Books

Clive James
Sentenced to Life

Joshu Sasaki Roshi (1907-2014), Rinzai Zen teacher and long-time friend of Leonard Cohen, once apologised to the poet and songwriter, saying “Excuse me for not dying.” 

Roshi was in his 90s when he made that apology. Clive James, 75, was also given to concede his staying power when, two years ago, as the old joke goes, rumours of his death were exaggerated. Battling emphysema, various carcinomas and now a re-emergence of leukaemia, James has never lost his dark sense of humour. In a recent interview in The Guardian in Britain, he admitted that the valedictory fuss was “all
a bit embarrassing”.

For more than 40 years Clive James has been a prolific writer, weaving in and out of television criticism, essays, autobiography and fiction, yet poetry has been his central, driving inspiration and abiding personal focus. Writing poems and writing about poetry have been like heart’s-blood to one of our national, expatriate treasures. 

Sentenced to Life is James’s 11th collection, and it’s the perfect vehicle, not only for his coming to terms with death, but as a loving, tender homage to the act of reading and writing poetry. 

It is clear from the opening title poem that James warmly and cleverly weaves his influences into the fabric of a verse style while maintaining his inimitable cadences and breath. “Sentenced to Life” has the faint, yet indelible echoes of Richard Wilbur and Philip Larkin running through the lines. James’s attention to the minutiae of things (“No birds can touch down in the trees/Without my seeing them. I count the bees”) is aligned with a lightness of touch and expansiveness that’s made all the more memorable by his masterful control of rhythm and rhyme: 

        I would lie

As if I could be true to everyone

At once, and all the damage that was done

 

Was in the name of love, or so I thought.

I might have met my death believing this,

But no, there was a lesson to be taught.

 

James understands formal poetry’s spell-making power; its ability to hold our attention while seducing our senses. Sentenced to Life is the culmination of his lifelong commitment to a serious study of many forms of verse. These tight, lyrical poems, rich in allusiveness and association, demand our full attention and we are rewarded for such engagement. 

Much of the subject matter in Sentenced to Life makes for both a beautiful and confronting read. James writes of his infidelity, his fading energy and of his great sadness, due to illness, of never again being able to return to Australia. Despite the emotional weight and cost of these central themes, he is able to offer poems that are luminous and arresting in their use of disparate imagery:

On the rafting ice

The afterbirth of seals

Leaves stains like pink blancmange.

Glyco proteins in the fish 

Keep them from freezing.

 

M13 in Hercules

Is a globular star cluster –

A glitterball that my mother

Could have danced the Charleston under.

She had lovely hands.

– “Plot Points”

 

“Japanese Maple”, the poem that attracted worldwide attention after it appeared in The New Yorker, is rightly being hailed a masterpiece. As a valedictory piece it succeeds brilliantly without sentimentality or contrived emotional hook, and it reveals James’s ability to find just the right music and rhythm to match the mood of each line. With its rhyme scheme of ababb and alternating lengths of line and breath, it makes for captivating reading:

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain.

 

The poetry of the late Philip Hodgins is felt keenly here, as it is throughout the collection, and not only because of Hodgins’ marvellous ear for rhyme and rhythm. Hodgins was diagnosed with myeloid leukaemia, and under the pressure of that disease, went on to write some of the finest poetry this country has seen in his short lifetime. 

Clive James was a champion of Hodgins’ work and wrote lovingly of it. The parallels seem clear. There is a distillation of thought and feeling in Sentenced to Life that cuts through non-essential detail. And while there is no obvious, urgent sense of James trying to finalise things, there is a constant sense of his needing to see, feel, touch and hear the exacting nature of experience:

I used to notice everything, and spoke

A language full of details that I’d seen,

And people were amused; but now I see

Only a little way. What can they mean, 

My phrases? They come drifting like the mist...

 

“...but now I see/Only a little way” cleverly evokes his myopia and limited time. In other poems such as the heartbreakingly tender “Balcony Scene”, he is able to be simultaneously remorseful, wryly humorous and charming. It’s the honesty and sincerity that makes this love poem one of the very best in the book:

High overhead, a pair of swallows fly,

Programmed for Africa, but just for now

They seem sent solely to enchant the eye

Here in this refuge I acquired somehow

Beyond my merit. Now a sudden wave

Of extra sunlight sharpens all the view.

There is a man here you might care to save

From too much solitude. He calls for you.

 

Sentenced to Life is a relatively short book at just 56 pages of poems. Its complexity and generosity of spirit make it seem so much longer.  DL

Picador, 82pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2015 as "Clive James, Sentenced to Life". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: DL

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