Sharp Hills by Chrissie Gittins
Way down, at the very bottom of Chrissie Gittins’ two-page biography, which is actually just a monumental and frankly intimidating résumé, it says that in 2016 she won an award that allowed her to travel to India for a full month. At first glance her new collection of poetry, Sharp Hills, appears to be a product of that month. The opening poem, “Traveling in India,” reads quite literally as a list of things one will need or not need while traveling in India, as if Gittins were preparing the reader for the upcoming journey of fifty-plus poems. To be honest, I winced at these opening pages, afraid I had nothing to look forward to but simple verse revolving around hotel rooms and plane rides. But as it turns out, my assumptions were completely wrong.
Yes, the book starts off like a travel log. Lots of exotic sounding words I had to look up on Google, meditations on the flora and fauna of a faraway land, watching the locals, sitting on a bench—all the stuff we’ve come to expect of such poetry. Though in all fairness, Gittins handles these tropes with such mastery that I rarely felt bored. Even the least impressive poems in this collection display Gittins’ excellent sense of imagery and rhythm. Some of the poems, though remaining in India, are set in the 40s during the war and many reference Gittins’ father, though I didn’t find either subject to be fleshed out enough to consider them major themes of the collection. Instead, they fade in-and-out of frame like a ghost nearly caught on film.
After about thirty-odd pages of this, India and all of its lovely trappings suddenly disappear. And in its place are poems about “The Needful Inner Life of Birds” and a man who moved from Shetland to Glasgow. It’s as if Gittins decided she had reached the summit of one of her sharp hills and decided to adopt an entirely new path for the journey back down.
There are many poems in the second half, such as “Rain is Nice” and “Where is Freya,” that made me think of the opening sequence of Downton Abbey—a bunch of beautiful shots of nice things. It’s pretty but you’re not really moved or inspired. Though between these simple observations are some truly brilliant poems. Pieces such as, “Corbel Angel” and “How to Sell Your Soul on eBay” are deftly constructed, mesmerizing poems that I immediately read again upon completion.
My absolute favorite of the bunch is, “Stanley Spencer’s Pram.” The first time I read this I had no idea who Gittins was referencing and the poem struck me as dark and surreal. The lines, “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?” leapt out at me as something raw and nightmarish, something otherworldly, as if from a Brothers Quay film. But then, after looking up Stanley Spencer and his infamous pram, I realized that this poem isn’t dark and surreal at all. It’s actually a humorous monologue from the pram’s point of view that had me laughing out loud once I understood the joke (the quoted lines are referencing this painting by the way). Other humorous highlights include, “Pathétique” and “No Salmon is an Island,” which possesses some brilliant Woody Allen-esque one-liners such as, “Where there’s a will there’s usually a dead person.”
This collection of poetry is truly delightful. Of course, it’s not perfect, few things in this world are, but Gittins doesn’t seem like the type of poet who strives for the unrealistic heights of perfection. In Sharp Hills, Gittins plays with language in such a way that I often felt as if I could hear her giggling to herself as she turned a phrase or made a rhyme. Even the more serious, somber pieces in this book have a sense of playfulness in their language that makes this collection an absolute treat to read.
When I first saw the title Sharp Hills, I immediately thought of the up-and-down zig-zag of a rollercoaster. And while it’s true that this collection moves through themes and emotions quickly and suddenly, up-and-down, Gittins handles it all with such grace and elegance that one hardly notices if they’re rising or falling. It’s simply a wonderful ride.