To fight and dream again: Ailbhe Darcy launches ‘Ecstatic’ by Kevin Higgins

Ecstatic by Kevin Higgins, Salmon Poetry 2022 was virtually launched by Zoom by Ailbhe Darcy on Sunday June 26th 2022

The word ‘ecstatic’ – the title of Kevin Higgin’s new collection – comes from the Greek ‘ek-stasis’, meaning ‘to stand outside oneself’ – to be transported out of yourself altogether. And indeed, I’m beside myself with glee to have the honour of launching this book, the most complex and ambitious yet of Kevin’s six collections, appropriately enough in the out-of-body experience of a Zoom call.
That sense of ‘ecstatic’, the sense in which one departs from one’s senses, becomes from the seventeenth century associated with mystical writers, who might transcend this mortal plane and commune with higher things. Religious mystics of various stripes, from shamans to virgin martyrs, have accessed the world of spirits through religious ecstasy. Though you might be sent into an ecstasy by this book, you’d be a long time looking for God in Kevin’s poetry. The nearest thing to God here is AstraZeneca.

In Kevin’s version of things, of course, ecstasy always has a touch of the tongue-in-cheek. When a mystic is employed in one of his poems, it’s to overcome a knock-knock-knocking cough and make an in-body experience possible: “That solstice, it had been so long / since they’d tried intercourse / they had to use a Ouija board, / and employ a strange lady from Moravia, / dressed all in harlequin green, / to guide their papery, grey hands / zero to nine across it, / and commune / with the spirit of their springtime.”
“God,” he writes in another poem, “may have been abolished but politics is everywhere and always.” In that poem, he mocks the dilution of the idea that ‘the personal is political’:

For some people,
wearing their hair a certain length
so others will presume they were against certain wars
is the most political thing they’ve ever done.

But in Ecstatic, the personal and the political are intertwined in the most profound of senses. In this book, it is the political world we must live in, love in, make love in, grow old in, die in. It is in this world that we lose hope, over and over, only for hope to painfully re-emerge and insist we fight and dream again. As Kevin writes in the last lines of the collection (spoiler alert), “You talk hours / about coming revolution / which, like the kitten, / you remember burying / but which now magically offers you / an opening comradely hand.” Taking the hand is a gamble, which might only return you to the old “pain which even now haunts, / like the tooth you tried / but failed to extract yourself.”

It is the searing honesty with which Kevin writes about that dance between hope and despair across the course of this collection which makes this book such a moving, timely and necessary read. As Polina Cosgrave said last week, ‘As a poet, on a personal and societal level Higgins is fighting the battle that can’t be won, and he knows it.’ In this book, that battle is not only with despair at the rest of us, at the state and its cronies and collaborators, at capitalism and colonialism, but also with illness that may creep towards death and with time itself.

Anybody who has been paying attention to anything over the last several years has danced the same dance between painful hope and despair – has flirted with despair only to turn and see the possibility of coming revolution ‘magically’ offering ‘an opening / comradely hand’. To see that dynamic set down so precisely over the course of this collection is something like being lost, in the dark, and seeing a flare go up.

Ever since he published my first poem, years ago now, Kevin has been an impossible role model to me as well as a friend: an example I will never live up to but will always look to. Kevin the man is kind, generous, gentle, as you know: I’m sure lots of you are here thanks to his and Susan’s support for your poetry. They founded Over the Edge almost twenty years ago now with the intention of creating a community that would sustain writers, something permanent and nurturing on the scene, and they have achieved exactly that. But Kevin’s not the comfortable sort of role model, not the sort that makes you feel vaguely empowered. The sort of role model he is, is a bloody hard act to follow.

His work answers to the famous poem by Muriel Rukeyser from The Speed of Darkness, which tells us exactly what we should do when we read the news:

In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

What Rukeyser describes here is extraordinarily difficult to achieve in the twenty-first century, but Kevin lives it. The integrity of his work is astonishing: the degree to which he holds to almost unimagined values; the stubbornness with which he sends out signals.

To come back to that old sense of the word ‘ecstatic’, the sense in which a mystical communion with the dead might take place. Kevin’s collection is made rich not only by his sending out signals to those readers who might consider another way of living, but also by his sending out signals to a fascinating and fantastic roll-call of poets over the course of the book. Many, many of the poems in this book are ‘after’ another poet, and many of these poets are rebels or activists of one kind of another. Reading Ecstatic is an education in poetry and the expression of another possible world.

There is another kind of life swarming through these pages too. In this collection’s metaphors, earthworms are dismembered, the legs are taken off spiders, the last German speakers leave Danzig like so many ants. Kevin, in these poems, invariably evinces sympathy for the buzzing wee beasties of the planet, the stingers and bumblers, the folk who are small and get swatted. Indeed, he bemoans the fact that “across most of the planet it’s legal to kill a wasp / with the local equivalent of the Irish Times but not yet to take a lump hammer to an auctioneer.”

In one poem in this collection, Kevin describes himself as “lively as an elderly blue-arsed fly / that’s just been clattered by / the weekend edition of the New York Times.” Kevin knows full well that he is less a blue-arsed fly than Socrates’ gadfly, that buzzing, stinging annoyance without which no society has any hope of sorting itself out.

To paraphrase Plato ventriloquising Socrates, Kevin is that gadfly attached to a great and not-so-noble steed who is tardy in its motions owing to its size, and has constantly to be stirred into life. Kevin is that gadfly, and all day long and in all sorts of places he is forever fastening upon you, arousing you and persuading you and reproaching you. We wouldn’t easily find another like him.

When flies come into our homes and buzz against the light, the closed windows, the frames of the windows we’ve opened to let them out and which they seem determined to ignore, sometimes we think of them as ‘angrily buzzing’. Sometimes we think of satirists similarly – as angry and cranky. But if you watch a fly, really watch a fly, buzzing around your sitting room, you’ll realise it isn’t angry at all. It’s you that’s angry – the fly is having a fecking brilliant time. It has loads of eyes, it’s interested in everything, it’s checking everything out, it’s throwing itself up against the world, sometimes literally, it’s happy out, it’s revelling, it’s reckoning with life. Ecstatic, as the sardonic title might suggest, is a book which deals with often dark subject matter. It has a lot to be angry about, as do we. And yet it is gloriously open to the world; all life is here, and this book is interested in all of it, thrilled by all of it. That is part of what makes Kevin’s writing so irresistible – the fact that it is such rollicking good. Ecstasy, in the sense of an intense pleasure.

Let me invite you now to briefly unmute your mic and lose yourself in a revelry of applause for Kevin, as we invite him onto the Zoom stage to read to us from Ecstatic.

 – Ailbhe Darcy

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Ailbhe Darcy was born in Dublin in 1981 and brought up there. She studied for her PhD and MFA at the University of Notre Dame in the US, and taught there and at the University of Münster in Germany. She is now a lecturer in creative writing at Cardiff University. She has published her poetry in Ireland, Britain and the US. Selections of her work are included in the Bloodaxe anthologies Identity Parade and Voice Recognition, and in her pamphlet A Fictional Dress (tall-lighthouse, 2009). Imaginary Menagerie (Bloodaxe Books, 2011), her first book-length collection, was shortlisted for Ireland’s dlr Strong Award at Poetry Now / Mountains to Sea. A collaboration with S.J. Fowler, Subcritical Texts, was published by Gorse in 2017. Her second collection, Insistence, was published by Bloodaxe in 2018 and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize 2018 and the Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2019.

Ecstatic is available from http://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=567&a=108

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