaches us to be vulnerable and aware how fragile we are and how little time we have left.
What gives it a special depth are incredibly lyrical poems with the mental imagery of lungs and breath, trees and leaves. Together they create an almost therapeutic effect, like a blues song that helps relieve emotional tension. This sublime landscape of a rich individual inner experience comes in stark contrast to the social and environmental issues explored further on, and the entire poetic impulse of the book erupts into an anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-colonial sequence concluding with a merciless poem called “Past” that can be read to relate to both a particular life and the chronicle of humanity.
As a poet, on a personal and societal level Higgins is fighting the battle that can’t be won, and he knows it. Nonetheless, this is his job and Kevin proceeds with courage and self-irony to expose hypocrisy in ourselves and our communities. In “Serial Killer Dies” we are once again reminded of the corrupt nature of any government and our suicidal tendency to let the psychopaths in power decide our destiny.
Many poignant lines from other poems will stick with the reader for long and will be widely quoted without doubt, such as “someone dies of politically necessary starvation”, or the tragically accurate commentary on the George Nkencho’s resonating case: “coming at Gardai with a chemical imbalance, / what some people are calling a machete / and a totally inappropriate post code…”.
For me, as a Russian-born Irish resident, who writes in English, “Ecstatic” offered consolation and understanding, as well as led me to acceptance of the familiar world crumbling down time and time again. I spent my childhood on Coventry Street in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad), which is no longer twinned with the English city over the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Now that those links of solidarity are gone due to the psychotic unjustified actions of one man (and the criminal complicity of others), severing an 80-year connection of two hero cities heavily bombed during the second world war along with thousands of innocent Ukrainian lives, Kevin Higgins’ sixth collection emphasizes even more that there is so much in common between ordinary people of different nationalities and such an unthinkable abyss between us and the ruling class. The lies and agendas we are buying into, the false narratives and propaganda imposed on us are always a mass product, whereas “Truth is a paper-cut / no one but you knows is there.”