When I moved to Galway, Ireland in the summer of 2007 from Dublin, I was informed, by various characters in varying states of sobriety, that the man I should seek out was Kevin Higgins, who, with his wife, Susan Millar DuMars, runs the successful Over the Edge series in Galway. And those folks in Dublin were right. Kevin was one of those guys one wants to know–he and Susan are supportive of local talent without a hint of parochialism and have (along with others, to be sure) done much to make Galway an exciting place to be a poet.
But what does this have to do with Time Gentlemen, Please (Salmon, 2008), Kevin Higgins’s second book? Well, in one sense, relatively little. There are plenty of examples of founders of influential writing groups and important reading series who… well… can’t write for squat. Likewise, there are plenty of very good poets who just can’t seem to get along with the human race at large. The skills required to be an advocate for poetry–its public presence in a given place–are somewhat distinct from the ability to write well. But it certainly doesn’t hurt either skill set if one has both. And Higgins, to his credit, is a good poet as well as being a good organizer and advocate.
Time Gentlemen, Please is, fundamentally, a book about growing older. Sure, there are plenty of those, but what sets Higgins’s work apart is a sense of changing perception of where one stands in relation to history. And much of this flows from his own background on the Trotskyist left as an ex-member of the Militant Tendency. Though there have been plenty of poets with a Marxist background (myself included), I cannot recall a collection that addresses the actual experience of being a left-wing political activist quite so directly. In “My Militant Tendency”, Higgins describes himself as a youth in the early 1980s, flush with revolutionary fervor:
“Instead of masturbation, I find socialism.
While others dream of businessmen bleeding
in basements; I promise to abolish double-chemistry class
the minute I become Commissar…”
But the disillusionment sets in as time goes on. In “The World Socialist Party of Honeysuckle Heights” a branch meeting is “[l]ess the vanguard/of the proletariat, than a dinner party/that kept not happening”, and the protagonist in “The Cause” degenerates from “the campaigner” to “the mad fucker with the sign”.
These poems capture that sense one can get manning a literature table at a demonstration, of being somehow adjacent to history but really not shaping it. Whether it be the late British Trotskyist leader Ted Grant poring over the newspapers while drinking endless cups of tea (“Death of a Revolutionary: Ted Grant”), or the narrator imagining that the guy running a B & B in rural Ireland “is ex-Romanian army” (“The Great Escape”) the poems are haunted by a sense of broad social forces at work, and Higgins’s evolving attitude toward them.
Coupled with the retreat of great ambitions on the political front is a parallel recognition of the difficulties the personal lives of those around him. In particular, Higgins’s father, described in “Family Dispute” as “the sad man in the caravan/who keeps coming back/at me in poems” is a repeated presence. Just as history can be uncooperative with Marxist theory, likewise the life of an individual is revealed as unconducive to more modest five-year plans.
This should by no means imply grandiosity or stultifying solemnity, though. Higgins’s work is leavened by an ability to laugh, not only at the shortcomings of the world around him, but at himself. “Living Proof”, dedicated to his wife, captures this:
“The poet, who this time twenty years ago was busy
failing English in the Leaving Cert, waits
at the end of the aisle for the woman,
who by dinner time will be his
new American wife; remembers
on this best June day, the night
he boarded the bus at the end of a previous life,
where he was just a throwaway remark
in a kebab shop on West Green Road; living proof
that if you keep not trying eventually
it won’t happen. This best June day.
The sun extravagant, the music starting to play…”
And Higgins, to his credit, may have disavowed some of the ideas of that young messer of a revolutionary on his winding path to the aisle, but he still clearly likes and sympathizes with his former self, and he always stops short of an endorsement of the status quo. Though no longer a revolutionary, he remains a rebel.
On occasion, the book does wobble a bit. One of the problems with having a sense of humor as a poet is that it can lead to a comic rather than poetic closure. Higgins generally avoids this, using the comic to bolster serious points with a great deal of verbal ingenuity. But in a few poems, such as “Keyser Soze Does Not Frighten Me”, one senses the presence of a borscht-belt comedian in the white space of the right-hand margin whispering, “Take my wife–please!” But such moments are rare, and even if they don’t quite match up with the general incisiveness of the book, they do remain funny.
Time Gentlemen, Please is not only a good collection, but it establishes Higgins as a writer who is not only doing something no one else is doing, but who is doing it well and getting away with it. And we should be glad he is.