Reviewed by Ian Lipke
For purposes of this review I have focused on Injury Time and The River in the Sky. Clive James published a book in 2015 called Sentenced to Life in which he took the view that his time left on Earth was to be severely limited. To his astonishment his sojourn was long enough for him to produce the current texts, one in 2017 and one in 2018.
When reading Clive James I like to listen as I read him aloud to the tone he adopts towards his readers. In Clive James I find the same conversational tone as I have witnessed on television. It is a warm voice that never seeks pity or shows any level of the trepidation I would have expected to hear from someone facing death. I do not witness any attempt to persuade his readers to a particular point of view. “Explaining itself is what a poem does” (Injury Time, xi).
Injury Time is an occasion for detailing what James believes is essential to his life. Focusing on living well in the time remaining, the joys of family and art, celebrating the immediate beauty of the world, these are the issues he identifies as important. One cannot read James without, sooner rather than later, running up against his irrepressible wit. In recalling the dancer’s recognition that her name is in lights and is for all time associated with The Firebird, he writes,
How time, like fame, flies on such fleeting wings.
No birds were hurt in the making of this poem (10).
In a very moving poem This Coming Winter he conveys the information that all, but his granddaughter will know of his impending death.
I’d like to keep
Her thinking that I’m in some way still there
When she laughs…
There must be independence for the heart:
And, therefore, wishing to transfer my powers –
To give her, for her life, the memory
Of how I laughed when she made fun of me –
I shall renounce them at the fall of night
As I move on to find Elysium (9).
This is serious business but is delivered in the same conversational tone one would expect at a light, social function. His poem Panis Angelicus is written with the sensitivity of a fine artist:
A lifetime has gone by since we first listened
To music, and, wrapped in it, found each other.
Forgive me for not seeing straight away
It was the blessing by which we two pagans
Late in our lives might eat the bread of angels (20).
It should never be supposed that Clive James always writes in a serious, albeit conversational, mode. He does produce that sort of work but he is just as likely to switch to that humorous side which can lead to outright laughter. In Head Wound he tells the story of his head wound (in reality the aftermath of the removal of a huge cancer from his brain):
The carcinoma left a bullet hole
High on my forehead. It looked like a tap
By a pro-hit man.
I mentioned MI5,
A mild gun battle. I got out alive.
The straight-faced joke that might work on the page
Is death on TV. I should act my age (31).
His poem Declaration of Intent has no undercurrents, no hidden meanings. It is the philosophy of Clive James when all the jokes and the sardonic humour are set aside.
My poems sing of life. Though death is also there
In how they crystallise an emphasis
Like a tango maestro pausing, they do not despair:
They just acknowledge the abyss
Awaiting us. It brings finality
To what we were. It will do that for me
Soon now. My poems prove that I accepted this (23).
This review has concentrated on Injury Time, a collection of very fine poems that Clive James has written under sentence of death. This section could not be complete without this remarkable sonnet, entitled Quiet Passenger:
When there is no more dying left to do
And I am burned and poured into a jar,
Then I will leave this land that I came to
So long ago, and having come so far,
Head home to where my life’s work was begun.
But nothing of that last flight will I see
As I ride through the night into the sun:
No stars, no ocean, not the ochre earth,
No patterns of dried water, nor the light
That streams into the city of my birth,
The harbour waiting to take down my dust.
So why, in that case, should I choose to go?
My day is done. I go because I must:
Silence will be my way of saying so.
We leave Injury Time at this point and consider The River in the Sky. This long poem is brought to life in the author’s recollection of what life was like and will never be again. A quiet positivity underlies the writing:
All is not lost, despite the quietness
That comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task (1).
He presents his memories as a flowing stream of vivid images, each stimulated “as if lent power by the force of its own fading” (6). We have always recognised the breadth of Clive James’s interests which are on full display in this book. He is generous of detail and carries his readers along with him in the passion of the telling. The impact of a diver in an Olympic pool, seen from underwater is “a shout rewritten as a whisper” (7). An adverse comment on Berthold Brecht leaves “world-wide, a million far-left male eyebrows fainted in their tracks” (10). When commenting on the Australian sense of history he remarks:
It isn’t history that we lack
It is the habit
Of thinking in it (13)
And on his marriage:
We have been married now so long
Vinyl is back in fashion (18).
The quips keep on coming. They are not the outbursts of a man trying to hide from death through laughter. Rather they are the same comments he used to make when the imminence of death was not a factor They are a brilliant man’s means of saying farewell on his own terms in his own way.
I find the contents of both books immensely revealing and momentously moving.
By Clive James
By Clive James