Review: The Chicken Diaries

BORK! poetry pamphlet by Diana Gittins
Happenstance Press

Happenstance pamphlets are always a visual joy: clean and printerly, they put the poetry centre stage and avoid some of the pitfalls that small press pamphlets sometimes wander into, such as font size or going too near the staples, making for a sometimes disconcerting read when the margins are competing for your attention with the verse. It’s Happenstance Press’ attention to detail and design ethos that makes them stand out. Bork has an especially nice cover with what look like tiny hairs embedded within the weave of the cover and the interior is dappled with chicken feet prints, and the odd illustration of a chicken here and there.

Oddness surrounds Bork. On the back cover we are told that Gittins has moved house sixty-three times, surely a record of some sort and worthy of a collection in itself. Gittins, the blurb informs us, when not playing her flute, ‘writes poetry and prose in a garden shack, in the company of hens’. And it’s those hens who have invaded the page and taken over.

As the old joke goes: “Well that solves that question!” said the chicken to the egg in bed, as she lit a cigarette. Pithy jokes aside, the metaphor of which came first, the chicken or the egg can be applied to the creative process here. In her shack, did the sound of the chickens invade the page, or did the chickens come after the shack? The sound of the chickens is central and suggests the former, and the opening poem and many others took me back to some of Edwin Morgan’s sound poems such as the Hungarian Snake or the Loch Ness Monster’s Song (also fourteen lines and a cheeky sonnet).

shadow over – fast diver? two legs? tailed?
gone     brk brk brk
flapitrun   liftflutter   land
piss off it’s mine
kick     fling wing    peck     poop brk brk
green nibble     slug ooze     smooth gullet fill     baw
nuddle nuddle dust shuffle
wuffle wing    scratch warm    rub rub     bugger off
full huddle       sun scrum
sideways eyes   check               shutter

There is a homophonic translation of chicken here, both in it’s noises and body language when it interacts with the others, though all that sounds terribly theoretical for something so alive and (whisper it) fun. Slowly the collection starts to build on the observed chickens and head off into a treatment on chickens and their relationship to humans, both in abstract and personal like this unnamed example “The chicken coop where we went to school / was red clapboard with white window frames.” which calls up the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. It happens again on the opposite page:

When we went to school in the chicken coop,
she chalked a rooster on the clapboard wall
facing ski hill, came in shirt sleeves and jeans
singing Pal Joey and South Pacific tunes,
slapped on yellow, orange, green and white paint
until the rooster was crowing his joy
over hills and woods, through snow and rain.
seen for years, even in the darkest days.

Although it may not have the agonised over, formal precision of Bishop, it certainly evokes a similar world, one that has all but disappeared, and for me it’s these personal poems that are the most successful in the pamphlet.

Central to the collection, is Mrs Ellen’s Letter on the Beheading of Her Mistress, Lady Jane Grey which sees Mrs Ellen recounting the execution where she had a fit of the giggles she tries to stifle when, she knows not why, she imagines Jane to be a chicken at slaughter. It’s a well executed poem (no pun intended) that marries Gittins central poetic interests of black humour, oddity, word play and of course, chickens.

Lots of other characters and cultural references emerge throughout the collection, we have Lacan (the coiner of psychoanalytical term ‘Hommelette’ a French cousin to the Oedipal crisis), afternoon television quiz Countdown, chickens speaking Arabic, and Prynne in a word battle with the chickens.

Unique and enjoyably strange, Gittins’ pamphlet is worthy meditation on chickens and well worth tracking down.