Steve Ely reviews ‘Crow Flight across the Sun’

Crow Flight across the Sun by Mike Di Placido, Calder Valley Poetry, 2017, 58pp., £8.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-1-9997062-1-0

Mike Di Placido’s second collection, Crow Flight across the Sun, returns frequently to the themes and content – autobiographical reflection, animals, Yorkshire, heroes – of his previous pamphlet, Theatre of Dreams.1 However, whereas the earlier work contains references to a number of figures from his personal pantheon, including Amy Winehouse, Bill Gates, Mahalia Jackson, Madonna, and Harry Houdini, Crow Flight across the Sun narrows the focus onto the eponymous ‘Crow’ – Ted Hughes, theabiding passion of Di Placido’s life.

Both Theatre of Dreams and Crow Flight across the Sun are characterised by a gently self-deprecating tone in which the author adopts the persona of an unexceptional everyman figure, doomed to fall short of the unattainable standards of his heroes. Theatre of Dreams contains a poem in which a speaker resigned to his quotidian life nevertheless wishes he could be more like Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. In the title sequence, the speaker compares himself unfavourably with four footballing giants – Sir Matt Busby, Denis Law, Nobby Stiles and George Best (DiPlacido was a professional footballer and was briefly on Manchester United’s booksalongside his heroes). Theatre of Dreams also contains a poem entitled ‘On Not Being Ted Hughes’, in which the author light-heartedly mocks himself (‘silly bugger’) for thenaively un-Hughesian way in which he ‘picked up’ an apparently dozing bank vole,leading to unspecified, but presumably mildly-embarrassing, rather than disastrous consequences. Di Placido also includes this poem in Crow Flight across the Sun and its tone and method are emblematic of a book in which the author writes about, and in the spirit of Hughes – the book is explicitly ‘a tribute to a great inspiration’ – but consistently places himself and his work emphatically in his shadow, as a ‘mere’ poetaster, fan and devotee. However, Di Placido’s technical and lexical gifts, hislightness of touch, whimsical voice, and an understated artistic seriousness combine to signal that we should not take his self-deprecation at face value – poetic gold glints and flashes from these poems, even from under the shadow of the crow.

1 Mike Di Placido, Theatre of Dreams (Sheffield: Smith/Doorstop, 2009).102

 

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The collection’s introductory poem, ‘Metamorphosis’, is an audaciously comic nod to Hughes’s translations of Ovid predicated on a gentle self-satirisation – the diminutive Di Placido imagines himself transforming into Hughes in the same way as MarvelComics’ Bruce Banner transforms into another superhero:

Suddenly I’m six-foot-plus.
My shoes have burst their laces.
I stand in tatters like the Incredible Hulk.

The poem becomes a list of distinctive Hughesian characteristics, a checklist of the elements comprising the Ideal Form of the poet: physical size, a deep resonant voice,an obsession with ‘vitality’ and the natural world, acute observational skills, and Native American-like one-ness with nature, all become necessary pre-conditions for being able to write poetry. Only having transformed into Hughes is the speaker ready to compose:

I feel immense. Opening
My jotter I fumble for a pen. I start to write.

For all its comic audacity, ‘Metamorphosis’ is nevertheless a very traditional openingto a collection of poetry – an invocation of the Muse, and the Muse is Hughes. I’m notsure Hughes would have approved of being appropriated in this way. Like Robert Graves, he regarded the Muse as being female. As Graves reminds us in The White Goddess, the ‘gentle muse’ invoked by Milton in Lycidas may have been referred to as‘he’, but this conceit follows a more conventional invocation of the ‘sisters of the sacredwell’. But in matters of inspiration, the poetic heart goes where it will – and charisma trumps all.

Di Placido finds more inspiration from Hughes in a sequence of poems that seems to arise from an opportunity he had to see and handle various artefacts once owned by Hughes, now in a private collection – a ‘Mont Blanc’ fountain pen, a ‘Scarf’, a ceramic ‘Jaguar’ crafted by the poet, and a limited-edition Morrigu Press broadsideof ‘Puma’. Di Placido simultaneously admits and affirms the absurdity of his delight at being able to handle these artefacts in a deft formulation:

I think mediaeval –
of saints and relics –
and don’t feel stupid at all
when I ask you if I can touch it. (‘Scarf’)

The quasi-devotional nature of his admiration of Hughes is further developed in ‘Mont Blanc’, when he compares the act of writing with Hughes’s pen to the sacrilegious ‘Uber-fraud’ of ‘wearing / Bestie’s boots / or Sinatra’s hats’ – more gods from DiPlacido’s pantheon. Although Rebecca Watts has recently called into question

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‘honesty’ as a literary-critical criterion, there is something disarming about the open and unguarded adulation of Hughes that Di Placido expresses in these poems – perfectly characterised as ‘Blakean innocence’ by Ed Reiss in his rear-cover encomium.2

Not all the poems in Crow Flight across the Sun are directly about Hughes,although his influence and spirit are never far away. Animal poems such as ‘Hare’, ‘Heron’, and ‘Fox’ capture the essence of the encounter and are vividly empathetic:

Stopped dead in our tracks at the hedge-corner –you, still and alert, plugged into danger – me,delighted at such a gift […]

So delighted, in fact, that my involuntary clicking
of fingers and tongue (as though you were a horse
or the neighbour’s dog) shames me absolutely still. (‘Fox’)

Now he’s off again:
Going like the clappers
Over the furrows, doing that Buckled
Bicycle wheel number

As though
Just for the hell of it. (‘Hare’)

Above all, there is an affirmation of life and vitality underpinning these poems, an instinctive – and perhaps ideological – endorsement of and commitment to the erosembodied in the natural world that owes as much to Nietzsche or Lawrence as Hughes. The Crow-like ‘A Half Baked Theological Fairy Tale’ imagines the founders of the(presumably) life-denying religions of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism annihilatedalong with their religions in some apocalyptic disaster, from which nature emerges ‘in perfection’ from the homocidal wreckage of the Anthropocene – ‘the singing of birds /the crashing of the oceans, / the smiling of the green man’. This beaming misanthropy shares something of the outlook of John Kinsella, in poems such as ‘Passage ThroughIcebergs (Painted as Voyage to Labrador by Alfred Wallis, 1935–6)’ and ‘The Sea IsWild Today And The No Swim Signs Are Up Everywhere’, from Marine, his recent collaboration with Alan Jenkins, in which he imagines the end of eco-cidal humanity with barely disguised pleasure.3

‘Shklovsky’s Sparrow’ – perhaps the best poem in the book – imagines asparrow transformed into a metallic angel in the ‘crackling static’ of the moment of his

2 Rebecca Watts, ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur’, PN Review 239 http://www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090
3 Alan Jenkins and John Kinsella, Marine (London: Enitharmon Press, 2015).

 

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death. Although the language contains unmistakeable echoes of Hughes – the ‘blue crackling air’ of ‘Bayonet Charge’, the ‘chattering static’ of Prometheus on His Crag,the ‘crackle’ of ‘Thistles’ – the poem’s most direct source seems to be the Russian theorist Victor Shklovsky’s essay, ‘Return the Ball into the Game’, a reflection on Pasolini’s film ‘The Hawks and the Sparrows’.4 Pasolini’s fantasy has the hawks andthe sparrows converted to Christianity by idealistic monks. However, despite their conversion to the gospel of love, the hawks remain true to their nature and continue to prey on the sparrows. Di Placido eschews an on-the-nose Marxist interpretation of the parable in favour of one that is distinctly Hughesian. For a sparrow, as for allmortal beings, death is merely the inevitable risk of life. Like the tiger in Hughes’s poem ‘Tiger Psalm’ (originally entitled ‘Crow’s Table Talk’), the hawk ‘blesses’ when itkills and in the moment of its death the sparrow is sanctified and becomes ‘a chirruping saint’ (in a heaven that seems to be the thermonuclear pleroma of a spiritualised Heraclitean universe, ‘blazing [with] light’). The sparrow risked life and lost; but the point of life is not to bemoan the fact of death or to seek to avoid the risks of living, but to embrace those risks and live life in its natural fullness. The point of life is also the point of art – in Shklovsky’s words, appropriated by Di Placido as the epigraph for hispoem, ‘art exists that one may recover the sensation of life’. Expressing the sensationof life – exhilaration, danger, excitement, vitality, lust, love, joy, grief – is fundamentalto Hughes’s utterance and it is this dimension of his work that Di Placido finds so compelling. In this modest and engaging collection he manages to express some of that himself.

Steve Ely
University of Huddersfield steveely@btinternet.com © 2018, Steve Ely

Thanks to Steve for permission to reproduce this review, which first appeared in Volume VII Issue 1 of the Ted Hughes Society Journal (www.thetedhughessociety.org)

Ann Skea reviews ‘Crow Flight across the Sun’

TITLE:  Crow Flight across the Sun
AUTHOR:   Mike Di Placido
PUBLISHER: Calder Valley Poetry (2017)
ISBN:   978 1 9997062 1 0 60
PRICE:  £8.00 (paperback)     57 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea
(Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/)

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Crow Flight across the Sun is Mike Di Placido’s tribute to Ted Hughes and also a thank you to Keith Sagar who read his early poems and encouraged him to keep writing.

In his ‘Introduction’, Di Placido writes that his early exposure to the “viscerality” “immediacy” and “imagistic punch” of Hughes’ poems like ‘Crow’, ‘Pike’ and ‘The Jaguar’ helped to inspire his entry into writing. And although Di Placido’s own voice is clear in this collection, Hughes is present not just in the two short prose pieces where he (almost) meets him but also in the spirit, language, imagery and humour of the poems.

As if to demonstrate the power of  Hughes’s influence, the first poem in the book, ‘Metamorphosis’,  imagines Di Placido changed into a “six-foot-plus”, tattered “Incredible Hulk”, so attuned to “the sky / the moving miracle of clouds”, “the grass so pungent”, and the bird calls that “listening is painful”, as he fumbles for his pen to start writing.

His poems are, as he says, an “eclectic bunch”. The language is simple and direct and the poems are beautifully crafted so that every word fits naturally into the rhythms of ordinary speech. They are full of images and phrases which spark the imagination: “bees / doing their high wire act / among the purple loosestrife”. /… “their ‘baskets’ spilling over with booty”; a toad hops its way down the page in abrupt, single-word lines; a few rays of sunshine prompt a “ransack” of the shed for “those stripy chairs from Asda”, the coating of “alabaster limbs with lotion and sunblock from brightly coloured bottles” and dreams of “Cap Ferrat and Cannes“ before, “sooner or later his majesty retires, as do we”.

Some poems, ‘Sketches’, are directly inspired by Hughes: ‘Swallow’ is an “An aerobatic genius”; ‘Cormorant’ flies down the page reproducing the birds’ distinctive shape in flight; ‘Caterpillar Chic’ views the creature as “the loop / of a torn-off toggle” or fancy braiding on “a 60’s Afghan coat”. A pigeon, a toad, a rock pool, all reflect on Hughes’s own closeness to nature. Other brief sketches seem less closely linked to Hughes but reflect his skill at neatly encapsulating thought, character and humour, as he does repeatedly in Crow:  Di Placido’s ironically pretentious dream of a ‘Blue Plaque’ on his own place of birth is punctured by reality in the final line. And, my favourite sketch, ‘Alpha’, in just four lines perfectly captures the reason why this questioner’s aspiration to be an alpha male is doomed.

The prose pieces in this collection: ‘Tiresias at the Bottle Bank’, ‘Crow on my Shoulder’ (a memory of Hughes and Tony Harrison reading their poems at York Theatre Royal in1994), and ‘The Snake, the Oak and the Chair’ (remembering listening to the broadcast of the Ted Hughes Memorial Service whilst at Lumb Bank) are fine examples of storytelling.

Whether he is imagining ‘Shakespeare on Scarborough’s Castle Hill (1591)’, remembering a visit to Australia and onion-picking in “the heat haze” with “the girls in their shorts / in the next field” picking “huge, white, bulbous onions” and himself as “King of the crop!”, or himself holding things which once belonged to Hughes (his pen, his scarf and the small bronze jaguar which he modelled) and being moved by them, Di Placido honours the power that Hughes’s work has had over his own imagination and creativity.

Crow Flight across the Sun is a small gift in poetry and prose which I think Ted Hughes would have enjoyed.

Thanks to Ann for permission to reproduce this review.

Tom Cleary Launch

The launch of Tom Cleary’s new collection, Dispatching a Horse, will take place in Hebden Bridge Library, Cheetham Street, Hebden Bridge, HX7 8EP, at 7-15 pm on Friday 15th June.

There will be guest readings by Vicky Gatehouse and Natalie Rees.                                                        There will be the fellowship of poetry lovers.                                                                                              There will be wine and nibbles.                                                                                                                         There will even be soft drinks.

‘Dispatching a Horse takes you by the hand to old Catholic Ireland … narrative and linguistic skills … shaping of a life, and a nation.’

 

 

 

 

Mike Di Placido – It’s Tomorrow

Thursday 18th January, 6.30 pm, York Library. The launch of Mike Di Placido’s collection Crow Flight across the Sun, a series of poems dedicated to the memory of Ted Hughes. Guest reader Carole Bromley.

                                            

Mike Di Placido, Carole Bromley, Ted Hughes, all at York Library, corporeally or spiritually.

Mike Di Placido Launch

Mike Di Placido’s collection Crow Flight across the Sun, a tribute to Ted Hughes, will be officially launched on Thursday 18th January, 6.30 pm, at York Library, Library Square, Museum Street,  York,  YO1 7DS. There will also be a guest reading by York poet Carole Bromley. As if that’s not enough, there’ll be wine and nibbles at the bar. Don’t miss all this. Lighten the January darkness.

         

I can’t remember when I enjoyed a book of poems so much; possibly ‘Season Songs’.               Keith Sagar (on Di Placido’s ‘Theatre of Dreams’)

Shrewdly, comically, with Blakean innocence, Mike Di Placido writes about enthusiasm and inspiration: how in practice we read poetry and fall in love with it.                                                           Ed Reiss

In these poems Ted comes alive again, he lives and breathes. These poems are healing gifts. Mark Hinchliffe