James Brookes reviews
December 23 1989 Bucharest
by Keith Please
The title of this overview of Keith Please’s work, Firestrikes, suggests something momentous – literally, a moment of impact and natural force. It might lead a reader to expect something seismic, if not apocalyptic. Yet whilst Please can capture, with an unblinking eye, a moment’s ‘instant and heat’ – to dislocate Ted Hughes’ phrase – this overview of his work does not evidence a poet interested in straight strikes and heavy blows. Please boxes cleverer than that; the poems are altogether more rewarding for it. It soars beyond the momentary.
This selection exhibits a strong visual sensibility throughout, even in its aural constructions. Perspectives, prospects and vistas form both the subject to many of the poems selected here and the manner of their operation – the presented image is often given in the context of its being looked-at, as in the opening of ‘Scolt Head’:
“Not as it is now: trespass of land, rough sky,
water giving little. But as it was in August”
Or the two stanzas of ‘Two Views of the Nene Estuary’:
“One take is raw
A legendless cut
into mud, undiverted
down which the sea lifts
with dour presumption
and Scandinavian grainships
keep poor harbour.
The other’s illusory
sapping the mind
like Ahab's, ahead of itself;
a line passed between portals
out over the edge,
tempting the slip of the world”
The tension between these ‘two views’ might offer an useful introduction to the concerns of Please's work. By the creating a dichotomy between two modes of approach, this poem poses a question for the rest of the collection – which view do we choose? And it's a question for the reviewer to ask as well – which approach, if any, does Keith Please himself favour?
It's in the first stanza that Please reveals the answer and the strength of his poetry; it is an admirable strength. There is a subtle, mannered quality at work here, driven by a sensitivity to sound, as with the faint assonance of 'sea lifts' buoying up the 'grain ships', the mimetic power of which is balanced with the lulls of 'dour', 'poor' and 'harbour' to recreate a pattern of tidal rhythms.
Perhaps consequent to this mimetic approach, certainly concurrently, Keith Please appears as more an artist of colour than of line, more interested in impression than instruction – this is a refreshing thing. Certainly this is poetry that could not be accused of any absolutism, getting carried away or even 'ahead of itself', in contrast to the Ahab-like monomania with which some poets pursue their art or attempt to steer and subjugate it. The prime interest for a reader is in the differing tonal qualities of the images; narratives are revealed, rather than imposed, by the poet. Please doesn’t delineate so much as he suggests with swatches and swathes, as in 'Video War' epigraphed
“Flak spatters corridors of land
breaks, manganese, in ribbons.
A ship blown intumescent
smokes the daylight out, and keels.
The thrust of troops is coloured,
vert and poppy, according to your hold.”
A downside to this careful tonal approach is the occasional feeling of, if not hesitancy, then cautious distance or even stand-offishness. Keith Please is noticeably careful with his syntax, using it to marshal the pace of his poems - often adroitly, as in that cropped 'manganese' and the terseness of “Ceefax counts the dead”, which nonetheless cunningly recalls Brian Hanrahan's famous broadcast from HMS Hermes: “I'm not allowed to say how many planes joined the raid, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back”.
The use of strange heightened diction is effective, too, in altering the time signature, reinforcing that heavily-edited feel; take ‘blown intumescent’, whose low vowels and awkward polysyllables slow the tongue and force it to linger over ‘smokes’ and ‘keels’. The elusive attribution of ‘your hold’ is tricky – the reader is very much in the poet’s hold, with the same sense of disquiet that comes when watching someone else’s recordings, knowing someone else is directing our vision. It’s a thought Please fastens on to time and again, as in ‘Home Library’: “There’s a feeling of intrusion glancing at others’ / books, however you’re made welcome.” A poet that interrogates the media of experience is a poet taking their responsibilities in full.
'Home Library', nicely turned prose poem that it is, contains a phrase that can stand as a useful caveat to reviewers:
“Unfamiliar, then, to find so many
bookmarks stuck up, feathering each row like
white pauses, surrendered to words before the
gist of the whole”
I can’t be disillusioned by such warnings – what else can a reviewer do except try to latch onto the ‘gist of the whole’. In my favourite poem in the book, Keith Please does it for me by managing to perfectly maintain the sense of something dangerous stirring in the depths of the subtext while the reader trains their eyes over the images, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever’s concealed:
The lift still works in the Central Committee.
Snipers eye their slit and perch
above corridors stacked with the toxin of murder.
It will take all morning to clean the window,
chamois squeaking the pane to terrible laughter
in a tank of mad angels
till lunchtime, to make out by phosphor, distortions
of sea-bass and spearfish straining the glass.
Whilst this is the gist of Keith Please's work - his ability to cast a cold eye - he can be joyful in tricking up conventional narratives, as in the ebullient ‘Aphrodite in Corfu’, where poor “Mrs Karidis had snorkel trouble” becomes a deft conflation of both the classic Botticelli and the classic paparazzi image into one wardrobe malfunction:
“When an adjustment
suitably made her bra
slip to expose one full breast
to half the local lads of
they failed to turn their backs on ten millennia
and clapped her into myth”
I wondered whether there might be something implicitly sexist or exploitative in this tableau, but the portrayal of the blokeish reaction as the part of a high cultural inheritance makes its own subversive, good humoured point about male preoccupations.
Less effective, to my mind, are the glosses on great works provided by the sequences “Five Chaucerians” and “Five Hamlets” – perhaps a residual undergraduate fatigue on my part is somewhat to blame, but these takes lack the freshness and the lightness of touch that even the other allusive poems show. The erudition and the skill show best in Please when he sticks to his own mimetic voice rather than trying to ventriloquise Ophelia in a way that uncomfortably recalls Plath’s ‘Daddy’: “You bastard, you never gave us space” etc.
Yet one bad whiff of pastiche can’t taint this book, which on the whole is less a blast of fire than of fresh air; the scorching dry air that hazes above a hot fire, which makes the eyes water if you stare at it too long and muddles with one’s usual perspectives. The more time I spend staring into this book, the more I appreciate its uncanny qualities. Of course, ‘Regarding Fire’ would be a rubbish title compared to ‘Firestrikes’. But from the slow burning qualities of what can be seen here, Please is a poet worthy of regard.
James Brookes is an Eric Gregory winner. His recent pamphlet is out from Pighog. His poetry appears on the Oxfam DVD Asking A Shadow To Dance.