Books: From feminism to failing bodies

There is a strong feminist sensibility in Laurence McKeown’s debut collection of poems, written during (and after) his incarceration in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh where he almost died, having been on hunger strike for 70 days. The poems, some of which are gently humorous in their observations, deal with politics, family, desire and love and are divided into two sections; ‘poetry from prison’ and ‘poetry post release 1992.’

In ‘Margaret’, dedicated to the poet’s mother, this heartfelt lengthy poem written from prison, celebrates a woman who was soft-hearted, strong and given to overlooking minor transgressions in the boy the narrator once was.

As for the narrator’s political activities and his mother’s reaction to them, he writes of a woman who stood before “the assembled might of Imperialist power” and said, simply, “He’s my son.”

In ‘Women’, a post-prison poem, the poet writes that just as it was a woman “who carried me until birth”, later joined by others “to carry me/through life,” he hopes that it will be women “who provide me/with the last lift.” And in a prison poem, entitled ‘Feminists’, McKeown compares the so-called heretic, Copernicus, to today’s ‘heretics.’ “Now they’re known as feminists.”

Rita Ann Higgins’s latest book is a collection of poems and essays. The Galway writer can be wonderfully humorous and also razor sharp in her criticisms of our health service, for example, and local politics.

She is disarmingly honest, not afraid to reveal herself in a poor light.

In the essay ‘When Pine Martens Do the Siege of Ennis,’ Higgins writes about a child calling to her door, trying to sell her a line. Higgins sends the little girl packing but feels bad about it later on. However, she writes that the first response, according to Goethe, “is the true you”. We learn about ourselves not by thought but by action, she writes.

Higgins’s essays, some of which have been previously published as newspaper columns, are not always as rigorous as the form demands. She allows her subconscious to flow freely, making associations that can seem fanciful.

But in an essay, followed by a poem, both entitled ‘The Long Tired Memory,’ Higgins writes seriously about the tireless work of Catherine Corless who brought the scandal of the Tuam babies to light.

In the accompanying poem, Higgins writes of the shamed children of unmarried mothers, marching to and from school in their hob-nailed boots.

The suggested sound of hob-nailed boots, “never fading in the street” ensure that their echo will remain “in the long-tired memory.”

Another Galway poet, Fred Johnston, writes astutely about disease and the alienating place that is hospital. His ‘rogue states’, located in the failing body, suggest wider societal ailments. In ‘Cancer Unit’, a hospital waiting room is likened to a waiting room in a train station. But there’s “an absence of baggage/an absence of destination.”

There’s an anarchic note and gallows humour in ‘Procedure’. Being in hospital is like limbo which gives rise to fantasies about doing something daring. “..Better, you say, to hop a ‘plane, outrun the thing/Commit unfathomable sin, kill an old enemy. Go beyond ordinary/Law, go down in flames. But you’ll do the everyday and pay/A bill here and there...”

‘Golden Age’ does not romanticise the autumn years. Rather, the voice is that of regret, fixated on a woman whose name wasn’t even sought by what must have been a callow youth. “Wretched behaviour on a nightly basis/we called it fun and it was. Now it’s an effort to make/a cup of tea; one smokes too much, is prone to probing medical rituals, there are things to fear.”

Johnston, like all good poets, zones in on the particular while prodded by the universal. This collection isn’t all focused on aging and disease. There is occasional erotic and love poetry here too. And poems set in sunny climes.

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