This evening, I stood shoulder to shoulder at the sink with my father as we cleaned up after dinner. I’d cooked. He washed and I dried. The drying / washing arrangement was ever thus and, as a child, I longed to usurp him – chiefly because this meant that another unfortunate soul would be tasked to try and dry sieves and colanders. Now I never want to graduate. In the next room, the children rolled on the rug, enjoying a low-angle hairy perspective on their play, swimming in the ritual excitement of Christmas. Wind the clock back forty years and it would have been me on the rug. Everything changes… nothing changes.
Chrissie Gittins’ Sharp Hills is a tender, familial kaleidoscope of images and ideas. Her father served in Assam during the Second World War and his experience maps onto her own travels in India as the collection explores life’s reflections and repetitions. There’s an uplifting warmth and generosity to the experience. Some of the poems appeared in Gittins’ 2013 pamphlet, Professor Heger’s Daughter and a review is posted here.
Gittins opens with ‘Travelling in India’. Current Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice regarding travel to India is extensive: prospective visitors are warned about dengue fever, the Zika virus and mosquitos. Terrorism is afforded its own section on the website. Gittins’ free verse, by contrast, is disarmingly improvisatory in tone:
You may not want to trouble the hotel staffTravelling in India
who sleep on blankets covered in sheets
on the floor of reception, to wake you at 4.30am,
as New Delhi Railway Station will come to
the first floor of Smyle Inn at 3am,
when three generations of a family, and baby, vacate.
Prior to this you will hear five strong lines of pee hitting the toilet water.
The poem shifts in tone as ‘may not’ presents the traveller with options and the phrase ‘hotel staff’ invites the reader to presume the existence of a contract, and Western working conditions. This is quickly undermined – and the traveller’s need for a 4.30am call from reception is put into perspective. The next clause offers some levity as the 4.30am start becomes a 3am one in a Dutch auction. Gittins backtracks one final time as the pee hits the pan and her tone shifts to one of dead certainty: ‘you will’. Perhaps we’re dealing with that most impossible form of advice: hindsight, but I prefer to imagine a synchronicity between people and place. Besides, much of our planning is fruitless and, in the grand scheme of things, the world will keep turning.
‘Prayer Flag, Nainital’ introduces the idea of doubling. ‘My prayer flag is a bed sheet’ and it is actually doubled, opening and closing the poem – enfolding it as it enfolds a memory the father. We encounter him at one remove, and a further, genetic, doubling occurs:
I have my father’s legs,Prayer Flag, Naintal
I have his willow hands,
I have my father’s Celtic skin,
I have his hair of sand.
These are strong, physical statements. It’s not as if the speaker’s legs are like the father’s… they are the father’s… and suddenly the poem’s iambic pulse and masculine rhyme add a touch of magic.
In ‘Becoming in Kolkata’ ageing is dignified: ‘I have become someone / who sits on benches // for a long time’. Relegation to the bench by the side of the road suggests a marginalised life spectating but the ‘becoming’ of the title shows the error of this. As ‘Young boys glance back at me’ the life the speaker lives is central as opposed to marginal.
It’s a humane collection, characterised by careful observation. In ‘The Dilruba Player and the Boy’ the humanity of a disabled boy is acknowledged by the blind Dilruba player: ‘The boy cries once more, the musician replies, / the boy silently smiles’. Sharp Hills is a beautiful collection and celebrates the dignity of both the the young and old. It blurs the boundaries between India and the UK, past and present, fathers and daughters as it celebrates our common humanity.