Review: The London Magazine review of A Mutual Friend: Poems for Charles Dickens

In Our Own Hard Times
by Andrew Mangham

A Mutual Friend: Poems for Charles Dickens, edited by Peter Robinson, Two Rivers Press, 160pp, £10 (paperback)
It is the time for Dickens. Should anybody be left in doubt, 2012 is the two hundredth anniversary of the author’s birth and the world has responded excitedly. There have been films, television dramas, documentaries, plays,conferences, newspaper articles, special editions of everything and let us not forget all those books. Publishers have been melancholy mad with churning out a bewildering amount of works dedicated to the Inimitable. Two years ago 2012 might have seemed the best of times to publish a book about Dickens. It now seems the worst of times as each new voice must clamour to be heard.

In the midst of this riot, a tiny press based in Reading has published a collection of poems for Dickens, edited by the poet Peter Robinson. The town’s Great Expectations bar and hotel is handsomely portrayed on the book’s cover (it was a place the author visited in order to give a public reading of A Christmas Carol when it was a Mechanics’ Institute in the 1840s) and Robinson’s preface assures us that,

the Thames Valley was very much part of Dickens’s extended territory. The George Inn still advertises itself as the place he would stay when visiting. The town almost persuaded him to stand as its MP. Around 1858 he established his mistress, the actress Ellen Ternan, just down the A4 from  us in Slough.

Notwithstanding the author’s connections to Reading, which, to be honest, are about as interesting or substantial as those he formed with 120 any other town he visited in his itinerant career, A Mutual Friend offers poems from a range of writers from a variety of places. Adrian Poole writes an introduction in which he states that ‘there is an aptness to this volume’s chosen title, A Mutual Friend, to which many of its contributors have responded. Its sub-title might well be “They do Dickens in different voices”’. Indeed, one of the strengths of this collection is the way in which its fifty-odd contributors draw upon their varying experiences of Dickens
to produce an anthology that, though uneven, demonstrates how, like the proverbial fog in the opening of Bleak House, Dickens gets everywhere. Everybody has some experience of him. It may be through the musical Oliver!, through A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, or through unpleasant experiences of GCSE English, where seemingly unpalatable sections of Great Expectations get forced down youngsters like Mrs Squeers’s brimstone treacle. In any case, Dickens has been a reassuring constant in many lives since his first publication in 1836.
The collection demonstrates this and opens with some memories of
Dickens from childhood. Elizabeth Smither’s ‘Dickens and My Father’ recalls how the poet’s parent would call Dickens ‘the very pinnacle of a novelist’, adding ‘the life of a novelist entails sacrifice’. Philip Goss writes in ‘The Dickens’:

What the Dickens…? The Devil,
that is, I knew it from Aunt Edie’s parlour: unbroached
and forbidding shelves of him,

The complete set (every home
of substance had one) – him in oxblood leather
with a dusty, taxidermy smell

Collectively, the complete works of Dickens are rather forbidding. One imagines that most people’s experiences of the texts themselves have been from this angle – from a view of how lovely and impressive they look in oxblood. Goss’s poem ends with some sense of wonder that he should be ‘here, still, fifty years on, writing this’ which acknowledges how time disappears but Dickens does not. There is something endearing in the acknowledgement that the poet’s first (and perhaps most enduring) memory of Dickens is as an unread ornament in a ‘home of substance’. The author appears to be a common thread through a lot of people’s childhoods. He is a mutual friend (though, technically, I think Dickens meant a ‘common’ friend when he used the term for his last completed
novel) and this collection of poems reads like a fitting celebration of an artist who, for better or for worse, has touched most of us. This is ‘Dickens in different voices’ but not, like the bicentenary’s Dickensian industry, a chaos of opportunistic clamour. Rather, it feels like Robinson has taken a snapshot of our common and varying conceptions of Dickens and offered a space in which to think about why we like (or loathe) him.

The enduring qualities of Dickens are represented, not only in poems that recall and preserve childhood memories, but also in poems that demonstrate how the author’s thematic preoccupations and aesthetic interests speak to our own hard times. Robinson’s own poem, ‘Costume Drama’, for instance, recalls the experience of stumbling across the BBC’s filming of Little Dorrit somewhere in Berkshire and concludes with:

It was like the shady bathtub end
of a banker, a banker with annual bonus
– or so I imagined.

It is difficult to imagine Merdle in any other context. The collapse of
the banker’s speculations, leaving the entire dramatis personae of the novel up creek merde without a paddle, feels disastrously familiar. Alan Jenkins’s visceral poem, ‘Passages’, cuts a cross-section through time, like Robinson’s ‘Costume Drama’, and allows the author’s dark inflections to bear on modern matter. ‘Passages’ is about prostitution like some of Dickens’s work:

In the dark, in the cold
Of a frozen-fish container,
In a lorry or a hold,
Packed in tight, they lie
Trying not to cry.

That last couplet, painfully original, is nonetheless flecked with the
Dickensian wish to garner sympathy for the nation’s ‘whores’, as is the following elegy for lost childhood:

Worth their weight in gold
To men all beard and belly
Who paid for them in cash,
Whose treasure trash
Will be unpacked,
Shivering, fish smelly,
At Portsmouth or Dover,
Who deal in hard fact
And harder blows,
In needles, in what grows
Hard and hot and red
Between the thighs
On a thin hard bed –
Their childhood is over.
From now on, threats, lies,
What could be plainer?

Gradgrindian facts galvanised by poetic language and a polemical wish to improve the lives of mistreated innocents – it does not get much more Dickensian.

Dickens did not write much poetry himself. The odd bits of verse we find in Pickwick Papers, journal articles and plays make us thankful that he limited himself to writing poetically in prose form. And there is no shortage of examples of the writer’s mastery of the written word here. Poole chooses a passage from Bleak House to demonstrate ‘its  wonderfully intricate rhythms and cadences’, but the quality of Dickens’s  prose is astonishing in all his works – from the earliest to the last. Not surprisingly, then, a number of poets in A Mutual Friend lean upon the author’s language and attempt to out-Dickens Dickens. One such poem is A. F. Harrold’s ‘Megalosaurus’, a poem the reader will not be surprised to know is about the opening of Bleak House:

Cobbles barely breach the mud
like worn down giant’s teeth,
round-smoothed to flinty polish
by five million unwashed boots.
With squat massive quadrupedal
swagger through sliding mud,
slung belly scrapes cobble-tops
and horse dung in autumn fog

The linguistic feats are impressive, to be sure, but a wispy imitation of the original:

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

Most impressive are the poems which take a moment or an image from Dickens and expand upon it imaginatively. Jane Draycott uses ideas from A Tale of Two Cities to offer the lovely and sensorial poem ‘Sensation’; George Szirtes makes much of the repellent idea of a man saying a strange word while clearing his throat in ‘Goroo’; and Susan Utting’s suffocating sequel to Quilp’s death in ‘The Drowned Man’ captures all the savage hate  of Dickens’s best and most physical villain. But best of these revisionings,  for me, is Conor Carville’s excellent poem ‘The Figures’ – a work that  adopts recognisable Dickensian tropes but transforms them with distinctly modern brushstrokes

Between Southwark Bridge which is made of silver
and London Bridge which is made of gold,
they float and hover, the figures, through-composed
by night and rain, rowing against the working river,
its writing surface roped and plied
like a fosse of underground cables.

The darker side of Dickens seems to be lightened by the poet’s own
experiences of London. Carville demonstrates how, in poetry like this, art speaks to other art; authors share inspiration and enrich each other’s work with new interpretations. It is in moments like these that A Mutual Friend reveals itself to be a volume worth having in the year of the bicentenary.

© The London Magazine. This review first appeared in The London Magazine, April/May 2012, pp. pp. 119-24. Reprinted with permission from The London Magazine.