Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital – Kevin Higgins
Salmon Poetry www.salmonpoetry.com
ISBN 978-1-912561-72-8, 98pp, €12
“Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital” is Kevin Higgins’ fifth collection and packed full of wry, satirical observations on lives, both his own and others. It’s split into parts: ‘Sex and Death’, ‘My View of Things’ and ‘World Festival of Literary Intercourse’. The first section is a journey into treatment for sarcoidosis, where granulomas, small clumps of cells, form on the lungs. The journey is taken without self-pity and softened with a black humour. “A Reckoning” ends,
“My lungs are two talentless divas
competing with each other for newspaper headlines.
May everyone be arrested without warrant
and made plead.
Because the bill for my life is on the mat.
My lungs are rooms in which the yellow
wallpaper is slowly falling down.
My hates have come to get me”
The “arrested without warrant” is an apt description of a condition that developed without permission or expectation. The “yellow wallpaper” could simply be neglect but could also be a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” where a woman suffering postnatal depression and imprisoned in a room by her husband and doctor as a ‘cure’ projects her demons onto the yellow wallpaper in the room. In the poem, the paper peeling from the walls suggests the breaking down of barriers between subject and demons.
The poem that gives the collection its title, “Sex and Death at the Merlin Park Infusion Unit”, the narrator undergoing treatment feels as if he wants to “to make wild/ and inappropriate/ love to the whole world.” Its upbeat ending is a surprise. Another poem looks in more detail at the medication, defining pills by colour and what their effects are. “For Cynthia,” is a middle-aged love poem where the couple’s bodies
“are Wibbly Wobbly Wonders
melting in the sun. Before
they pass a law against it
let’s have a festival of making do
with each other. For the daylight will soon
sneak in like an enemy agent.”
The “daylight” here is death and the loss of the gentleness of dark which conceals and enables the imagination. The section ends with the “Coalition of the Disappointed” is a group letter from poets supported by the author who “appears to be dying/ more slowly/ than we the undersigned/ would like”, a man once lauded for giving them space on stage now an embarrassment of Dad jokes. All tongue-in-cheek, naturally. A later poem even finds advantages in a chronic lung condition, chiefly an excellent excuse not to have to deal with unwanted people.
The second section, ‘My View of Things’, views life (and death) with lashings of satire. “The Day Bowie Died” lists famed musicians, considered not to be worth of holding a torch to David Bowie, and ends
“Noel Gallagher is tragically
waking up alive, and babbling
about how Jeremy Corbyn is a
communist, fascist, Cistercian,
or some other word he recently learned
to (sort of) pronounce.
This day that began with the red
head of our cat Ziggy
announcing itself against
the bedroom door.”
It uses Frank O’Hara’s approach of listing what appears to be a normal day and only referencing the poem’s subject as a twist at the end. The cat is named after one of Bowie’s on-stage personas, Ziggy Stardust and the red is a warning. Looking back to childhood is similarly unsentimental in “Sold”,
“The doorbell the Socialists rang to summon me.
The letter box my school reports came in through.
The front door I still have a key to.
The room I saw her die in.”
Poems don’t just focus on personal memories. Some look at political conflicts and the discovery of mass graves of children at the former Tuam care home where the remains of around 800 children under the age of 3 were found. The remains were dated back to the 1950s when the Tuam home housed unmarried mothers and their children in separate buildings since the children were raised by nuns until adoption.
Satire returns in the final section, ‘World Festival of Literary Intercourse’, which takes a swipe at pretension. In “Up with Clever Literature”, readers want poems “that dress our beetle ridden corpses so thoroughly/ in what look like peacock feathers,/ no one would know we’ve been dead for years.” A “Review of Non-Existent Poetry Collection” starts,
“These poems are as engaging as the mobile phone
that kept ringing during the last ever
performance of Waiting for Godot
at the Albanian National Theatre,
before the building was demolished
to make way for the largest
multi-storey car park
in the Balkans.”
And the collection under review manages to go downhill from there.
Like all good satire, “Sex and Death at Merlin Park Hospital”, is read once for the jokes and returned to so that the sharpness of the barbs can be appreciated. Kevin Higgins is firmly in control and has jettisoned sentimentality and self-pity in favour of humour and the deliberate targeting of comedy to elicit compassion in the readers.