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"A master of tone": Mike Di Placido's A Sixty-Watt Las Vegas
In short: this is a very very good book of poems by Mike Di Placido. Having moved on from his professional footballing days in debut pamphlet Theatre of Dreams (Smith/Doorstop, 2009), he has returned with witty, funny and bold poetry from a Yorkshire "househusband". That explains the poem about a hoover, then.
These 30 poems are an idiosyncratic bunch: three are vignettes of animals, four are imagined meetings with T.S. (Eliot), Ted (Hughes), Simon (Armitage?) and Dickens, and seven are set in Scarborough with musings on Britishness, history and suicide. All are first-person narrated, a lot with "you" present too. And they are mostly very personal and very engaging.
Di Placido's at his best when he is writing—we presume—autobiographically. We meet the dad, the wife, the godson, the first employer 'Albert', and we find out "whatever happened to uncles". The writing probes at nostalgia—embracing it, but cynically—as when the narrator reminisces on his first job as a porter’s assistant at "The Norbreck Hotel, Scarborough, 1968". "Then we lost touch. As you do", he writes:
"Until today that is, when, walking down
memory lane past the hotel, I see you staring
owl-like through a window,
waiting for the coaches to arrive."
There is a clever play going on here, with the "lane past the hotel" pun and the simple diction only hinting at the importance of "memory" in preserving our idols, in this case preserving them almost in "cryogenic suspension" ('Uncles'). We would be privileged to get more of this from Di Placido, and I would happily read an autobiography of his whole life in poetry if it came in at this standard.
Di Placido is a master of tone: he plays the literary muser, the true romantic, the social commentator and the stand-up comic all in one. I think he knows this, and is very sly in using it to his advantage. In 'Heron' we expect a comic skit on this "ridiculous" bird, "this gangling oddball", and then he ends with this magnificent stanza:
"But not that skewer of a beak
you imagine a fish seeing
through the shattering glass,
the whirl of water."
That "shattering glass" is the best poetic phrase I've seen in a long time. And if you read it with Di Placido's Yorkshire rasp, the dropped vowels make it all the more impressive. (Here he is reading 'Hare'.) This is not the only instance where Di Placido approaches the issue of underestimation. The witty opener to 'Alfie's Magic Wand' doubles as a "serious" statement on the topic of audience and reception: "He started to cry when he first saw me, / which I took as a positive sign – / nice to be taken seriously."
Having said this, let's not write him off as a defendant for the underdog. Within Di Placido's colloquial style these poems are esoteric, ultra-specific and intellectually acute. Because of this, you get insight into Di Placido's inspirations and motivations. Most poems are anchored by a real detail, a time, a place, which he has remembered and wanted to sanctify in poetry. I love that 'To R. S. Thomas' begins with a sentence-long quotation on poetry and God from a daily newspaper—"R.S. Thomas (The Independent, Saturday 27th February 1993)". And twenty years later Mike has published a poem about it! Another poem cites an article from "Scarborough Evening News, 13th March 1991", but then others are inspired by Christopher Smart’s 18th-century religious poem ‘Jubilate Agno’ or Robert Lowell’s ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’. Di Placido takes inspiration from wherever and whenever—which isn't to say everywhere and anytime—and he re-imagines events in his own inimitable style.
The weakness? A couple of poems seem to jar with the rest of the collection, something which could be easily avoided by more rigorous editing. These are times when Di Placido tries for an elevated and urgent tone, and it falls flat. In 'Recovery' especially, where "you’ve pieced back / together your heart, / re-inserted those eyes", or 'The Assassin' (death) who "does answer us / when we interrogate the arid silence / [...] silence is his answer". The poet obviously felt the need to make this collection more dynamic but, seeing as this kind of drama doesn't come easy to him, he should have more trust in his own voice.
Of course, a true test for any work is how much it fails to meet the publisher's description. In this case, Valley Press says that the poems "demonstrate wit, wisdom, and Di Placido’s continuing ability to reveal the extraordinary from the ordinary." It's a credit to Mike's work that this is pretty much true. And at 27p per poem, this collection is well worth it. Go. Buy.
A Sixty-Watt Las Vegas by Mike Di Placido is published by Valley Press at £7.99