Chrissie's poems have won awards and been widely published in magazines and anthologies. Her collections are Armature (Arc, 2003) and I'll Dress One Night as You (Salt, 2009) and Sharp Hills (Indigo Dreams, 2019). Her pamphlet collections are A Path of Rice (Dagger Press, 1997), Pilot (Dagger Press, 2001), and Professor Heger’s Daughter (Paekakriki Press, 2013). Chrissie has read her poetry at the Royal Festival Hall, the StAnza, Aldeburgh, Ledbury, Wenlock and Southwell Poetry Festivals, Manchester Central Library, Keats' House, Newcastle and Oxford Universities, Troubadour Coffee House, the British Council Bangkok, and the Bowery Poetry Club and Cornelia Street Cafe in New York.
Sharp Hills is published by Indigo Dreams September 2019. It includes a sequence of poems written as a consequence of a trip Chrissie made to India to follow in some of my father’s RAF footsteps during the Second World War. The trip was made possible by an Authors’ Foundation Award. The collection also includes poems from her third pamphlet collection Professor Heger’s Daughter.
The poems have been published in journals such as Asia Literary Review, The London Magazine, Southword Journal, the International Literary Quarterly, The Punch Magazine and in several anthologies including A Poem for Every Day of the Year (Macmillan) and She is Fierce (Macmillan).
Philip Gross has written about Sharp Hills:
'Chrissie Gittins’ poetry is a vivid engagement with life at every point of contact – whether in travel, art, reading, family, friendship or memory. First, you are charmed by the sheer interest and observant detail of its surfaces… then gradually you sense the grave and graceful business being done with the deepest things – loss, love, time passing – underneath.'
Link to the publisher’s webpage for Sharp Hills with 5 sample poems: www.indigodreams.co.uk/chrissie-gittins
In November 2013 Paekakriki Press published her third pamphlet collection 'Professor Heger's Daughter', printed in traditional letterpress with original wood engravings by Helen Porter.
The spur for the title poem was the torn and stitched letters from Charlotte Brontë to Professor Heger which are lodged between sheets of glass in the British Library. In their physicality they sit beside poems about a Georgian table decker who worked with ground glass and stained sugar, and the dots and dabs of Stanley Spencer’s painted blooms. But whether it’s the emerald trees of an Indian miniature, or the bonnets and long skirts of a Norwood Pissarro, these poems are conduits for love and loss. A journey is taken without the intended companion, jars of preserves invoke an exiled friend, the absence of wind calls up a landscape. And beyond that there is the cirrus cloud of absurdity.
Please order direct from Paekakriki Press: www.paekakarikipress.com
Review of Chrissie’s reading in Bradford-on-Avon, 28th November 2013
'Chrissie read from many of her publications, including her latest, 'Professor Heger's Daughter', which was
launched at the University of London last week (the most deliciously produced pamphlet I think I've ever seen - wood engravings, hand stitched, a fabulous cover). She kept our attention fixed to the spot as she took us through quiet, reflective poems, sharp, witty ones, and poems for children, her eye for the absurd and ear for a stray phrase a real joy.'
DAWN GORMAN, Words and Ears organiser, The Swan, Bradford-on-Avon
Review by Russell Jones on the Elsewhere website (A Review of Contemporary Poetry), 30th April 2014:
'What a find she is! ‘Professor Heger’s Daughter’ is one of the finest pamphlets I’ve read in recent years, for its range of ideas, its emotional sensitivity, its great wit and humour, and - more than anything else - its deranged use of language.’ Read the complete review here: www.oftime2.wordpress.com/tag/chrissie-gittins
Review by Robert Peake, Poetry Salzburg Review, No. 26, Autumn 2014
'Professor Heger’s Daughter by Chrissie Gittins is a wryly clever, idiom-based sequence of poems. At first reminiscent of Wendy Cope, the most successful poems dig deeper, delivering philosophical or political punch. Consider “W.H.Auden Got Married in Tesco (Ledbury)”, which begins, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of / Steak Fajitas and Hoisin Duck Wraps to join together / this Mann, and this man, in holy matrimony.” It continues on, through “Coleslaw” and “Dips’ and “Speciality Meats’, until finally the reverend speaker proclaims, “I pronounce that they be Man and Wife together, / and fully endorse Wystan’s encouragement that / homosexual men marry European refugees / with the aim of political asylum.” (24)
There is pathos, too, as in the hide-and-seek poem “Where is Freya?”, where obvious hiding places give way as the searcher admits, “I stroke the surface of the trampoline / for the imprint of your sole,” and muses, “Perhaps you’re in the candlelight which wraps the Christmas tree,” making clear that the child is departed, concluding finally in verse, “You’re in the scenes you’ve left behind, / in the rain that comfort brings // in sweeping valleys where the clouds drift by / and a knowing blackbird sings.” (3)
Many of these poems are list-based, composed mostly of nouns, which creates a simple music from the savouring of words. These are most successful when tinged with the philosophical, pairing lofty and tangible. One example is “How to Sell Your Soul on eBay”, which advises:
You will receive inquiries from
a homeless man in Walsall who warms himself
against the radiators in public libraries,
a man who torments his child,
a teenager who prises her veins.
These can all be taken seriously.
But beware the manager of an organic farm,
the dental nurse who offers new recipes,
the man who counts the plants on a given piece of land.
These may conceal a cloven hoof. (23)
Clearly those whose behavior is more socially acceptable are to be less trusted. Other little ironies emerge as Gittins interrogates the nature of the soul, as in “Dreams for the Returning Souls”, another list-based poem, which concludes “that goodness leads to misjudgement of character.” (4) The speaker knows exactly what she is doing here, collecting bon mots into an accumulation whose sum makes a more substantial remark on the human condition. By turns incisive and funny. Not unlike Oscar Wilde, Professor Heger’s Daughter is a feast for the mind.
Review by John Field, Poor Rude Lines, 19th December 2015
'‘When the British Library published Love Letters: 2000 Years of Romance in 2012, national attention was drawn to 4 letters written by Charlotte Brontë to Professor Constantin Heger. In 1842, Brontë was in Brussels where he tutored her in French. The letters, dated between 1844 and 1845, were perhaps torn up by a shocked and embarrassed family man. However, in her book, Discourses of Desire, Linda Kauffman ‘provides much evidence that suggests that Heger exploited teacher-pupil relationships on a regular basis with his charismatic personality’. Either way, it is thought that the letters, torn asunder by the professor, were later stitched back together by his wife.
In Chrissie Gittins’s poem, Professor Heger’s Daughter, the scene of the reconstruction is itself reconstructed / imagined with the genteel decorum and the repressed emotion of a costume drama:
The first came in July when the canopy of leaves
cooled the garden in the afternoon,
she laid the pieces on the table
like islands floating on the green chenille.
Taking paper strips she strapped the words together
I shall see you again one day … it must happen since I long for it.
A coral blush rose in her cheeks.
The canopy, the cooling – even the strapping – lend the stanza a temperate restraint which is disrupted by Brontë’s letter that, through the act of destruction, has gained more potency. No longer a single object, it is now ‘like islands’, an archipelago of discrete entities and the torn edges now perhaps signal completion, not destruction. What would motivate the professor’s wife to reconstruct this correspondence? Gittins’ ‘coral blush rose’ suggests the merest slip of her façade – a blush of embarrassment, or a vicarious brush with passion in an otherwise lifeless marriage? The poem ends with the daughter in control:
I keep the letters locked beneath my bed
in a polished leather case.
It’s only in the spring I take pleasure in the trees,
I stroke the buds and stems and will the curling leaves
to unfurl into sunlight, to bring a fragrant ease.
There’s a faintly disturbing power to ownership, as the case is polished, suggesting either obsessive handling, or regular care. Either way, the letters have assumed huge importance and, for the daughter, control of these stitched ‘leaves’ is all she can manage as leaves outside run to another rhythm.
Like Brontë’s letters, the pram used by the English painter, Stanley Spencer, was also deconstructed. In Stanley Spencer’s Pram, Gittins gives it a voice which complains that ‘He collapsed my supple leather hood, / ripped the navy canvas stitched carefully / to my frame’. Gittins finds a controlled violence and perversion in Spencer. Pram has its root in the Latin ‘perambulate’, meaning ‘to walk about’ / ‘to walk the bounds of’ and anyone who’s tried putting a baby to sleep like this knows that, sometimes, it can take quite a bit of walking. A pram is usually a red rag to certain sorts of people, who gravitate to coo and gurgle at its contents. Spencer, frustrated by his status as a local celebrity, had a sign stuck in his: ‘As he is anxious to complete his painting of the churchyard, Mr Stanley Spencer would be grateful if visitors would kindly avoid distracting his attentions from his work’. Fulfilment of purpose is denied to this pram:
‘The May Tree, 1933’ was bad enough –
all those cascading blooms needing to be caught
before they dropped,
but ‘Gypsophila’ (same year)
with days of dots and dabs for each and every flower?
It made me dour, deprived me of my spring.
It’s a funny poem (and there are a lot of really funny poems in Professor Heger’s Daughter). However, like Brontë’s letters, the pram meets an unwholesome fate:
What do I miss now I’m stuck in this museum?
The rushing of the river,
the spread of cedar trees,
cranesbill waving on the moor;
children calling by for autographs,
the way his glasses magnified one eye.
And in the dark – the daylight bulbs
shedding blue for painting through the night.
In this pamphlet, Gittins strikes a glorious balance between plaintive lyricism and vivacious exuberance, between a life lived en plain air and a sequence of repressive indoor spaces.’
Chrissie’s second poetry collection I’ll Dress One Night As You, published by Salt, isbn 9780954328849 is available from Salt Publishing, bookshops, Gardners, and Amazon. It was one of Salt Publishing's top 20 best-selling titles for the financial year 2009-2010.
Supplied by Gardners Books and available
from bookshops and amazon.co.uk
In it Chrissie dresses in the guise of the grandson of Hitler’s bodyguard, Samuel Pepys’s mistress, the lover of Shakespeare’s youngest brother, and the cook at a lavish dinner held in the belly of a model dinosaur. What undercuts these evocations of vivid living is the certain knowledge of death. How does Alcyone survive without her beloved husband? How does Triptolemus feel on his deathbed knowing that eternal life was once within his reach? These poems try to replace what is lost, or about to be lost, with the laying down of memory etched by the imagination.
The book includes three sequences. The title sequence is a tender lament for her mother. The second, called ‘Cloth’, tells of Mary Hindle – a woman involved in the machine breakers riots in East Lancashire in 1826.The third, ‘Herbal Source’, welds stories to the anonymous words listed on a pavement sign outside a Chinese herbalist.
The 'Cloth' sequence was accepted by Les Murray for publication in Quadrant magazine in Australia. Others poems from this collection have been published in magazines including THE SHOp (Ireland), Envoi, Other Poetry, The Poetry Paper, Jacket (Australia) Orbis, Mslexia, and in the anthology Works 4 (Macmillan). Magma published four poems in their Spring 2009 issue.
‘Gittins’s deadpan tone and skewed perspective mark her out as a true original … Gittins characterizes her speakers through disjunctive, seemingly random pronouncements that manage to betray their vulnerability, longing and frustration – she has a genuine gift’ JANE YEH, Poetry Review
‘her poems are well-sculpted, fine-boned, painterly and precise. Reflective as well as outward-looking, she writes vividly about the everyday as well as less familiar lives and places. Lively, accessible and gently surprising, hers is a voice refusing to be pinned down’ MONIZA ALVI
‘I love the way (the poems) build on observations; piling them up until, without hardly knowing it, there’s a revelation that really lifts the top of your head off ’ VICKI FEAVER
‘an ear for what life sounds like, and … there’s so much feeling in the poems. But it’s never got that heavy, spongy quality that emotion can have if it’s not handled right. It’s precise’ HELEN DUNMORE
Transcript of Moniza Alvi’s introduction at the launch of Chrissie Gittins’ second poetry collection ‘I’ll Dress One Night As You’ at The Rose, Albert Embankment, 29th April 2009.
I feel very honoured and pleased to introduce Chrissie and her recent poetry collection ‘I’ll Dress One Night As You’. Jane Yeh in Poetry Review reviewed Chrissie’s first collection and said that she thought Chrissie was ‘a true original’, which I would certainly agree with.
As well as her adult poems Chrissie is also a very successful published and broadcast writer in other fields as well, with short stories which are quite frequently broadcast on BBC Radio Four, children’s poems which have won prizes, and radio plays; and this is not to mention her talents as an artist and a gardener. So I don’t know if there’s a special word for someone with all these talents, but Chrissie is hugely talented.
It’s fascinating to see all Chrissie’s talents and interests reflected in her new book; for instance, she has a very painterly eye for landscape and for weather – I think that comes out strongly in many of the poems. She also writes about flowers in a very evocative way. And using her short story skills she takes on the voices of various people – for instance, Pepys’s mistress, and the lover of Shakespeare’s younger brother – and in a very, I think, novelistic way as she gets under their skin. Poets often take on the voices of other characters, but I think with Chrissie you read the poem and you think this is about Chrissie, and then you realize that it’s not. It’s really very skilfully done, it goes beyond expectation. In fact I think Chrissie maybe was some of these people!
All these elements make for very warm, very inviting and yet also very mysterious poetry. They’re intimate poems as well – whatever they’re about, whoever they’re about, they’re really very intimate poems. For instance, in one of my favourites, Optometrist, she says, or rather perhaps he says, ‘My hands make the shape of your eye, on paper I reveal your vision – the sphere and axis of your tender sight’. And Chrissie has really a very tender sight as well.
So I do wish her new book well in the world. It sounds a bit like a fairy godmother! We can all be fairy godparents to Chrissie’s new book because it’s really very very good, it’s consistently very very good, and deserves to do extremely well. It’s one of those rare poetry books that I think you can both admire and delight in, in equal measure. It’s one of those rare poetry books that actually I think you could give somebody as a present and they’d be pleased with it.
In this collection, the poet assumes a variety of personae and the initial interest lies in the choices she makes. These are people from history, but on the periphery of great events or times rather than the figures at the centre. ‘The Man Who Carries a Picture of Hitler’ concerns the grandson of Hitler’s bodyguard, the picture in his wallet ‘face to face with a shot of my son’. ‘Mr Pepys’s Inclination’ sees the poet writing as Pepys’s mistress – ‘If ever there was a euphemism, I was it’ and, in another odd remove, ‘Chorister, St. Saviour’s Church, Southwark, 1607’, introduces the lover of Shakespeare’s younger brother Edmund.
Within this collection, there are three sequences; the title sequence is a moving account of life in the wake of a mother’s death. The second ‘Cloth’, adopts the persona of a woman deported to Australia following political protests in 1826. The third, ‘Herbal Source’, is inspired by ‘a list on a pavement sign outside a shop selling Chinese medicine’. The collection is full of surprises, and some useful notes at the back help the reader with more abstruse references, such as England’s first weatherman and the man who held a dinner for twenty-one in the belly of an iguanodon – a thoroughly enjoyable collection.
FRANK STARTUP, The School Librarian, Volume 57, Number 3, Autumn 2009
‘I’ll Dress One Night as You’ is a no-nonsense book, and the title sequence is about her mother’s ageing, ailing and death. It is a superb piece of writing, full of convincing details of landscape, flowers, clothes, makeup. The sixth and last poem perfectly rounds off the series of glimpses we are given into the end of a life:
You’re in the scenes that play
Inside my head which show me
What you were – the light fantastic
Of your love, which makes me spin
And dare to dip my finger
In the jar of life,
The half I’ll live for you.
Gittins’s poems are full of telling details. Sometimes the details don’t tell enough to add up to the whole that she intends, but often their very understatedness pays off. She’s particularly good at then sequence, and there’s a second good one here – ‘Cloth’, which recounts the life of Mary Hindle, born in Haslingden, Lancs, worked on the looms, took part in the machine-breaking riots of 1826, and was convicted and transported to Australia, where, separated from her husband and children, she committed suicide. There is nothing mawkish in these six poems, but the first person narrative lets us into Mary’s life sufficiently to identify with her. Here she is in prison awaiting deportation:
What I want is my husband’s shoulder,
my hand sliding round his cheek,
his mouth finding mine,
the heat of our bodies confounding
the cool night air.
Instead I’m in this vicious sleeping room,
dank and dark as a vixen’s lair.
Many other poems here are monologues, but there are also a number in the poet’s voice. I prefer these, and there is a particularly telling one about sharing with a sibling the task of clearing their home after the death of both parents (Crab Apples’) and, most affecting of all, the most direct expression here of the theme which underlies most of this collection – that of mortality; this poem shares its title with the first line, and here is the first verse:
Say something to me of life –
that it is not random
like a stray celandine setting seed
in the middle of a lawn,
that one pre-heartbeat babe
has just as much chance
of growing up to skip rope
as any other.
JOHN KILLICK, The North, 44, Winter 2009
Chrissie Gittins speaks in the voice of a cook who fed the dinner guests in the belly of a model iguanodon created by a Victorian palaeontologist. She regrets that Mary Anning, who collected so many of the bones the eminent men enthused over, went unhonoured.
Mary, though, is done justice by Chrissie’s later poem ‘Lifeline’ where she is imagined alongside a drowned woman telling her ‘your bones are made from beauty’.
A lot of the poems are in voices other than the poet’s. The sequence ‘Cloth’, told by a woman deported for her part in the Luddite riots of 1826 is a
tour de force.
The opening (title) sequence of the book is an understated elegy for her mother and the changing tones, from sweet to fierce, make a truly outstanding set.
ANN DRYSDALE, Envoi, Issue 154, October 2009
‘Leaving Brancaster Staithe’ sets the tone: confident, accessible, precisely observed (geese fly ‘in lazy V’s, settle on a wintry marsh ‘like iron filings/over a starched white tablecloth’); it merges the outer landscape, the geese with ‘heads held down’, the slowly draining light, with an inner landscape whose drama of anxiety and loss is condensed in the memorably simple last line ‘and this time I knew you would die’. This poem is one of the title sequence of poems commemorating the poet’s mother. Carefully wrought, anchoring emotion in details whose poignancy is allowed to speak for itself, with just the occasional dip into obviousness (the ‘buds slowly opening’ in Mothering Sunday’), this sequence epitomizes a fine collection.
In her imagination Chrissie Gittins not only dresses as her mother but wears other, less familiar personae: Alcyone, Mary Hindle (a tragic textile worker transported for abetting machine-breakers), the grandson of Hitler’s chauffeur. She shows a striking ability to inhabit their stories, at her best when leading our imagination on through details so vividly realised we are enmeshed in a scene and its implications before we know it.
She has a gift for surprising readers through a lively sense of the absurd (see the series inspired by a list of Chinese herbal medicines, the description of a dinner held in the belly of a model dinosaur). Her poems are most telling when seemingly most simple. ‘Letter to My Husband’ opens with ‘I hope these few lines find you well’, ending with the equally plain, equally moving ‘Eighteen thousand miles is the distance I am from you,’ a real voice, really suffering. In ‘The Man Who Carries A Picture of Hitler’ the single detail ‘The crown of Hitler’s head brushes/the bottom lip of my five year old’ opens the poem out in unsettling directions, like the compelling image of death in ‘Say Something To Me Of Life’, ‘a doorbell/ringing and ringing in the middle of the day’. There is more to these poems than meets the eye.
A.C.CLARKE, Markings, Issue 30, April 2010
The title comes from a sequence about mourning a mother; in the poem "Out Of Place" the bereaved speaker envisages putting on the dead woman's clothes and habits:
I'll dress one night as you,
wear your weighty beads and bracelet,
I'll stretch my lips across my teeth,
half open my mouth,
apply red lipstick in a compact mirror
It's an appropriate title image, because much of this collection is about putting on the voice and personality of others - a former bodyguard of Hitler, a 17th-century chorister who also acts in Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys's mistress.
Sometimes too the alter egos are from the myth-kitty, as in "Alcyone" and "Triptolemus". I'm not among those who are turned off by the mere mention of Greek myth; it seems a perfectly valid source of material as long as the poet recognises that it has been extensively mined already and needs something new doing with it. In "Triptolemus" we see the man cheated of the gift of immortality as a baby, now on his deathbed and massively grateful for not having had to outlive his own children - a good twist on the myth, I think.
I've always liked voice poems because they give the poet a certain distance from material that might otherwise become sentimental, also because it seems weird to be a writer and not take advantage of the freedom it gives you to get into someone else's skin. In "The Carpet Fitter's Wife", this fondness for shape-shifting combines with an interest in vocabulary: a married couple's relationship becomes defined by their respective idiolects, his as a carpet fitter, hers as a maths teacher:
Our congruent bodies lie parallel,
an owl calls from the coppice,
he holds me firm like gripper rod.
Another sequence, about a woman transported to Australia, works well. Of course the thing about voice poems is that the voice needs to convince throughout; if "Chorister, St Saviour's Church, Southwark, 1607" works less well for me it is because I can't hear a 17th-century voice saying "his lips were mink on mine", given that mink weren't introduced into Britain until about 1920. Granted, their fur could have been imported earlier, but it can't have been widely known, and it just seems unlikely to have been among this speaker's references.
The other main theme of this collection is bereavement, and on the vocabulary and minutiae of loss she is very sharp - "the back of everyone's head is you" ("Around Thaxted"). The poem which sticks with me most, though, is another about the place of fictional vocabularies in life, "She Gave Me Her Childhood Books, in which fiction becomes a talisman for children against reality:
on a cold stone wall in the playground
we're joined by the King of Peru
who falls down a well
and comforts himself with a rhyme.
The bell sounds for lessons, we fetch up in a line.
Beside us loiters a row of ducks,
an old sailor, a knight with quiet armour.
When keys are thrown at chatty Colin
the knight shields the blow
If I were feeling picky, I might object that actually he deflects the blow, or shields Colin from it, but the idea behind the words is one most of us could relate to. Gittins has in fact worked a great deal with children, but this collection shows her as a poet adults can certainly enjoy as well.
SHEENAGH PUGH, Live Journal, May 2011 www.sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com
Restless intelligence and a distinctive voice characterise this collection of shifty perspectives and disturbing juxtapositions. A triumph.
PETER BENNET, Other Poetry, Series Four, No.4, Autumn 2011
Acclaimed children’s poetry and radio plays fall within the territory of Chrissie Gittins’s writing. Her first poem opens with unpretentious freshness, amongst geese: “the hollering came first”. But the plainness of Gittins’s ending is uncompromising: “this time I knew she would die”. Her poems explore grief’s strangeness: “I’ll dress one night as you”. They also celebrate daily heroism, as the old walk, indoors, with “head down against the wind”. Gittins’s metaphors are bold, with infectious desires, “to dip my finger / In the jar of life”.
Gittins’s fictional “King Of Peru” comforts himself with a rhyme”. Her factual poems display winning, rocking, rhythms. Their childhood reference is particularly touching in her account of a dead person’s possessions: “The green glass shone / that quarter to one, / making mahogany sizzle.”
Her rhythms dance. Even death “can do the tango”, while a mother is recalled by “the light fantastic / Of your love”. Echoes of tongue-twisters are poignant in the account of Mary Anning, pioneering palaeontologist, reduced to “selling seashells by the shore”.
Gittins speaks strongly in the voices of the overlooked dead, whether Pepys’s mistress or a woman machine-breaker. With equal intensity, she focuses on beauty within her own life, such as “the peach flush / Of a bullfinch” outside a house she must sell. Her appealing poems reconnect a child’s wide-awake senses with an adult’s intelligence and passion. “Have you any idea how thick the dark can be?”
ALISON BRACKENBURY, Poetry Review, Volume 102:4, Winter 2012
'I have been especially impressed by the way in which Chrissie is able to write poems that fuse the intelligence of the idea with patterns of
speech that never jar one against the other. I like the economy of the writing, spare but never terse, and, a rare thing indeed, the absence of redundant adjectives. Great last lines too.The parallel with Duffy comes to mind but she does something so different with her material.'
Simon Pugh, retired lecturer Central St Martin's
'an important, imaginative, totally original contribution to modern poetry.'
'I'll Dress One Night as You approaches its readers with a deftness of touch that belies its ability to create images that linger long after the book itself has been closed. Chrissie Gittins' subject matter stirs our own emotions and offers us insightful reflections on past lives.'
Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham
'I've enjoyed the new book so much. It's so rich, I'll be rereading it soon, and I'm sure I'll be uncovering new treasures..... At present my favourite is the 'Cloth' sequence, but this could change...'
'Mr Pepys’s Inclination', magma poetry online
Three poems from the 'Herbal Source' sequence, Jacket 37, Australia
Dinosaurs, riots and avocados - poems from Forest Hill, Dulwich On Line
Interview with Lewisham Life, May 2009
South London Press: Top poet inspired by shop signs (May 2009)
Praise for Armature
‘Chrissie Gittins’s poems are elegant, sensual and deep. They are a joy to read first time round – and to revisit,’ Kate Kellaway, poetry editor, The Observer.
One of the more striking debuts of 2003 was Armature, by Chrissie Gittins, a longish collection (incorporating two previously published pamphlets) with enough surprises to keep me reading to the end. The contents range from the autobiographical - facing a loved one's Alzheimer's (“Your hand, curled like a sepal, / waves from side to side through the blank window”), or travelling through Southeast Asia - to bizarre excursions into other characters' voices. An archangel: “I am an elderly lady with a stammer, / . . . I live in a chewing gum ball, / I live in a jacket”. Gittins's deadpan tone and skewed perspective mark her out as a true original.
In “Gutted” a child confides, “Telly's rubbish in the day. The adverts are alright. I want to spear a dummy with a bayonet”. Elsewhere, an ambiguous protagonist (nanny? jealous sibling?) admits, with unsettling candour, to abusing a baby: “My job is to make our baby smile. / . . . If Mummy is gone a long time / I get her skin between my fingernails and squeeze. / . . . I'm definitely more interesting than her toys”. And in “The Withdrawing Room”, Gittins plays the part of a disenchanted mother conducting a tour of her National Trust-listed home. Between judgments on its architectural features (“Limed staircase, carved here with boring hearts and diamonds”) the owner lets slip gnomic facts about her life (“I went to university the same year as my daughter. She was a bit put out when I got a first, / we phoned each other every day”). Gittins characterises her speakers through disjunctive, seemingly random pronouncements that manage to betray their vulnerability, longing and frustration - she has a genuine gift. Jane Yeh, Poetry Review, Spring 2004.
‘it is the poetry of collisions, of the meeting of madness and sanity, of different experiences of an identical moment, of what is exact and what is elusive. These poems are moving; they achieve a degree of pathos that gives them authority. There are poems about Italy and Spain and Scotland, about magnolias and mountains and Elizabeth Taylor's nose, about the Yalding floods of 2000 and the thoughts of a convict. There are all sorts of voices, too: Psyche, an eldest child, Santa Teresa's hand, a medievalist, an iguana. There's also flexibility of approach: a jolly surreal episode with origami in a railway train; a sharply entertaining Table of Kindred and Affinity. This is not a light-hearted collection, except incidentally; it's pretty serious poetry, by a serious professional. There's variety and interest here, and an artistic sensibility alert to the contradictions and possibilities of experience.’ Dr Rosie Bailey, Envoi 138, Summer 2004.
‘The juxtapositions and tonal shifts that characterize the poems in Armature find a balance and profundity here that are exceptionally effective. Yet while it is a book with many shades of light and dark throughout, its strength resides in the way each can be seen to inhabit the other.’ Dr John Ballam www.suite101.com
‘Chrissie Gittins’s collection, Armature, holds a series of delicate dementia poems. The first opens in heart-breaking mid-sentence with a non-sequitural ‘but a lemon hangs from the branch in the conservatory.’ (‘Today Is Friday, The Season Is Winter, The Weather Is Cold’). In other sections of Armature, a book of parts, she writes extremely well from the perspective of a child, and excels at the psychologically revealing.
Her evocation of the world of a Karenni refugee in Thailand and Britain is delicate and moving, particularly in the more personal poems. Judy Kendall, PN Review 158, Summer 2004.
‘She writes with tenderness and care, an ear for speech and a strong sense of empathy. My favourite poems in this collection were a series about an elderly relative. In these poems she documents both the physical changes and the less perceptible changes, as in ‘Pilot’.
All the poems are full of images, colour and vitality. They leap from voice to voice and are at times surprising, with unexpected juxtapositions, or occasional, bizarre images. Her strength throughout the book is that at the heart of each poem is a person, a relationship, some insight into the human condition. The variety of her choice of subject and her lively style makes this an enjoyable read. Sally Baker, The North 34, July 2004.
This volume consists of forty-two poems framed by two collections which have previously been published in pamphlet form, ‘Pilot’ and ‘A Path of Rice’. ‘Pilot’ deals movingly with the physical and mental decline of an elderly parent. Matter-of-fact statements – ‘there are things I must realise you can no longer do’ – combine with some fine imagery and lines which reflect upon the poet’s feelings when faced with this situation. The detail is well observed, and the writing balances the realities of the situation with its implications delicately.
The theme is picked up and extended in ‘A Path of Rice’ when, in Thailand, the poet finds ‘I am my father/our freckles fuse’, and her experiences are bound up with his war experiences, the whole marked by subtle shifts between poetic and demotic language which is stimulating and effective.
In between the pamphlets, the poems are marked by a variety of location and mood. The description of place, particularly landscapes, is vivid and sensual, while the warmth of some of the imagery in some poems in punctuated by sudden and surprising violence or explicitly sexual imagery in others. The collection is varied in mood and emphasis, and rewards close reading. Frank Startup, The School Librarian, Autumn 2004.
Chrissie Gittins writes vividly about the everyday as well as less familiar lives and places – notably Thailand, where she has travelled extensively. ‘There is no striving for effect, but much to enjoy and admire in this fresh and unusually natural first collection.’ (Moniza Alvi)
PBS BULLETIN, Number 198, Autumn 2003
Armature is the debut collection of Chrissie Gittins. The poems are located in the North of England and the Orient, their habitat extends to old people’s homes, The British Museum and a refugee camp. The thing that takes us between these worlds is Gittins’s relationship with her father, a recording of their relationship in his final months, her memories of him and her imaginings of his life. Her reconstructions of his wartime experiences are startling, ambitious in every way a poem should be. I like these poems because they tackle that big no-no, sentimentality. For me, poems are all about intellect meeting emotion and it seems to me that poets who don’t risk writing about love or anything that involves an intensity of feeling are only going to produce bland and banal writing. Lucky for us, Gittins doesn’t flinch. Gittins’s ear for dialogue is good, which enhances the characters in her work. There is a northerness to the poems, they are honest, unpretentious, no garnish.
I’m impressed with the simplicity of the poems, and the trust Gittins has in herself. One of the biggest dilemmas is, how do you write poems that are as intelligent as you want them to be without losing a lot of readers by being too clever? The answer is, partly, by trying to say something complicated in very simple terms. It is to Gittins’s credit that she is very successful at this. The poems say what they mean, I mean they are exact, precise, they don’t pussyfoot around or beat around the bush. They remain focussed and succinct. I find this extremely refreshing because it is so surprisingly rare.
I like the way the family is the cornerstone of the book, there are poems about her father, her mother. There are carefully balanced poems about the rearing of her own children, (or the rearing of the narrator’s children). It’s good to read poetry about the family unit, about those small acts of kindness that we perform daily because we love, and that you wouldn’t believe existed if you believed soap opera world.
I very much look forward to forthcoming collections by Chrissie Gittins. It’s her unflinching and unapologetic tackling of emotional concerns that, in my book, makes Armature a success.
PETER KNAGGS, The Slab 2, 2005