In Memory of Aidan Higgins: 1927 – 2015

Aidan Higgins, probably the finest Irish novelist since Beckett, died on Sunday aged 88. To mark his sad passing, I thought I’d reblog this piece I wrote for the Guardian Books Blog in 2008:

The James Frey controversy once again opened up the age-old debate on where the borderline between “truth” and “fiction” in a writer’s use of their own life as material should lie. It’s a question that is forced to the front of my mind whenever I read anything by my favourite Irish novelist since Beckett, the wonderful but sadly neglected Aidan Higgins.

Higgins’ answer would appear to be that the borderline lies wherever the author decides it does. You don’t have to read his books if you don’t want to, but you cannot tell him what to do with his materials, or how he should label the results. His fictions are based on his own life, his memoirs are fictionalised.

Born in 1927 into an impoverished “big house” in Celbridge which was unusual for being Roman Catholic, Higgins lived in England, Spain, South Africa, Rhodesia (both North and South) and Germany, before winding up in Kinsale. His first novel, Langrishe, Go Down, is set in a Catholic “big house” family in Celbridge, which differs from the author’s own family in that the Langrishe offspring are all daughters. The book won awards and was adapted for the BBC by Harold Pinter. It looked like Higgins was set to be a successful literary novelist.

However, his next novel, Balcony of Europe, saw Higgins abandon the conventions of plot and characterisation that had made Langrishe so attractive in favour of an apparently more formless type of narrative writing. Balcony is a first person tale of Dan Ruttle, an Irish painter living in relative poverty in the bohemian community of Nerja, in Andalusia. Ruttle is undergoing an affair with an English diplomat’s wife that precipitates the collapse of his own marriage. Ruttle is, essentially, Higgins lightly disguised and the book, with its blurring of the lines between fact and fiction and order and chaos, serves as a template for the rest of Higgins’ output to date.

Higgins is essentially a novelist of memory and its unreliability. His protagonists are generally alienated from each other by shared experiences differently remembered. He admires Beckett and applies Beckettian methods to a fictional world that more nearly resembles the quotidian than the older writer’s does. Crucially, despite their mutual incomprehension his characters are more like real people than Beckett’s and he admits the importance, the almost redemptive quality, of sexual love into his fictional universe. His 1983 novel Bornholm Night-Ferry is the story of two adulterous lovers, Finn Fitzgerald, an Irish novelist, and Elin Marstrander, a Danish poet. The couple’s affair begins in Nerja and their relationship continues through a series of letters and a number of fruitless meetings. Unfortunately, they manage to construct mutually incompatible fictions out of their shared experiences, with inevitable consequences.

Everything that I have said about Higgins’ fiction can also be said of his three volumes of memoirs, Donkey’s Years, Dog Days, and The Whole Hog, collected as A Bestiary. The books include family photographs from Higgins’ Celbridge childhood and we learn early on that the house he grew up in had previously belonged to a family called Langrishe. The memoirs include retellings of many of the sources of Higgins’ fiction.

However, everything in the memoirs is not what it seems. The protagonist’s family members are not actually named, but referred to by pet name. More interesting still is that this protagonist turns out to be someone called Rory of the Hills, yet another Higgins alter ego. In fact, the memoirs are effectively an inverse of the novels; they are fictions disguised as factual accounts.

Boundaries between truth and lies, memoir and fiction simply don’t matter. It’s an approach that has not won Higgins a mass readership, and without risk-taking publishers such as Calder and the Dalkey Archive his books would never have been published at all. I suppose he can take some consolation in the fact that having fewer readers makes it less likely that he’ll be sued by an irate literalist.

 

Poets Abroad: A Review of works by Robert Peake, Christodoulos Makris and Lucy Furlong

Robert Peake is a self-styled British-American poet, who was born and educated in the United States but now livesThe Knowledge cover web near London, where, amongst other things he runs the Transatlantic Poetry series of live online readings and discussions bringing together poets from Britain, Europe and the US.

The Knowledge, published by Nine Arches Press, is his first full-length collection. The title derives from the training required to become a London taxi driver, a process if internalising the street plan of the entire city that requires not just an incredible memory, but also an eye for the surface detail of the urban landscape. It is an apt title for this collection, which is rich in just such informationm.

The book is divided into three sections, and it is the first, The Argument, where this eye for detail is most evident. Peake invites us to look at both the ‘natural’ and ‘human’ worlds, often with one informing the other, as in the opening lines of the poem ‘Ursula’:

Black hair. Red claws. That’s all

you need to know. She left

the cubs a long time ago,

and now all she wants is a lamb

to drink gin and play poker.

In the second section, Peake turns his gaze to the conflicts that have marred the first decade and a half of the new century, the crisis of capitalism, of the environment and the constellation of wars and near wars in the Middle East and their echoes of the global confrontations of the last century.

The banked graveyards of Europe retain

wartime dead like bulbs in a raised garden bed,

while moss, grass and clover compete for cover.

 

Too little water, too little sun. The pride and hope

of living things going dormant for awhile, snoring

its spore-clouds upward, detonating in fruit.

(‘Historic Spring’)

The final section, The Knowledge, turns to Peake’s adopted home for its matter. Unlike many recent poets of London (Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed, for instance) and despite a fleeting appearance by Blake, Peake is less concerned with the myth and history of the city than with the reality of its present. In this, his poetry mirrors the cabbie’s knowledge, most notably in ‘The Smoke’, a sequence of six linked fourteen-line poems named for London locations (Home Office, Croydon; Clapham Junction; Soho; Brick Lane Market; Canary Wharf; Blackheath). The linking is underscored by having the last line of each poem serve as the first of the next, closing the circle with the last and first lines of the set. The whole if vivid with the multifarious life of the city; it is both the most ambitions and most fully realised poem in the book.

Close both eyes and follow the scent

of marsh grass, salt rope, barnacled wood.

Oil lamps puff, pipe down their leaden light.

Tusk-like, whale ribs embrace a building site.

Unfortunately, not all of the versification is at this level of intensity, and Peake can sometimes lapse into near-bathos:

I can offer the following services:

 

an emetic for overfull dogs and cats

something to water when the orchids all die

(Grass-Talkers)

He is however, capable of writing verse of considerable wit and musicality:

Have, why not?, instead, a day
of kumquats, instead
hold butter in your mouth
until the daymelt
and the dewy pulse
of reason hurdles slipwise
through the air.

(‘Have a Nice Day’)

Overall, this is an uneven but interesting first full-length collection, and a handsomely serviceable paperback nicely produced by Nine Arches.

*

Christodoulos Makris is a Greek Cypriot poet who lives in the Dublin area and writes in English. He’s also a bit of a Architecture of Chancepoetry entrepreneur, organising reading events in Fingal, where he works for the library service, and editing magazines and anthologies. On the basis of his previous book, Spitting Out the Mother Tongue, he is also one of the most interesting of the younger Irish poets of the moment.

His latest collection, The Architecture of Chance, moves on from that earlier work, especially with the growing use of explicit procedural approaches in the making of many of the poems included. This is both an interesting and a somewhat perilous development, given the temptation to become over-enamoured with the procedure at the expense of the poetry. Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see younger poets in Ireland who are willing to take the risk of experimentation in this area.

The results of Makris’ procedural ventures are, it must be said, somewhat uneven. ‘Heaney after Rauschenberg’, for example, which consists of all the four-letter words in Death of a Naturalist, in the order they appear there, starts out as an interesting critique of Heaney’s aesthetic. Unfortunately, there are too many four-letter words in the book to sustain interest, and by the end of the second densely-packed page this reader began to hope for a little more flexibility with the method.

Another example is ‘From Something to Nothing’, which consists of text from the IMF’s website run through a chain of languages in Google translate. The morphing of ‘and reduce poverty around the world’ into ‘facilitate…poverty in the world’ is all too convenient. If the opposite result had been the outcome of the process, you can’t but feel that the poem would never have seen the light of day.

Much more satisfying is ‘16 X 16’, a sequence of sixteen sixteen-word sentences, in which the second word of sentence one becomes the first of sentence two, and so on. The flexibility in punctuation and word order through the sequence allows for an interesting interaction between procedure and poet, one feeding off the other. Procedural poetry needs to be poetry, first and foremost. As with any other kind of poetry, the purpose is to transmute the language into something greater than the sum of its parts. This happens here in a way that simply doesn’t occur in some of the other process pieces in the book.

The real strength of this collection lies in Makris’ apparently non-procedural handling of fractured lyric, a mode that he inhabits more fully. Take, for instance, the first of his ‘Four Manifestoes’:

A red rose

sends fragrance to rise

from my immaculate shirt.

Sunshine, delectable fare, exotic teas,

refine my mind.

The clusters of alliteration and the strong, single syllable and trochaic/amphibrach masculine line endings combine to create a sense of immediacy that both cuts across and underpins the syntactic sense of the stanza while the assonances and near rhymes (fine/my/sunshine/refine) that ripple through the lines display a finely-tuned poet’s ear.

As with The Knowledge, the production by Wurm Press is testimony to the value of digital printing in enabling small presses to produce trade-quality paperbacks at affordable prices.

*

Lucy Furlong is a British poet of immediate Irish descent. Her father and his family moved from rural Wexford to suburban Surrey when he was a child and discovered a small island of rural tranquillity in some fields on the banks of the nearby Hogsmill River, the place where Millais painted the natural elements of his famous Ophelia.

Over the Fields is designed as a map, literal and metaphorical, of this childhood Eden. Consisting of poems, photographs and a pictorial map, it folds like a walker’s guide to fit in your pocket and opens out big enough to spread on a table and pore over.

The poems represent an exploration of this multiply liminal space; neither urban nor rural, in the heartland of Englishness but made somewhat Irish by association, the poet looking back to her father and forward to the son, her twin companions over the fields. It’s a journey:

always looking for that unseen space, that

place out of sight, always near, following her

as she looked for that unseen space, that

place out of sight, always near, immortalized.

(‘Six Acre Meadow’)

As is often the case, discovery is bound up with naming, of discovering that the place known as ‘the field the other side of the second bridge’ has a real name, a name to be found on a map, with a history and resonance of its own. This process of multiple naming is also one of reclamation: of childhoods, of a personal heritage, of the land itself and what it stands for for one family. The resultant poems have a deceptive quality of slightness underlain by delicate strength and assurance:

…we seek out elusive

piscine lurkers, shoal-darters,

minnow-school pretty-carpers,

spike-backed silver-bellied

sticklebacks, shimmer and shift

in ever-changing shallow-shadows.

(‘Hogsmill Tiddlers’)

Margaret T. Pender: Irish Woman Poet

Margaret T. Pender (1865-1920), was born Margaret O’Doherty in Ballytweedy, County Antrim. She was a novelist and short story writer as well as poet. An Active Irish nationalist, she was a regular contributor to the FreemanUnited Ireland and Ireland’s Own. ‘Ignoring the Irish’ was published in the Sligo Nationalist on 4 October 1916

Ignoring the Irish
 
Oh, many a star-bright tale is told
Of deeds of glory and of gold,
Since this dread war has first begun
Its deathly strafe against the Hun;
And yet, the listening world has heard
From England’s Generals—not one word
Of the Irish at Gallipoli!
 
New Zealand’s hearts of fire were there
With Erin’s sons the fight to share;
And from Newfoundland’s misty shore
Came gallant lads, a handful more;
And not one soldier failed to play
A hero’s part that dreadful day
With the Irish at Gallipoli!
 
To take the railway and the height,
Where the fierce Turk had massed his might,
Ordered to land at Suvla Bay
Into the stress of hell went they—
Right through the utmost fires of hell,
By sea and shore in swathes they fell—
The Irish at Gallipoli!
 
But through they bust and on they tore;
Such valour ne’er was seen before!
On, foot by foot, and hour by hour,
They fought with superhuman power
For eight and forty hours–until
They took the railway and the hill,
The road to Stamboul opened fair
For Britain’s troops had they been there
With the Irish at Gallipoli!
 
Oh, few and red, the victors stood,
Grimy and glorious in their blood,
Gasping and faint, but holding still
The road to Stamboul and the hill.
Then dost a great shout near and far—
“The East is ours! We’ve won the war!”
Cried the Irish at Gallipoli!
 
But where were their supporters!–oh where?
We only know–they were not there!
Somewhere inert, aback they lay,
Nor ever faced that bloody fray.
By dullard generals thus was lost
The gorgeous East, won at such cost
By the Irish at Gallipoli!
 
And this is why, when tales are told
Of deeds of glory and of gold,
Since this dread war has first begun
Its deathly strafe against the Hun!
The listening world has never heard
From England’s generals EVEN ONE WORD
Of the Irish at Gallipoli!