I'll Dress One Night As You
, by Chrissie Gittins, Salt Publishing 2011
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.