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Sentenced to Life

by Clive James

(London Times)

WIT, critic, memoirist, poet, songwriter, novelist, travel writer, former television personality and chat-show host, Clive James has lived a life of such hectic prolificity, it seemed nothing short of death could stop him. And when he was diagnosed, in 2010, with leukaemia and side-orders of emphysema and kidney failure, many assumed his dazzling literary output was over.

James didn’t die, however, and nor did he stop writing. Two years ago he published a verse-rendering of Dante's The Divine Comedy, riskily replacing its terza rima (“third rhyme”) structure with quatrains. Last year brought Poetry Notebook 2006-14, a collection of essays. He published new poems in The Times Literary Supplement. Remarkably, he also appeared in gossip columns after his wife, Prue Shaw, banished him from the family home on learning that he had been having a long affair with a model. More poems appeared last autumn, evoking his wretched physical state, but he clung tenaciously to life. I am in the slightly awkward position, he said, of writing poems saying I am about to die, and I dont.

Now here is the fruit of his recent labours: 37 poems written, as it were, on his deathbed over four years, full of the regrets and epiphanies you would expect, but also charged with ruthless honesty. He notes unflinchingly his deafness, partial blindness, shortness of breath, sore legs and failing strength, but sets against them his heightened sensitivity to small wonders.

Transience, nature and seasonal renewal are hackneyed tropes in poems about death, but James finds neat and moving new perspectives for them. In Too Much Light, the cataracts on his eyes 'invest the bright spring day / With extra glory'. In Winter Plums, he considers the Japanese trees beside his door, which flower only in the cold months; reversing the usual reassurance that after winter will come spring, he finds their efflorescence a scary emblem of mortality. Elsewhere he celebrates the dew, and his granddaughter’s first ballet steps in the kitchen. In the title poem, he records how he now notices the flora and fauna of his garden as never before - but reports that his memories of Pacific sunsets from his Sydney childhood are also sharpened by the imminence of death: 'As if my first impressions were my last, / And time had only made them more defined.'

Two fine poems make heartbreaking use of solid Australian things. Tempe Dump transforms a smouldering, industrial-waste mountain in a Sydney suburb into an image of inglorious dying. In Manly Ferry he recalls his boyish admiration for the South Steyne ferry chugging across Sydney harbour 'at full strength', and voices his regret that the boat is now a floating restaurant, just 'a brilliant inner-city ornament.'

In Poetry Notebook James called himself 'a diehard formalist' and many of the poems here stick to strict forms. He sometimes adopts fiendishly complex rhyme schemes, as if to give slightly commonplace thoughts an outward sheen they don’t quite warrant. He is devoted, too, to the classic tum-ti-tum of iambic pentameter, an ideal rhythm for elegy and regret. There is a strong whiff here of Philip Larkin's The Old Fools and Aubade, and James sometimes sounds like he is struggling to escape the Bard of Hull's gloomy influence.

The collection's most moving poems, inevitably, are the personal elegies, in which he addresses his estranged wife and hopes that it's not too late to make up. Echo Point movingly imagines the sound of his voice calling her as he dies, concluding: 'And what you hear will not fade as I fall.'

Things are more cheerful in the penultimate poem Balcony Scene, in which he tries to lure his wife to his balcony (a reversed Romeo) and woo her again like a suitor. Thomas Hardy's 1912 poems to his late wife, Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress and John Donne's amorous metaphysics all hover around this charming, heartening bid for rapprochement - and all three poets will, I suspect, be happy to admit Mr James to their august company when they meet inside the Pearly Gates.

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