Steve's Reviews > Simplify Me When I'm Dead

Simplify Me When I'm Dead by Keith Douglas
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's review
Jan 16, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry
Read from January 16 to 22, 2012

(Note: Keith Hughes is the poet,not Ted Hughes. Hughes selected the poems and did the Intro.)

I went back and forth on to rate this one. Initially, as I was winding down my distracted reading (NFL playoffs), I was starting to think that Goodreads “error” about the author of this book (Ted Hughes vs. Keith Douglas) was intentional – somewhere, and yet another example of publishing houses cannibalizing famous authors’ obscure side projects. Then again, it’s hard to imagine a publishing house going through that kind of effort for Poetry. Some of the poems felt weak, not fully realized, and then some simply blew me away. In a small collection like this, of 44 poems or so, a handful of so-so efforts can really drag things down. But the powerful stuff does hang with you. And as I flip through and re-read at random, I find that I like these poems, even the “weak” ones, better after a second look.

If you’ve read Hughes, it’s easy to see why he liked Douglas. There’s war and reality in spades, with bodies decaying in sand, troops moving, and meditations on mortality (Hughes himself would die at Normandy, at the age of 24). The two other blurbists on the cover of my book, Hughes’ wife, Sylvia Plath (in happier times), and James Dickey, were also members of the Tooth & Claw school of poetry, so their words of praise ring true. In fact, in one late poem in the collection, “Mersa,” these lines had me recalling, vividly, Plath’s sick sea side from Colossus:

I see the my feet like stones
underwater. The logicial little fish
converge and nip the flesh
imagining I am one of the dead.

I shudder at the pre-Plathian precision of “logical.” But enough of Plath, these are war poems, and at their best, they recall a famous prose writer – Ernest Hemingway. In Hemingway’s early effort, In Our Time, there are a number of short interludes between the stories. I’ve always thought of these powerful little breaks as prose poems. Douglas is poet plain and simple, but the eye in, for example, “Search for God,” will remind you of the Italian front in Farewell To Arms:

Turn away from Monte Nero, that mountain
To the west. Turn your back to the white town
Of Gorizia plastered with notices and swarming
With soldiers. Cross the green Izonzo: go down

by the ruined palace of the archbishop, the machine gun /schools/
and a company of Alpini with their mules.
Now uphill to the woods where a generation of men and trees died.

And where the bright blood and shrapnel are sunk in grass
the golden oriole fluting in a cool hollow
colours the silence. . .

If this slender collection is dominated by the landscapes of war, Douglas can also convey the accompanying ache of love and the damage to self:

Today, Cheng, I touched your face
with two fingers, as a gesture of love,
for I can never prove enough
by sight or sense your strange grace...

alas, Cheng, I cannot tell why,
today I touched a mask stretched on the stone-

hard face of death. There was the urge
to escape the bright flesh and emerge
of the ambitious cruel bone.


If interested in reading some more by Douglas, there’s a link below that has a few of his poems.

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