Poetry review – Sharp Hills: Alex Josephy observes that a light poetic touch enables Chrissie Gittins to give proper attention to small details
Since I have several of Chrissie Gittins’ books already on my shelf, I was keen to read this, her third adult poetry collection (as many readers will know, she also writes, among other things, short stories for adults and engaging poetry for children). For me, the cover image evokes Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ of memory. Here, the hills are seen from above, perhaps from a plane; a jagged outline, certainly, but forested and softened by haze. The Sharp Hills title signals intriguing possibilities: travellers’ tales, perhaps; obstacles and vistas; sharp observations. Inside the covers I found all these and more.
The collection begins with a sequence in which the poet traces her father’s World War Two experiences in India (a writer’s pilgrimage supported by the Author’s Foundation). Deriving material from visits, photo-graphs, memories and written records, she presents brightly-lit moments from her quest, with insights lightly sketched; for instance, in ‘Prayer Falg, Nainital’, I sense the longing that has set her on this path:
My prayer flag is a bed-sheet billowing from the balcony above…
It’s true that many poets have written on similar topics, as a means of excavating and connecting with personal and wider history; here, the poems also chronicle the way in which such travels can transform the seeker.
I have become someone who sits on benches for a long time…
Throughout the collection, Gittins brings an inquisitive, kind and often humorous gaze to bear on whatever confronts her. The opening poem is a good example; a gentle parody of formal ‘advice for travellers’ moves into an account of a hotel stay which gradually starts to border on the surreal, with an early alarm call consisting of ‘five strong lines of pee/hitting the toilet water’, and ending with a shared picnic relished with strangers in a railway carriage.
The poems that follow range widely between India and many corners of the UK, as well as fictional, artistic and literary spaces, unified by the poet’s attentive ear and clear, uncluttered style. The language springs small surprises: lorries ‘haggle’ round a hairpin bend; Gittins’ father is ‘housed’ in military records held in a library at Kew. In many of the poems, there is a sense of permeable borders, with past and present overlapping. In ‘Corbel Angel, Southwold Museum’, an angel carved in 1476 is ‘honey warm, longing for a glancing touch’, able to
…hide your secrets in my veins, sift your frailties into sand.
A particular joy is Gittins’ magpie eye for an intriguing story; through brief narratives, she offers a wide range of references and glimpses into other worlds. In ‘The Table Decker’s Daughter’, I learned about ‘Marmontino’ (the art of decorating a table setting with pictures created by pouring coloured sands). The description of this process is delicately beautiful (‘silica glimmering in candlelight’), and the poem ends with a poignant image of the retired table decker practising his lost art one more time in solitude:
dropping stags and mountain sheep beside the open door.
Gittins doesn’t need to spell out the underlying theme of the lost freedoms that come with age.
A sense of fun permeates the collection, leavening the quieter moments of love and loss. There are a number of ekphrastic poems, and poems where Gittins reflects on historical events or gives voice to disregarded characters and objects. Stanley Spencer’s ‘painting pram’ comes hilariously to life, to give a sardonic commentary on Spencer’s art:
When Patricia came on the scene, i thought I’d rust. Paint your second wife, naked as a baby lying by a side of mutton?
In ‘Clifton’, she dramatises the famous failed suicide attempt in which a Victorian woman allegedly threw herself from the Clifton suspension bridge, only to be parachuted safely to earth thanks to her ‘caged skirt.’ I delighted in the line where she is received by ‘a bank of luscious mud’, already beginning to feel glad to have survived after all. In ‘Hari Kyo, 8th February’, the speaker is gradually revealed to be a writer, throwing a surprising list of unwanted writerly objects into the rubbish bin, including an unforgettable ’Mitsubishi uni-ball… telling of a long lost warrior/smiling towards me in a storm.’
Reading ‘W. H. Auden Got Married in Tesco (Ledbury)’, I imagine Gittins at the Ledbury poetry festival, perhaps, entranced by the story of Auden’s marriage of convenience. I think the ceremony actually occurred at Ledbury town hall, but here it is transferred (to good comic effect) to the aisles of a nearby supermarket ‘in the sight of/ Steak Fajitas and Hoisin Duck Wraps’.
Throughout this imaginative collection, there is gentle concern for people caught up in history or vulnerable in the real world: a mother celebrates and mourns the day her daughter leaves home; an elderly patient, hearing Elgar played in a care home, ‘dances through a marriage’ ; in ‘English at Eight O’Clock’, hotel staff, finally off-duty at midnight, relax into their own language. There is a sense of responsibility – to notice and to care. In ’Frontiers’, a traveler’s succulent preserved fruits are confiscated at the airport, sparking much wider resonances; she experiences this loss as a dispossession which ‘cut me to the quick,’ and then as a reminder of how fortunate she is, as she thinks of other travelers ‘fleeing to the border/with only your life.’ Her delicious, sequestrated ‘Seville orange slivers, marinated … in gelatinous amber’ come to represent all the rich textures of a life, that can sustain us and that for those trapped on the wrong side of history, can be taken away.
In Sharp Hills, Chrissie Gittins delights the eye and ear, while revealing her themes with restraint, as if touching them in with light strokes of the pen. To me, these poems show how life might be lived as a quest, not averting one’s gaze from what needs to be seen, but keeping a lookout for all the small details that make it worth living.