CHRISTIE BROWN: THE WRITER THE POET AND THE MAN
It was following his death on September 7th, 1981, that I was stimulated to wondering about the literary phenomenon I had missed out on meeting up with in the small world of disability activism in a Dublin where, through my paid work, I was already ten years apprenticed to advancing the cause for improved regard and respect in public opinion for disability and for the inherent abilities of people with disabilities. The orbits of our lives never touched. I was also composing quietly my own pieces of poetry which would not be considered by me as "finished" for publication until many decades later, but I did write and publish my tribute to Brown in 1982 called Christy Brown, (incorporated into an essay on "referential poetry" in the June, 2016 issue of Wordgathering.)
Christy Brown had not belonged to any world of activism but had allowed himself to be put forward by a number of associations and prominent doctors and therapists as a phenomenon who had conquered the handicaps of Cerebral Palsy thanks to professional and sustained interventions. He was a willing participant in permitting himself to be advanced as an emotive appeal for funding to achieve similar successful outcomes for others. He would later say "enough is enough" and disengage from being exhibited as a unique wonder, particularly from exhibiting himself in public painting with his left foot.
That said, he freely admits to owing much to the help and support given to his literary pursuits by Robert Collis (founder), Katriona Maguire and Patricia Sheehan (a Social worker and a key professional in the fledgling Cerebral Palsy Association of Ireland. My Left Foot published in 1954 was Brown's unembellished attempt at retelling his life story in simple, factual terms under the guidance of Collis. Christy Brown would later embellish his 1954 autobiography with a more developed writing style and command of imagery in the fanciful version of his life called Down All the Days published in 1970. It was this last that provided the material for the 1989 Oscar-winning film given the title of the first book, My Left Foot.
A further reason for our paths not crossing was that in 1971 He was spirited off to the remoteness of Kerry and then on to Somerset by Mary Carr, the woman he married and who later came to be blamed (and perhaps unfairly defamed) for her part in an unequal debauched, drunken relationship which some say contributed to Christy Brown's unhappy last years and death at the age of 49 years.
Brown belonged to that era of Dublin life when the plain prose of writers' lives dominated by heavy drinking were woven into legends contributing to their art.- writers like Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh to mention two. Behan became a regular drinking companion both in Christy's home and the Stone Boat pub in Kimmage. Alcoholism would be a contributory factor in the death of Behan in 1964 at the age of 41 years and Kavanagh in 1967. He lived on to 63 years of age. Brown wrote poems in memoria of both which appeared in his first book of poems — Come Softly to My Wake — published in 1971.
Christy Brown had a double athetosis form of cerebral palsy resulting from partial suffocation at birth. His mother, Bridget, had been in labour for three days before she was delivered of Christy on the 9th of June, 1932. He was the 12th born of 22 children of whom 13 would survive into adulthood.
His rise above the limitations of the combination of the non-existence of the technologies of today and the deprivations of the poverty experienced by the Brown family must be remarked upon as "remarkable". The family could not afford a wheel-chair until his mid-teens. His resourceful brothers carried the young Christy about with them on their shoulders or pushed him around the local streets of Kimmage and Crumlin in a home-made boxcar. All of this time, the awakening painter/writer/poet was developing his "open sesame" for the out pouring of his thoughts and feelings through the practised use of his left foot — his unique communication tool holding the painter's brush or tapping away on the keys of his type-writer to which he graduated to from pen and pencil.
The young Brown was lucky that a number of persuasive people were on hand to help release the potential for genius in a mind trapped in a poorly functioning body. Although he had benefited from some speech therapy in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it had done little to combat the severe "dysarthria" (disordered or impaired articulation of speech caused by disturbances in muscle control). His jaw often jumped to one side and embarrassingly locked itself. His inability to communicate in regular speech would be a frustration to the end. He loved nothing more than to hear his poems voiced and read aloud.
He received no formal education but reputedly absorbed the content of books, reading all the works of Dickens, Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw in his teens. What poetry he read is not easily discoverable beyond him remarking, in one of his letters, to his brother Sean, that he had been reading the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. He met and established an enduring friendship with an American poet (Raymond Roseliep) whose book of Haiku Love Makes the Air Light stimulated Christy Brown's desire to write poetry. He would publish "Frost Bite" his first published poem In the 1963 Spring issue of Poetry Ireland. Publication came after a number of failed attempts with other poems and advice from the editorial board of the journal saying they would consider publication If he would remove some of the overly romantic and verbose characteristics of his style. They wanted the language to be "harder and more specific". He would appear in future issues of Poetry Ireland, Arena, and The Holy Door before the publication of his first full book of verse (1971) Come Softly to My Wake
Below is the first stanza from Frostbite.
I might have made a poem of this
Bridget Brown, Christy's mother, was tenacious in the belief that her son should not be committed to the care of an institution. She worked with Christy to find a way to bring learning to a hungry mind and an outlet for the thoughts that were locked in there. She was one of those tigerish parents people with disabilities are lucky to have had down the ages to battle against the prejudices and the limitations placed by society on people because of their disabilities. Bridget Brown was a champion who taught her son to write and to paint holding chalk, pen or a brush between the toes of his left foot. He would paint several hundred paintings. From 1951, he earned a small regular monthly income from painting canvases for The Disabled Artists' Association, for this modest income to be trumped by royalties from My Left Foot, published in 1954. The canvases were used in the making of Christmas cards or sold at exhibitions. Ulic O'Connor (An Irish critic) remarked of his art, "the canvases were startling with a primitive Spanish touch, painted by an artist who himself had a face like an elgreco painting."
Christy Brown was devastated when Bridget died in 1968. She was undoubtedly the axis around which his life in family existed and revolved. Her death took away the psychological scaffolding which had kept a straightened sense of worth and order for a life which without it changed and may have become somewhat more melancholy. He experienced more than most the void created when a mother dies and ties holding familial relationships loosen, impacting the frequency of meetings with brothers and sisters. In his poem For My Mother" he commits to words his feelings on his pain of loss. Again, for me, it is overly long and in that ""stream of consciousness" style which he uses throughout his prose and poetry. I have selected these stanzas to carry the message in the poem which appeared in Come Softly to My Wake:
Only in your dying, Lady, could I offer you a poem.
In a letter, written on the 3rd of September, 1973 to his brother Sean in London, Christy Brown reveals something of the turmoil residing in his feelings and mercurial emotions:
It sounds wildly contradictory, I know, but my life is essentially quite lonely and isolated, even with such a large family about me, and this kind of loneliness (mental and in a non-religious way, spiritual, rather than physical) can be very awful and dangerous, if one has any receptivity and sensitivity, and God only knows I have more than my fair share of both. It is a barrier, however impalpable, that was there from the start, and it has grown bigger in time and this inevitable loneliness, living in a vacuum, in the very midst of activity and restless life, has me driven to mad acts in my longing to approach them and absorb myself in their lives…
I sometimes ask myself if it would not have been kinder had God not given me this super-sensitive-heart, this intense capacity to imagine happiness and fulfilment. Surely downright imbecility and retardation would have been preferable to this ceaseless agony of heart, mind and body? But inwardly, I know the answer already, and it is a very loud "no!" I cannot help being what I am and I don't think I would anyhow. Being so vulnerable both to joy and sadness has made me what I am …
Down All the Days (1970) went on to become a best-selling title, was translated into 14 languages and was on the long list for the 1970 Man Booker Prize. For me it was like an unwrapping of precious pieces of porcelain donated to me as family heirlooms by a venerable aunt. Everything had a delicacy about how it felt to the touch, had a familiarity, had a belonging in a set of purposes with which I was familiar but called by different names if I named them at all – it was, outside the analogy, the set downs of how we all, people with disabilities, interpret into and interpret away from what our disabilities would have us be in our loneliness and in the intrusions of life in varieties of fierce intensities. I have heard it said, of Brown's writing style, that there may be a propensity of writers with a major communication disability to indulge in language of abnormal density and luxuriance, resulting in a strain and contortion almost mirroring the body image. However, there was nothing of over-rich sprawl of language in the simplicity of :
He remembered a sparrow lying writhing in the front garden, maimed by a shot from his brother's catapult, its wing shattered, squawking wildly; at first he had laughed like the rest, seeing it hobbling about with frantic futility, trying to fly, to regain its own element again, its own small dignity; then he felt slightly sick and was glad when someone got a stone and put the wrecked, crippled thing out of its misery. From Down All the Days.
It should be remembered that Brown wrote in the persona of the watcher as "the boy".
The Irish Times reviewer of Down All the Days, Bernard Share, claimed the work was "the most important Irish novel since "Ulysses". Like James Joyce, Share declared Brown to have employed:
The Stream-of-consciousness technique in which he sought to document Dublin's culture through the use of humor, accurate dialects and intricate character description:
"And the bells kept pealing and knots of people were thronging the streets in their Easter finery on their way to church, blessing themselves as the funeral went by in its long snake-like tedious procession through the bell-loud face-swarming iron-clanging worshipping rain-swept city."
While Down All the Days did not win the Man Booker prize in 1970, being listed for this prestigious award for novels written in the English language increased the international awareness of the author and promoted sales of the title. In 2010, the Man Booker compiled a list of 22 titles into what they called the "lost list". The purpose was to make a one-off celebrity award for novels published in 1970 and still in publication 40 years later. Down All the Days was on the lost List. It did not win the Celebrity award but placed this title and author amongst other authors who had gone on to greater fame and celebrity since 1970. I do not believe that the inclusion on the original short list in 1970 was done for reasons of sympathy or to advance the inclusion of diversity of disability in literature. Particularly, in that Brown's earnings from this publication before his death was recorded at 370,000 Irish pounds.
Down All the Days was followed by a series of failed novels: A Shadow on summer (1976); Wild Grow the Lilies (1976) and A Promising Career (published posthumously in 1982). Brown was bitterly disappointed by the lack of success of the publications after Down All the Days, and in his failed attempt to have his play "Hotel" staged.
Christy Brown went on to give us four poetry collections: Come Softly to My Wake, (Secker & Warburg, 1971), published in America as Poems of Christy Brown (New York, Stein & Day, 1971); Background Music (Secker & Warburg/Stein & Day, 1973); and Of Snails and Skylarks (Secker & Warburg (1978).
His posthumous The Collected Poems of Christy Brown (incorporating all the poems in the previous titles) was published by Secker & Warburg in 1982.
Some commentators criticise The film (My Left Foot) for taking the camera to marvel at disability in heroic, humorous vignettes which included nothing of the "dark side" of Brown's life which came later to be exposed in the biography, Christy Brown: The Life That Inspired My Left Foot, by Georgina Louise Hambleton (published by Mainstream Publishing, of London, in 2007).
In this controversial biography, a picture is presented of Christy Brown as a man who lived his later lonely life in an angry, alcoholic haze, married against the advice of his friends and family in 1972 to Mary Carr (a girl of 23 years whom he had hardly known before marrying her). Mary Carr's image and reputation is constructed by Hambleton out of Brown family reliving of her as a prostitute and lesbian who had affairs. She is represented as dominating a relationship in which Brown was neglected and may even have suffered physical abuse. The biography represents Mary as uprooting Brown from his relationships in Dublin and transferring them to her home in county Kerry. Those he was closest to rarely saw him after his move to Kerry and then on to Somerset in England where he died on the 7th of September, 1981 at the age of 49 years.
Christy Brown became more truculent the older he got. He is recorded in approaching his public appearances as "difficult". He turned more to alcohol towards the end to lessen the pain of friendships he had rejected and the companionship of the Dublin literati which would have accommodated his vanities and created material for his fertile imagination to craft into other works of literature and poetry.
In addition to his mother, Bridget, three other women occupied places of affection in Christy Brown's affections which are revealed in good part by letters written to them or in stories told about them by the Brown family. They were Katriona Maguire, Patricia Sheehan and Beth Moore.
Beth Moore lived in Stamford, Connecticut. The periodical Good House-keeping carried excerpts in 1954 from My Left Foot. The loneliness in the author's life may have touched a strand of similar loss in her own life and marriage to her scientist husband Deac. Whatever, the catalyst, Beth wrote to Christy and started an influential relationship that was emotional and later sexual, where he visited with her on three occasions in Stamford, Connecticut where he allowed her tame his alcoholism and tendency to literary sprawl when drafting and concluding, under her guidance, Down All the Days which he dedicated to her. He would abandon Beth in 1970 for Mary Carr, and Katriona Maguire would fade away in a neglected friendship, as would Patricia Sheehan.
The poems of his four publications are filled with iterations of unrequited love spawning in an immaturity of an adolescent style even towards the women of his mature years. In letters and verse he creates a fanciful existence in which he consummates his fantasies and dreams for himself.
Nevertheless, much of his poetry is worth reading. I finish with the title poem from Brown's third poetry collection, Of Snails and Skylarks. The poem contains a richness of imagery pouring out in his style of streaming consciousness mentioned earlier.
Of Snails and Skylarks.