HappenStance Press, 2013. £4.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Matt Merritt and Ross Kightly
D A Prince:
At first this seems an unlikely choice of subject – hens: their habits, problems, individuality, lives – but it works. This pamphlet is a sequence, strung between the opening one-liner (‘The pop hole is open’) and its attendant semicircle of hen footprints, and the final one-liner (the same footprints plus ‘The pop hole is closed’). A pop hole, just so that we all clear on this, is the small door in a hen house, keeping the inmates secure at night. In between, we meet Diana Gittins and, through these twenty-six poems, something of her literary tastes and a lot about her hens and their shared activities. They are the constant background to her life, “renewing the everyday eternal to my unironed, ragged life in this crazy overgrown garden of the world” as she writes in the prose poem ‘Chicken Sutra.’
Although we get a glimpse of Gittins’ childhood (with hens) it’s the current gang of five – Mabel, Martha, Muriel, Maisie and Hope – and their pecking order that is at the heart of the sequence. ‘Heart’ is not too strong a word: the hens’ social interactions reveal an awareness of each other, especially when Hope dies, quietly, moulting. “Hope is a thing without feathers” makes a bleak joke, balanced against the silence of humans and the remaining hens.
Mabel, now “relegated / to bottom hen” expresses the hen equivalent of grief: “she stands / beside Hope’s favourite shrubs / and dust-bath holes, calling / calling.”
But there’s an earthy resilience in the survivors; they continue to interfere with Gittins’ attempts to read Prynne, her reflections on Lacan’s psychoanalysis and Foucault’s power relationships, her observations on the London riots of 2011. Yes, the wider world exists, but the hens have centre stage.
Inventive language – brk brk brk, or baROQUE! – mimics their communication; a pared-back syntax matches the elemental existence of the birds; the free verse makes for uncluttered reading, appropriate to this new world order. In the complex, disordered, near-collapse of the human world that presses in from the edges, Gittins gives us a surprisingly comforting and intelligent counterweight.
Domestic animals, with the exception of cats and dogs, are strangely invisible in contemporary poetry, so Diana Gittins’ collection of poetry inspired by hens has the immediate advantage of originality and freshness.
There are also the potential pitfalls of sentimentality, whimsicality and a sort of cosiness, though, so it's to Gittins' credit that she straight away sidesteps these in her opening (untitled) poem, a glorious cacophony of chicken calls and impressionistic description making energetic use of invented words and word compounds. You might not immediately know what “flapitrun liftflutter land” or “nuddle nuddle dust shuffle” are getting at, but you can have a lot of fun reading them out loud while you decide.
From that opening, Gittins gradually builds up a fuller picture of the different characters in her own hen coop. There are, as you'd probably expect, difficulties and deaths, but she doesn’t allow herself to dwell on these. Instead, a quietly celebratory tone emerges, until by the end you can't help but see the humble fowls as strangely heroic in their stoicism.
A hen seems to mourn a dead companion, and another:
around in shocked surprise
as when a passion –
mind-regressing, heart-obsessing –
and drifts away, leaving
feet and flesh
earthbound in the everyday.
After the explosive beginning mentioned earlier, there's a much quieter music to lines like that, and their understatement ensures that suggested parallels never become outright anthropomorphism. Gittins never pretends to know exactly what the birds are thinking, and that contradiction of living in close and constant proximity to creatures that you can never truly understand, creatures that “show no gratitude at all”, is what gives the collection most of its emotional resonance.
Even when Gittins does step away from the back garden, in poems that recall an American childhood or, most notably, the execution of Lady Jane Grey, there are chickens present, real or metaphorical, and again you start making connections between the overlooked lives of humans and hens alike.
Incidentally, most of the poems here are untitled – once or twice you might find yourself wishing for something to stop poems running into each other, but for the most part the sequencing and pacing is excellent, and the lack of signposting just serves to enhance the cumulative effect of some fine work.
As you'd expect from HappenStance, it's a smartly produced chapbook, with the clean design enlivened by some nice line drawings. It's also one of the most surprising yet from this fine press, full of truly imaginative writing that makes a nonsense of simplistic categories. You'll never look at a chicken in quite the same way again.
I know all about chooks. I grew up with them just outside my window; I know all about the stink of their shit-encrusted habitats, about their diseases of foot and leg, about how they wake too early.
I know too much about the outsides and the insides of chooks – the stink of feathers wet by hot water as Mum plucked one for the table, the glisten and flop of guts as she gutted the carcase.
But then I read this pamphlet. And then I read it again. And again. Still the same reactions: despite my prior knowledge of poultry these poems moved me far too much. I know I weep perhaps too readily, and I know also that there are more important problems about which to lament than the death of a hen.
This little publication makes big claims about what we can learn from hens: one of their number has died and the poet imagines:
Priests claim animals have no soul
but if the Pope cam here to sit
in this Adirondack chair, bedecked
with pigeon, hen and sparrow shit
I would not hesitate to ask him straight:
Why, then, do these chickens grieve?
The poem ‘October Headlines’ takes news headlines of economic and fiscal collapse in Iceland and elsewhere, juxtaposing them with the somewhat despondent behaviour of the chickens and concludes with the line “as we watch our chickens, coming home to roost.” As Pop Larkin has it: “Perfick!”
If you do not buy, borrow or steal a copy of this pamphlet you will never know why the wildly-exaggerated and totally convincing claims made in the last poem, ‘Chicken Sutra’, completed the utter conversion of a formerly-committed chicken-sceptic.