Smith/Doorstop Books, 2009 £5.00
Reviewed by Jon Stone, Paul Lee and James Roderick Burns
I’m not aware of any critical study on football in poetry, although the two have met on many occasions going back through the years (most curiously, perhaps, in Matthew Welton’s ‘South Korea and Japan 2002’) and it seems to me the time is ripe for some serious investigation. Mike Di Placido’s unique position as an ex-professional footballer makes his sequence in this pamphlet more than just another teary ‘beautiful game’ paean, although he’s still a little overcome. Essentially relating first-hand accounts of meetings with footballing legends, each part does a good job of marrying salt-of-the-earthisms with a quiet lyrical intensity:
A voice like gravel soaked in honey:
Hello there, son.
So this is what God’s like.
(‘Theatre of Dreams 1: Sir Matt’)
As character pieces, they’re too full of reverence to yield much insight, but as poems about youthful infatuation, its delights and its trappings, they carry a real sting:
[. . . ] a grave lesson to learn – namely this:
that I could never, ever, be me
as long as I was trying to be you.
(‘Theatre of Dreams 4: Best’)
Outside this sequence, Di Placido displays a knack for breaking up familiar poetic devices with more casual interjections whenever there’s a danger of the poetry becoming over-laboured. “Perhaps you’ve wandered into Jurassic Park?” he asks in ‘Heron’, while ‘On Not Being Ted Hughes’ finds him suddenly dipping into a cod-Yorkshire accent:
He would have known. Ted. Oh aye,
he would have known all right . . .
Rather than coming across as a failure of nerve, there’s a sense of restraint to these moments, and a hunger for effective simplicity. This perhaps reflects the domesticity of his settings: in and around the home, hotels and shops, in front of TVs, name-checking film and entertainment stars. His death poem, ‘Undertaker’, focuses on the everyday nobility of the title character. ‘Doppelgangers’ makes great bathos out of juxtaposing icons of glamour with the quaintness of the English high street:
Bono up a ladder. Bill Gates in Oxfam.
Richard Burton in a Reliant Robin.
Another poem is a plea to Amy Winehouse not to um . . . do anything rash, essentially. For all his investment in heroes and icons, Di Placido’s real loyalties lie with the quotidian. He associates life with (or rather, finds it in) reliability, and weirdness that is, paradoxically, commonplace. “The un-killable telly’s blinking in the corner/ and we desperately need a plan—/ but no one can be arsed,” he notes in ‘Domicilium’, the unspoken question being: “And why should they?”
This is a pleasant and accessible collection. Mike Di Placido comes across as a genial and engaging man, his poems slipping past you as easily as he once did past Nobby Stiles “one freezing, flood-lit night and scored”.
Gentle tap-ins, these poems, to press the footballing metaphor a little further. Whilst they look easily achieved, I’d bet this is the result of a lot of work, evidenced by all his neat stanzas, his use of pared-down language, and his slick enjambment. Most people would know the world he writes about, because it’s their world.
It’s also good to see poems about football, and I wish he’d included more, on less obvious subjects than Nobby, George (Best), Denis (Law) and Sir Matt (Busby). More people might read poetry if it dealt more with their lives and concerns, to echo Adrian Mitchell. Because I saw the first three (of the aforementioned) playing in the flesh (I was a Leicester City ‘Koppite’) and because football was once important to me, I found his football poems the most memorable, bar one other. Mike Di Placido is a good role model too: not many make the transition from professional footballer to poet (though Vladimir Nabokov and Albert Camus were both goalkeepers).
My sole criticism of the collection is that it's too easy. Come on Mike, my son, I thought. Put a bit of swerve and dip on them, make me stretch. But no, they amble on in their likeable way.
One, however, is at once surprising and satisfying in that way a poem can be. Its narrator travels to see the wisest man in the world, who lives above a shop in Cleckheaton. The narrator asks:
Is there an omniscient being?
I wouldn’t really know . . .
Well, do you believe in an afterlife?
A heaven, perhaps: or maybe reincarnation?
It would be nice, he mused . . .
Nice day, I ventured.
Now you’re getting somewhere, he replied.
(‘A Yorkshire Parable’)
The Buddha is alive and well, and lives above a shop in Cleckheaton.
James Roderick Burns:
In the midst of World Cup depression (at the fact of the thing, not the ups and downs of any particular team) I expected to dislike this collection from the outset. ‘Theatre of Dreams’, football legends, Manchester United, blah blah blah. Even the idea of a collection influenced by the empty-headed razzmatazz of this abysmal game put me off. Happily, Di Placido’s work explodes such preconceptions. Though Nobby, Denis and Sir Matt make a late appearance, footballing prowess is entirely incidental to the book’s achievement.
Theatre of Dreams instead turns on the half-expressed yearnings we all feel (for more contact with nature, for genuine unsullied entertainment and greater meaning in our lives) but struggle to articulate with any vigour. It explores the sort of epiphanies that come from stargazing in a foreign country:
But the stars are different here.
Back in Yorkshire they’re blunt and dependable.
Only reckoned with when the dog’s let out to pee
Or the less refined, but equally poetic, understandings derived from a day out in Malton’s electric wonderland, ‘Flamingo Land’:
Those cockatoos seem happy enough,
and a red-arsed monkey’s
attempting to brain another with a stick
while a third looks on masturbating.
Nor does the collection try to drag the reader down with relentless negativity. It ranges from pop culture (Amy Winehouse wonderfully characterised as “Beamed down from Bourbon St.,/ twenties Chicago,/ or the business end of a cotton field”) to the joys of country rambling, undertakers and seasonal variation:
Till then, red-hot pokers burn,
grass demands the mower twice a week,
the vigorous hawthorn shields us from the lane
and a cat, in its own time and measure,
moves across the lawn.
It is, in short, an excellent read, football notwithstanding. If there’s any area for attention, I would suggest it’s in the author’s occasional tendency to build up an excellent idea only to have it peter out in a weak conclusion. Unlike most of the successful pieces—such as ‘Doppelgängers’, which concludes magnificently with “Bono up a ladder. Bill Gates in Oxfam./ Richard Burton in a Reliant Robin”—a poem like ‘On Not Being Ted Hughes’ mounts in subtle comedic layers of self-parody and domestic discord towards an anticipated payoff which never materialises. At fever pitch, we know what Ted Hughes in all his bulbous bardic wisdom would have done with a dead vole, but are let down by an inexplicable collapse into flat dialogue:
Years later I’m the family joke,
always something for them to smile at:
‘silly bugger . . . picking it up . . .’
It’s a shame but, in a pamphlet-length collection, this bum note perhaps assumes more significance than it would have in a full-length work. Such slips aside, Theatre of Dreams is well worth a punt. Pass your fiver to The Poetry Business rather than sloping off to the pub to catch a game.