Monday, June 9, 2014

Poet Alison Brackenbury - On June 9, 1870 Charles Dickens died from a stroke

Christal Cooper

Guest Blogger
Poet Alison Brackenbury
Charles Dickens & The Old Curiosity Shop

It was the Vicar who noticed that we had no Dickens in the house.
My father, to my knowledge, never bought a book in his life. (He would, however, get up half an hour early to finish a library book, often a story of marriage or family, before he left to load and drive a lorry for the farmer who still owned most of our village.)

My mother had a small set of books, including poems, from the teacher training for which she had, briefly, left the village. She had then dabbled in bookclubs, which seemed determined to promote the complete works of Howard Spring.

Our Vicar, the surprisingly bookish son of a rich farming family, must have realised there were no classics amongst the fading covers in our bookcase.
So, aged, eight or nine, I found myself fingering a Sunday School prize with a royal blue cover embossed in gold: ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’.

The re-discovery of my old friend briefly brightened a dark and dreadful first term in North Oxford. ‘You’re good on this often neglected novel’, a patient tutor scrawled in the margin of an essay which seemed, even to me, longer than the books themselves. Dickens had been engulfed by homesickness and mental confusion.

When I came home, sleep-starved, in December, I was asked by my busy parents to take Mrs. Haywood her Christmas present.       
Twice a week, even before the arrival of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, Mrs Haywood had cleaned our house so that my mother had time for teaching. She worked with enormous energy, occasionally colliding with the odd bowl or vase. She would then insist we that we accept an expensive replacement.
As a child she had a disfigurement (a hare lip?) and been tormented at school. Her prickly pride was matched only by inexhaustible kindness. She would come and look after me when I was ill, even in the middle of family bereavement, staying all day, boiling her thick custard, which I loved.

Now thin and eighteen, standing on her doorstep in the windy dark, I tried to answer her eager enquiries about Oxford. I could not tell her about the unhappy hours in my room. I tried instead to describe some of the exotic creatures I encountered in the College corridors, with their black cloaks from Benenden and their pale, fine-grained handbags from Florence.
Mrs Haywood stared at me disapprovingly. ‘But they are’, I said desperately, ‘really quite ordinary people’. ‘Don’t you think, Alison dear,’ said Mrs Haywood, unfailingly kind even in indignation, ‘that we are all ordinary people?’ ‘Yes,’ I muttered miserably. Mrs Haywood softened. ‘And what are you studying?’ ‘Dickens’, I offered, at random. Mrs Haywood’s awkward mouth opened into her rare, wide smile. ‘I love Dickens!’ she cried. Her face was happy as a child’s.

Like one of the racehorses turned out to grass in the village, I ‘broke down’, broke off the course, worked in a shop (fairly old, very curious), then went back.

Like Mrs Haywood, I could now love Dickens again, because I knew that I was not going to stay in a claustrophobic university town, as my teachers had dreamed.

I was going out into the wide world, as the lovers pass into London at the end of ‘Little Dorrit’. First devoured at Oxford, it is perhaps my favourite Dickens novel. I have never forgotten the moment in which the wide steps of Mr Dorrit’s Italian palace shrink, in his dying mind, to the narrow staircase of the Marshalsea. If the prison is inescapable, it is partly because he denies it. In the ridiculous grandeur of his pretensions, truth returns from his past.

So I will return, gratefully, to the Curiosity Shop -where is that small blue book? – with what my daughter’s generation would call some random thoughts about Dickens. First, how terrifying he is. As with the course, I needed two attempts at ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I almost slammed the book shut when I first encountered Quilp, crunching eggshells.

Dickens is, if anything, still more alarming on stage or screen. My mother-in-law, who had iron nerves, screamed aloud in the cinema at the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’, when Magwitch leaps out at Pip.

But when I edged past Quilp, I followed Nell and her unreliable grandfather on their journey out of London. Despite the odd brush with the monstrous fires of industry, this becomes a book of green places, overlooked patches of countryside where a girl can tether a horse. It looks backwards. Dickens, I believe, is an eighteenth century writer.

I was startled to discover that Oliver’s request for food, unlike its tear-jerking dramatisations, is described in the book with cool satire. (This sudden distancing of tone, the reversing of the telescope, may make Dickens an awkward author for schoolchildren.)

I know other readers who think, as I do, that there is a vivacity and sympathy in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ which is never recaptured. Amongst his stagecoaches and ostlers, Dickens is at home. His later descriptions of the building of railways are raw as nightmare. But, in his waking life, Dickens proved adaptable.

The fierce cleric Dean Close, who terrorised nineteenth century Cheltenham, thought that railways would encourage travel on the Sabbath, for immoral purposes, by the working classes. He might have included famous novelists in this class. When Dickens was caught up in a train crash, he was transporting not only his MS, but his teenage mistress, and her mother.

Dickens worked, incessantly. But one of the fascinating features of his books is the inability of either Dickens or his young heroes to find any useful job which they can do.  Dickens, I believe, had been a Parliamentary reporter, and worked for a lawyer. He held politics and the law in the same cold contempt.

But what was left, for David or Pip? Industry, to Dickens, was Nell’s lurid fairytale of flames. What would Dickens make of a girl whose parents worked hard, and whose money bought her an excellent education, after which she did nothing but pose, gaunt under high-class cosmetics, at the side of the balding heir to a feudal monarchy?

He might not have tacked a happy ending on to that fairy tale, even though Wilkie Collins persuaded him to improve his commercial expectations, by replacing his clear-eyed verdict on the cold-hearted Estella with a final rosy glow.

Finally, how do ‘ordinary people’ encounter Dickens today? I tend to hear him, on the radio. Dickens was the keenest of listeners, perhaps due to his shorthand training. There is nothing in English like the breakneck monologues of Sam Weller. But I heard a radio presenter admit recently that neither he nor his widely read wife had ever attempted Dickens. Were his books ever on school exam syllabuses? His best novels are long, and wildly varied. Somewhere, I suspect, English critics devised a notion of the uniform novel, compact, pale and smooth as those costly handbags. Dickens does not run along even tracks. His prose is a bulging bag, a lurching coach. But if you hang on, and peer out of the tiny window, what crazy, unforgettable views!

Sharon Osbourne, no stranger to craziness, nominates Dickens as her favourite author: ‘I love his books’. Had Mrs Haywood read him? When I stayed with her once, the bedroom shelf held only green copies of ‘The Reader’s Digest’. Perhaps she had borrowed his novels from a library van. Or had she watched the BBC’s serialisations at Sunday teatime, where the bonnets were stiff, but Dickens’ dialogue leapt into life? It is time for a whole new generation of TV adaptations and films. Dickens, I say unhesitatingly, would have loved them, although the producer would have to steer him well away from the young actress playing Little Dorrit or Nell. How did you – and/or your children? – encounter Dickens? Do let me know.

Recently, I was asked to write a poem about Dickens for an anthology. I heard a comment on the radio that very little survives of Dickens’ London. Statistically, I am sure that this is true. But I was once walking South of the Thames when I passed under a wet, black bridge and was suddenly struck by a panicked sense of evil. I almost ran out into the daylight. By a set of dripping steps, I saw a plaque. Here, in ‘Oliver Twist’, Dickens set the murder of Nancy, by Bill Sykes. So some of Dickens’ places do remain.

Dickens’ descriptions of London are, of course, not photographs, but selections, from Dickens’ roving eye. What would Dickens see today? He would see Canary Wharf, but he would also see the immigrant workers with no papers, sleeping in the streets behind Victoria Coach Station. I do not think he would be impressed – perhaps appalled – but still, fascinated. And blogs? He would have had six of them.

Out of all this came a poem, and with it, Mrs Haywood’s final kindness to me, in suggesting its first refrain. She thought that we are all ordinary people. Dickens, less kind, knew that we are all extraordinary. Here is the poem.

Dickens: a daydream

The scrapman’s son bangs at our door,

skives school, like father, his before,

all crammed in van’s hum. ‘Anything, sir?’

curls wild, your scavenging people.

The doe-eyed girl at the café till

is child’s height, yet does not spill

one bean from heaped trays, hammers bills,

your frantic, stunted people.

Bad teeth, bent hips, the pitbull’s snarl

called you out from the lawyer’s yarns.

Happiness bored you most of all,

white tables, good, quiet people.

One was your wife. You glimpsed ahead

the young actress’s breasts instead,

buds crushed by silk. She never said

your name, changed dates, fooled people.

London, in its lost party time,

the trees’ lit snow, the towers’ gold chime,

the heat of bars, the twist of lime,

you shun as in a fever.

We meet beneath the dripping bridge,

soot, fear and sorrow on each ledge.

Hurt child, you scour each rag-strewn beach,

walk all night, stride and shiver

until the dawn strikes London’s walls

and clangs Good morning from St Paul’s.

Waitresses, Poles, striped bankers pour,

your million words. Sleep, river.

Alison Brackenbury
(Published in
A Mutual Friend: poems for Charles Dickens Ed. Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 2012, 978-1-901677-78-2 Highly recommended!
Reprinted in The Times Literary Supplement.)

Photograph Description and Copyright Info

Photo 1
Alison Brackenbury.
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 2E
Alison’s grandfather Fred Brackenbury, who was a shepherd. 

Photo 3
Howard Spring
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 4a
Jacket cover of The Old Curiosity Shop

Photo 5a
Charles Dickens in 1850
Public Domain

Photo 6G
Alison, age 4, holding a hand-fed-lamb Grandmother Dorothy was helping Grandfather Fred rear. 

Photo 7N
Charles Dickens in New York in 1867
Attributed to Jeremiah Gurney
Public Domain

Photo 8
The Old Curiosity Shop

Photo 9P
"Little Dorrit" avatar (engraving) 1856
"Harper's New Monthly Magazine" Vol. XII, No. LXIX, February, 1856, New York: Harper & Brothers (Publisher)
Public Domain

Photo 10O
The Marshalsea after it had closed.
Photograph taken in 1897.
Public Domain.

Photo 11
Early illustration from The Old Curisoty Shop depicting Daniel Quilp sitting in his chair drinking rum and smoking while his neglected and abused wife sits nearby
Public Domain

Photo 12T
Magwitch leaps out at Pip.
Illustration from Great Expectations
Printed in 1890
Public Domain

Photo 13
An early illustration depicting Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop
Public Domain

Photo 14
Illustration depicting Oliver Twist requesting food.
Attributed to Harold Copping
Public Domain

Photo 15K
Illustration from The Pickwick Papers

Photo 16V
Charles Dickens’s mistress Elen Ternan,
Public Domain

Photo 17W
Engraving of the Staplehurst Train Crash that Charles Dickens and his mistress were victims of
Attributed to Illustrated London News

Photo 18Q
Charles Dickens at his desk in 1858.
Public Domain

Photo 19
Old vintage painting of Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop
Public Domain

Photo 20
Wilkie Collins (a close friend of Charles Dickens) in 1874 at age 50.
Photograph attributed to Napoleon Sarony. 
The signature of Wilkie Collins was added later.
Public Domain 

Photo 21X
Character Sam Weller from The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Public Domain

Photo 22R
Painting titled “Dickens’ Dream”, depicting Dickens at his desk surrounded by his characters.
Attributed to Robert William Buss
Painting donated by Robert William Buss’s grandson
Public Domain

Early vintage illustration of the murder of Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop
Public Domain

Photo 24
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury 

Friday, June 6, 2014

On June 6, 1997 Henry Francis Hays was executed for the racial murder of Michael Donald . . .

Christal Cooper – 1,483

Guest Blogger
Poet Jacqueline Trimble

“The Violence of Ordinary Days”

            The Violence of Ordinary Days

The state of Alabama will electrocute Henry Francis Hays for beating [Michael Donald] a black man to death 16 years ago, and then hanging his body from a tree. . . . It is a story of contrasts: The murderer, a white man, grew up in a home filled with hate and violence. The victim was reared by a loving mother and doting older siblings.
            From Frances Coleman, Mobile Register, 1st June, 1997

When a rabbit, or anything else, bumping along the dark road dies under a wheel, the thrill
is like taking a sharp turn into oncoming traffic, then off a bridge.  Suddenly, I am the rabbit,
scampering across the field; the hind leg of a bull bashes in my head. As I go down
I see a twelve year old boy riding a bike along the street.  A gun falls from his pocket,
discharges loudly.  He picks it up, reloads, continues on his way.  My car continues
in a quick, ungraceful arc off the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where long ago marchers felt
a rage of  clubs and fists, a few dogs for good measure.  Years later a woman stood
on that historic bloody spot calling to a daughter a thousand miles away.  Below her, the river
is filled with bodies, their lips as blue as blue jays.  She slipped across the rails as simply
as the boy slipped more bullets in his gun, and my hand once slipped across  my sister’s open
face for saying, “Bitch.”  I struck her twice, the feel of my palm against her skin, delicious, a
silken purple scarf I feathered across your trusting neck.  I might have killed you then, kicked
you beyond a bloody pulp, hanged your body by the Krispy Kreme; instead, I left you for a
 banker, the same day the State put a wayward boy to death.   Sorry, but this is who I am: 
a thoughtless woman who never swerves in time to save a rabbit, but drives on along
the darkening road, the sun at her back, the wounded in her wake.

            This poem began, as many of my poems begin, as two separate ideas at two separate moments of genesis years apart.
         Moment one – I was driving down a dark road one night, and hit (or almost hit) a rabbit which appeared in my headlights.  I was too afraid too look back and see if I had indeed hit it, and I thought living every day is a violent act.  We are  always doing damage to something or someone whether intentionally or accidentally and much of the time we are blithely unaware or unconcerned about or too afraid to look at the violence around us until it affects us.
         Moment two – I watched a documentary about the Southern Poverty Law Center and the lynching of Michael Donald.  I was struck by how the young men who killed him could not themselves explain why they had done it except to say they had been consumed by the violence rhetoric to which they had been exposed.

         Years later I read the account from which the poem’s epigram comes, noted the violent upbringing of Hays and thought about how violence begets violence.  That it is pervasive, daily and ordinary.  Though Hays becomes famous for the brutality and historical significance of his act, he had lived a history of violence long before any part he played in Michael Donald’s death. 
         But don’t we all have our own histories of violence?  Isn’t the violence connected?  To what?  A larger, ordinary fabric of violence?
         At the time I wrote this poem, I had this idea about living as a violent act.  The first iteration of the poem was actually called “Random Violence.”  I wanted to write a poem of long lines that seemed to merge into each other to enact the notion we live  along a constant string of violence, seen in incidents small and great – hitting creatures in the road way, car accidents, suicide, domestic familial violence, historical acts, emotional violence, and so on.

         We are surrounded by violence, we are victims of violence, and we perpetuate violence, intentionally and unintentionally.  The rabbit incident I spoke of above was my starting point:

When a rabbit, or anything else, bumping along the dark road dies uynder a wheel, the thrill is like taking a sharp turn into oncoming traffic, then off a bridge.  Suddenly, you are the rabbit,

         I had the first part of the line immediately – when a rabbit, or anything else, bumping along the dark road dies under a wheel – but then it occurred to me that this moment would not be scary, that the poem needed to make its own turn as well to get the idea that there is a visceral, emotional payoff to violence, a “thrill,” and a sort of deliciousness that allows to live with it.
         Once I made the move, I had the structure of the poem.  Every line would take us on a slightly different path or connection through the thrill, horror and joy of all sorts of violence because though we often shrink from it, we also are fascinated by it.
         The repetition in the poem connects the random acts of violence to each other rhetorically, and the emotion which undergirds each act is slightly incongruous with how we want to think of violence.
         So, the poem went on like that.  I didn’t want to differentiate among the different types of violence.  I didn’t want to hierarchize them.  I wanted small acts and cataclysmic ones to be all of a piece, thus a random accident is connected to “Bloody Sunday” is connected to a woman committing suicide is connected to the speaker’s slapping her sister is connected to leaving a lover – it’s different and the same.
         The initial poem contained no reference to Hays or the twelve-year-old boy and is written in the second person.  But I was not satisfied.

         Some poems come to me quickly and feel finished.  Some get put aside for years.  “The Violence of Ordinary Days’ is a poem that got put aside for years, and then I read two articles – one was about Henry Francis Hays and the other was about pervasive and systematic urban violence among preteens and teens.  The articles were not related in any way, but they clicked in my head as being related and as being the missing parts of my poem.
         I changed it to the first person.  I wanted the speaker to embody all of those who had intentionally perpetrated violence, those who had experienced the devastation of it in various forms, and those who continue to do it with acceptance that this is “who I am.”
         I added the lines about the twelve year old boy – a found piece form the article or urban teen violence that recounts how the writer sees a boy on a bicycle riding down the street drop a gun pick it up and reload as if the child were picking up a dropped bag.  It was disturbing and fascinating that we live in a time when twelve year old children on bicycles carry guns and think nothing of reloading them on a public street.   The juxtaposition of the bicycle and the loaded gun took two ordinary things and made them extraordinary.

         The Hays piece seemed to connect the past to more recent events, and I thought at the same time Hays is being put to death for his violence, a woman is breaking the hear of her lover.  Again, two events connected only in that they share (or could share) the same moment in history.  So  I put the choice that Hays made in the woman’s hands – beat a man to a bloody pulp and hang him by the Krispy Kreme – but had her make a different choice in order to show that the difference between the two acts, though widely divergent in intent and result, are not as distant as we would like to imagine.
         In other words, we make violence choices every day, we are all capable of horrendous violence, and yet we comfort ourselves by saying at least I didn’t do a thing as terrible as that.  So, we drive on oblivious to the destruction we leave behind.  We are all, to some extent, predator and prey (bull and rabbit), victim and perpetrator.  And the thing that separates which we are, is not as solid as we imagine.

*Poet Jacqueline Trimble teaches literature and chairs the Department of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University.  She has been reading writing poetry since she was six years old.  Her first poetry book collection American Happiness, published by New South Books, will be released later this year.  For more information contact Trimble via email at, or call 334-229-8501.

Photo Description and Copyright Information

Photos 1, 4, and 6
Jacqueline Trimble giving a poetry reading at the Alabama Book Festival in April of 2014.
Attributed to Jeanine Thompson.
Copyright granted by Jacqueline Trimble. 

Photo 2
Article clip on the death of Michael Donald.

Photo 3
Michael Donald image and summery of his death, Hays’ trial, and Mrs Donald’s lawsuit which she won.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 5
Henry Francis Hays.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law.