Some people know what it’s like,
to be called a cunt in front of their children
to be short for the rent
to be short for the light
to be short for school books
to wait in Community Welfare waiting-rooms full of smoke
to wait two years to have a tooth looked at
to wait another two years to have a tooth out (the same tooth)
to be half strangled by your varicose veins, but you’re
198th on the list
to talk into a banana on a jobsearch scheme
to talk into a banana in a jobsearch dream
to be out of work
to be out of money
to be out of fashion
to be out of friends
to be in for the Vincent de Paul man
to be in space for the milk man
(sorry, mammy isn’t in today she’s gone to Mars for the weekend)
to be in Puerto Rico this week for the blanket man
to be in Puerto Rico next week for the blanket man
to be dead for the coal man
(sorry, mammy passed away in her sleep, overdose of coal
in the teapot)
to be in hospital unconscious for the rent man
(St Judes ward 4th floor)
to be second-hand
to be second-class
to be no class
to be looked down on
to be walked on
to be pissed on
to be shat on
and other people don’t.
Summary and Analysis
As you can see from the very beginning, the language of Higgins’s poems is just a shade removed from actual speech. Its stylized colloquialisms create a monologue which contains phrases describing the suffering, day to day, of people who have not managed to survive the day to day trauma of economic humiliation. We are all aware that poverty brutalizes human nature. It makes us less human, less sympathetic to fellow human beings, less sensitive, and generally robs us of a certain dignity.
Stylized colloquialisms are phrases and sentences used in day to day informal speech which are deliberately used by a poet to convey the ordinariness of the subject. Stylized here means ‘used for a certain design or effect’. Ordinary language and slang are deliberately used for poetic effect.
Some words like ‘cunt’ in line 2 are socially unacceptable. They are not polite words. Such words are used by angry frustrated people, almost like an abuse; by frustrated people who can see no use for a woman except as a sex object. Poverty and gender disadvantage (being female) is a deadly combination in this world. And this is what the main character of the poem is. She says some people (she refers to herself in the third person) know what it is like to be abused before one’s own children. “To be short” of something is not to have enough money for a specific purpose. The speaker has on various occasions been short of money for rent, for electricity, for children’s school books. She has experienced the indignity of waiting for medical attention in a welfare system which is overburdened. Of course, waiting for a troubling tooth to be attended to for two years is an exaggeration. But it humorously points to the problem of delay in getting anything through welfare.
Talking of varicose veins, this is a medical condition especially prevalent among hardworking people who have to stand long hours. And the list of people waiting to get treated for this problem too, seems to be endless. Like waiting for two years for a dental appointment, being 198 on the list is again a humorous way of saying that the health system is overburdened and crowded.
Line 11 onwards the double mention of banana to remind us how people are trained to use the telephone to earn a living, is again an instance of cynical humour. And this cynicism continues when the person is described as being out of work, out of money, out of fashion, out of friend, and waiting for charity. Living on charity is certainly not a dignified existence.
Line 18 onwards, there are references to the kind of lies people have to tell about members of their family. When people like the milkman or coal man come for their dues the family says that Mammy (the woman who heads the family) is not at home (gone to Mars, not literally of course, or died, again, not really). These are humorous ways of saying, “Not at home”. It is the same for the rent man who is told that Mammy is in a charitable hospital (St. Jude’s) for the poor.
This is certainly not the way respectable people behave. But the person who is the speaker of the poem knows what is like to be second class, to be looked down upon, to not belong to any respectable class. To be urinated upon or to be defecated upon is to receive the worst insults possible for human dignity. She knows all this though, perhaps, other people don’t know what these experiences feel like.