The Boy with No Face
ISBN 190339244, 2005
Salmon Press, $14.57
On the back cover of his first published collection of poetry, The Boy with No Face, Kevin Higgins is lauded for his potential to become “Ireland’s contemporary answer to Larkin.” And his satiric, self-deprecating, stylistically spare poems do invite the comparison. The book’s opening poem, “Confetti,” dispenses with portraying a life in all its fullness as “too much, too much,” favouring a minimalist examination of “bits and pieces” reminiscent of Larkin’s response, some five decades earlier, to a young lady’s photograph album: “too much confectionery, too rich, I choke on such nutritious images.” Higgins’s “Letter to a Friend about Girls” is openly acknowledged to be “after Larkin,” and its confessions of teenage ineptness with the opposite sex are written with the same grim outsider’s perspective on ostensibly worldly, sexualized insiders as Larkin’s “Reasons for Attendance” and “High Windows.”
Yet it is not enough to leave him languishing in Larkin’s shadow. He’s funny in a way that Larkin rarely was, aside from perhaps the grim humor of baby Easter chicks mauled to death in “Take One Home for the Kiddies” or his wry advice for the young that opens,“They fuck you up, your mum and dad….” Early in the collection, Higgins riffs off of his self-deprecating title as he contemplates leaving a steady job behind in exchange for the more economically and psychologically uncertain life of the poet: “You’ll visit your mother more and more often, / become what the girls at the office / call “the Norman Bates sort.” Larkin once grimly described his himself as an “indigestible sterility,” but the description certainly evokes pathos rather than laughter. Higgins’s descriptions invite laughter from beginning to end, as he adroitly personalizes, in the concluding lines, the metaphor of losing face: “the smirk has slipped, sunny Jim. / The face on the floor is definitely yours.”
Higgins approaches the subject of Irish national identity with the same good humour and honesty that he tackles his own, as in “I Am Ireland.” Whereas poets like Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney, and Padraig Pearse (Higgins’s inspiration for his poem’s form), have been compelled to approach it with an unwavering reverence that would be unthinkable (especially lately) in American or British poetry, Higgins instinctively recognizes the need to temper this vision, providing a satiric twist to Joyce’s description of Ireland as a culture of death and paralysis: in one poem, Ireland’s posthumous homage to William Joyce (whose radio broadcasts as “Lord Haw Haw” for the Nazis during WWII resulted in his execution by the English for treason) is emblematized by Mary Robinson posing with his skeleton; in another, an alcoholic Shop Street Crooner’s devotion to this or that dead hero, who “fought for Ireland ... mice ... squeaking in his prison cell” is certainly viewed as part and parcel of a personal failure to embrace life.
In poems such as “Café Du Journal” (a Galway coffee shop) and “A real Galwegian,” Higgins’s meticulous observations of Galway life provide not just local color, but a complex register of the changing surface of a newly affluent Ireland, for which the tide of immigration has only recently reversed, and new technologies have taken their toll (Ireland is now the most expensive country in Europe, with the highest rate of mobile phone use and one of the five most expensive shopping districts in the world). His take on international affairs is appropriately absurdist, even surreal, as in “Talking with the Cat About World Domination the Day George W. Bush Almost Choked on a Pretzel.”
Higgins’s description of the scalpel-wielding satirist is his poem “The Satirist” is likewise an apt description of his own approach, as he takes on everyone from egotistical lyric poets to reinvented local experts, from has-been socialists to capitalists to those who lack all conviction, from cowardly lovers to libertines:
… his mask slipping just a little,
they seem him briefly as he really is:
coming with a warrant, all their names on it.
If Higgins’s poetry is Larkinesque, it is equally possessed of a Whitmanesque breadth of vision and a Dickinsonian depth, culminating in a voice–funny, incisive, and genuinely modest–entirely his own.