Saturday 22 February 2020

Review by Victoria Pickup of "Sharp Hills" by Chrissie Gittins

Sharp Hills shows Chrissie Gittins resurrecting ghosts of the past whilst connecting with the reader through her insightful description, vivid imagery and humour.

This collection (Gittin’s third) opens with the sequence ‘Dancing in Silchar,’ inspired by the poet’s travels in India following her father’s footsteps in WWII.

Here, Gittins weaves past imaginings with transportive descriptions of what is real and present. In ‘Prayer Flag, Nainital,’ her prayer flag is first a bedsheet, then a tea towel. Armed with her ‘father in black and white’ ('Dancing in Silchar'), the poet revisits the past whilst highlighting the pitfalls and wonders of travelling in India with her observations that ‘Six boxes of Immodium may be five boxes too many,’ followed by:

          … a party of fellow passengers 
          who embark at Rudrapur will unpack a picnic 
          and present you with a serviette, spoon, and a paper plate 

          of puri, kachori, aloo subzi and jalebi.
          ('Travelling in India') 

Gittins compares her father’s experiences, real and imagined, with her own. In ‘Operations Record Book,’ her writing is spliced with his own words:

          The heat is terrific, we are not used to it, but the boys worked like tigers.

          Still cold, I keep my coat wrapped around me
          as I forget to tick ‘terms and conditions’ to become a reader.

These combined perspectives connect us directly with her story.  By recognising the beauty of their shared, if removed, experiences, the poet reawakens her father’s memory and in doing so is more connected with him.

Gittins also draws upon the contrasts of their journeys. One of my personal favourites, ‘Frontiers,’ describes the poet surrendering her homemade gifts (intended for her hosts) at the airport: ‘Elsinore strawberries hung in their syrup / like air balloons in a red sky. / Seville orange slivers, marinated overnight … in gelatinous amber.’ The poet goes on to reflect upon what loss means in a very different situation:

          I hadn’t lost my clothes, I hadn’t lost

          my childhood in photographs,
          I hadn’t lost my country.
          And still it cut me to the quick.

Inevitably tied to the tracing of history is the experience of loss. Out of India, Sharp Hills remains rooted in the memory of loved ones, of the ghosts Gittins lives alongside. In ‘I Carry You With Me,’ she describes a trip to Spain, ‘through security where, despite you saying / weeks ago they would have to be packed in a separate / polythene bag, I have to search deep in my rucksack / for moisturizer.’ Gittins goes on to refer to ‘Your empty seat,’ acknowledging the absence, keenly felt. 

‘Where is Freya?’ shows the poet searching for a child: ‘on the red staircase, / under your mother’s blackcurrant bush … I stroke the surface of the trampoline / for the imprint of your sole.’ Later in the collection, ‘Satin Stitch’ remembers Gittins’ mother through her embroidery. The final glorious couplet, celebrates not only her creations, but their ‘Best love for ever’: 

         The serviettes come out for notable occasions,
         they feature in the art of deepest celebration.

There are also laments to an unknown sister and in ‘Sundays’ the poet compares her memories with a sibling (we presume): ‘We’re each other’s precious reference book,' highlighting the comfort which can be gained by keeping memories alive. 

A powerful penultimate poem in the collection, ‘Though June I Light a Fire,’ is dedicated to Helen Dunmore, the friend she didn’t manage to say goodbye to but who lives on in her every day, as portrayed in the touching final couplets:

          And yet you’re here – as I peel a browned petal
          from a rose, as a lime green caterpillar curls

          against the curve of pink,
          as the cold leaves are lifted by the wind.

Through her poems, Gittins’ takes her reader on a personal journey, reawakening figures of her past whilst also describing what adventure and wonder can be found when journeying through life with the spirit of a loved one in your heart. 

About the reviewer
Vic Pickup’s poetry has featured in a number of magazines and webzines. She is a previous winner of the CafĂ© Writers competition and was recently shortlisted for the National Poetry Day #speakyourtruth competition. In 2018, Vic co-founded the Inkpot Writer’s Group in the Hampshire village where she lives with her husband and three children.

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