Book reviews: Tongulish and In A Hare’s Eye

GALWAY-based poet, Rita Ann Higgins, has written a poetry collection (her tenth) that never bores. 

She can be spiky, sardonic, humorous and bawdy as well as capable of turning her pen to searing social commentary in a way that is surprising.

‘Costa Del Dento’ is about a guy “making the girls laugh” on holidays. On the dole at home, he has a claim “against the corpo” for a very unlikely accident. However, compared to the Christian Brothers, who stole his childhood, knocking out his milk teeth with their violence, he is harmless.

‘The Women of 1916’ is a response to the attempt of the constitution to keep women in the home. Higgins pours scorn on de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid’s recipe for a seemingly wholesome but deeply controlled society.

“The plan was set in train/to banish these biddies/back to the kitchen sinks. The women of 1916/did not sit back/and wait in the wings of history/with tricolour dribblers to mop/the runny eggs/from the chins of the rebels.”

Higgins is always accessible and combines with ease learned references alongside contemporary phenomena such as blogs.

‘Bingham’ is the title of a poem that pits the governor of Connacht (Sir Richard Bingham) against “pirate upstart” (Grace O’Malley).

On the occasion of O’Malley’s visit to the queen, Bingham writes “...a blistering blog... saying if that cailleach/says anything about him/it’s a pack of dead flies.”

Higgins has a talent for tuning into our everyday lives, making the ordinary border on the epic, suggesting something more sinister from the ostensibly mundane. ‘Cryanair’ is a clever and amusing poem about being in a Ryanair queue, subject to ‘Cryanair soldiers’ watching out for too much carry-on baggage. The narrator writes of the ‘chief crier’ approaching a new queue.

“There was misery to measure/and he was hand-picked to do it./He turned on his heel./ I’d swear I heard a click.”

Book reviews: Tongulish and In A Hare’s Eye

Whether writing about a lustful tyrannical Caligula or going to England to bring back the body of her nephew who tragically took his own life (which she spoke about on The Late Late Show recently), Higgins’s concerns are varied. Her language is rooted in the vernacular. She could be called the people’s poet.

Breda Wall Ryan’s debut collection is impressive and more formally crafted than Higgins’s poetry. It’s about female power and vulnerability as well as cruelty, illness and loss. There’s a poem in memory of Seamus Heaney where Wall Ryan writes “If only we are still and tune our ears/ even the grave sings memory, the dead/ poet lives in all he wrote and said.”

In ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother as a Merlin’, Wall Ryan captures beautifully an occasion of fear with the young narrator waking in an isolated snow-surrounded cold house where provisions are running low. However, the mother is on the case, outside, stripping feathers from the carcass of a hen.

Observing her in survival mode, the narrator notes: “My mother became a wild thing/ a merlin at her plucking post.” While the merlin figure is all about striving for her child’s survival, ‘The Second Wife’s Tale’ is a chilling take on the children of Lir from the perspective of Aoife. Aoife is the sister of Lir’s first wife. After her death, Aoife stepped in and “soothed Lir’s wife-ache/This was my sorrow.”

Her punishment for luring Lir’s children to the water is banishment for 900 years. “I am Aoife, mean through to the marrow.” Female power isn’t always a force for the good. Like Higgins, Ryan Wall references the cailleach (a witch creature) in one of her poems. It’s a word that other female poets, such as Leanne O’Sullivan, latch onto because of its archetypal nature.

Higgins and Wall Ryan know the map of women, in all its glory and ferocity.

Rita Ann Higgins

Bloodaxe, £9.95

In A Hare’s Eye

Breda Wall Ryan

Doire Press,€12


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