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Friday, 1 June 2012

Generous review of 'Mentioning the War' in Books Ireland

REVIEW by Joe Horgan, Books Ireland, Summer 2012 
Mentioning the War: Essays and Reviews 1999-2011. Kevin Higgins. Salmon Poetry.

"As a poet I have a dark secret. It’s a problem I have when it comes to the reading of poetry. It’s not that I don’t read poetry or can’t. I do and I can. But I have to admit that the reading of a lot of contemporary poetry is something close to a chore. If... I can just get to the end, I tell myself, I can read something else with a clear conscience. Too often, amongst the pages of poetry, I am overwhelmed by feelings of irrelevance. What the hell am I doing in the middle of this polite parlour game? Fortunately, though, there are poets that can be read with, even, as sense of anticipation and fortunately for me as a reviewer Kevin Higgins is one of these. In this book of essays we get to see just why that is so and get to see, beyond his essays, just why his poetry is so invigorating. Quite simply, the writings of Kevin Higgins manage to make poetry seem important.


This book is a collection of disparate essays and reviews and as with any collection there are a few fillers and some that are far better than others. Higgins is never going to let you get bored though and as a politically and poetically active artist has the great gift of stirring up your thoughts, with even the briefest of pieces leaving you with something to chew on. For reviewing the ludicrously underrated Ken Bruen he gained my admiration. For favourably reviewing Jonathan Fitzgibbon’s Cromwell’s Head, by far the silliest book I have ever reviewed, my bewilderment. For reviewing Paul Muldoon’s band, in particular his lyrics, my disagreement. Muldoon’s cleverness is neither daunting nor accessible, it’s just tedious. For his essay / critique of Red Lamp, my cringing laughter. Indeed his portrait of the poets at the start of the essay had me looking around the room in case he was suddenly pointing at me with a smirk.

Higgins is far too much an engaged and relevant writer though for this to be a book just for insiders, for poets to nod over together. The essay ‘Unmasking the Real Enemy’ is a brilliant piece of writing, whether you wish to call it political or social or whatever you’re having yourself, it is the writing, the writing that carries it. Which is where his strength lies, for however politically alert and concerned he is, however argumentative and contradictory, both as an essayist and as a poet, Higgins never loses sight of the fact that you better be able to say what you want to say, as well as being sure what it is you want to say. So whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with him you are never in doubt that you are involved with writing of the highest quality. For instance in his review of a Douglas Murray book extolling neo-conservatism I found myself profoundly disagreeing with him but unable to stop reading. Like quite a few of us on the disappointed, defeated left he can seem quite lost, quite often, and in his review of Murray’s book manifests that most profoundly. Appearing to follow the journalist Nick Cohen in having the old habit on the left of seeing the settling of scores with other factions on the left as a priority, his partial embracing of the neocons in this review is both a brave inclusion and an example of a mind in movement. Devil’s advocate is often the default position now for a left-wing writer and Higgins’s display of this works to his advantage, even when you sharply disagree with his position. But then what kind of work would be produced by an artist who doesn’t wish to wander into uncertainty, even of the most disconcerting kind? From poetry, through politics, to the personal, Kevin Higgins’s collection of essays will have you nodding in satisfied agreement, emphatically shaking your head in disagreement, laughing, cringing, and thinking. You’re not surely going to ask for much more than that, are you?"

Joe Horgan is a poet himself. You can find some of his work here http://www.munsterlit.ie/Writer%20pages/Horgan,%20Joseph.html