Professor Heger’s Daughter, Chrissie Gittins, Paekakariki Press, £10
reviewed by Russell Jones
Is our world about to end?
I must draw, urge it to mend.
[“World Without End” p.20]
I’d never come across Chrissie Gittins’ work before. Her pamphlet, Professor Hedger’s Daughter, introduces her as a quite prolific writer of adult and children’s poetry, as well as a short story writer and radio playwright. 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. I mean that sincerely; this is a writer who isn’t resting on linguistic laurels, her words pop out of the page in a “what just happened” way that makes me want to soak it up and then revisit it over and over again.
The pamphlet is about many things and it’s hard to pin a theme down or hold it at gunpoint, but not to its degradation. Many of the poems are about loss and reconciliation. How do we cope with change and movement in life? This could simply be the migration of a man from the Shetlands to Glasgow, wondering where the wind disappeared to (‘The Man Who Moved From Shetland to Glasgow’) or something altogether more emotionally poignant, such as finding constant reminders of a missing loved one:
Are you by the floral teacups, beside the plate of scones?
Or in the yeast which lifts your father’s bread?
Perhaps you’re in the candlelight which wraps the Christmas tree,
or in the brush which coaxed your peat brown hair.
[“Where is Freya?” p.3]
There’s a clear reference here to Mary Elizabeth Frye’s 1930s poem, ‘Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep’ (“I am a thousand winds that blow. / I am the diamond glints on snow.”) but I find this altogether more successful in some ways, more personal through its homely approach and use of specific details.
A number of the poems become reflections on the presentation of memory, or the past, and the artistic imperative, or perhaps (in)ability to capture it. This offers a counterpoint to the art work in the book, prints from wooden engravings by Helen Porter. These are fine visual nuggets to digest, sometimes imagist, sometimes simply abstract. The two art forms combine to raise serious questions about the permanence of our creations and how we might continue to exist after we too are “lost”.
Gittins could be accused of verging on schmalziness (‘Isoal di Lolanda’, with its refrains: “Love is allowed to be … Love is allowed its day … Love has its way.”) but I think she more generally gets away with it. Her poetry is lifted by its fresh use of language, its witticism and absurdity, even if the idea within isn’t necessary the most original. I wholly recommend taking a read and I’d be very keen to read more of Gittins’ work. If you’re still not convinced, here’s an extract from the collection’s opening poem, ‘The Table Decker’s Daughter’:
Too soon, when all that was left were bones and stones,
it fell to me to whip the cloth away
and shake a veil of grey through an open window.
Is it any wonder he fell back into cake?
When the castle cat sat on the creation he threw
his box of colours to the ground.
I found him weeping in a pool of palest blue.
He’s content now with jumballs, biskets, candied fruits,
though once I caught him, eyes closed,
throwing his arms in arabesques across the kitchen floor,
dropping stags and mountain sheep
beside the open door.