Poet, essayist and all-round international man of letters, Clive James, was diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema in 2010. He wasn’t expected to survive long, but he’s still here, and writing the best work of his life. And this is largely, he says, because of death. There is nothing like intimations of your own mortality to sharpen your focus on what makes life worth living:
I am here now, who was hardly even there.”
In 2015 he published what he thought would be his farewell collection of poetry, Sentenced to Life. Last year, kicking on, as it were, like “an exhausted footballer with legs of lead”, he published another collection, called (with typical Clive James wit) Injury Time.
In the poem “Sentenced to Life”, which opens the first of these collections, the poet is a condemned man, reflecting on his life and crimes. His “sin” has been faithlessness: “I would lie / As if I could be true to everyone / At once”. Ill now, chastened by his body’s failures and made vulnerable by an unaccustomed dependency, he’s “A sad man, sorrier than he can say.” Sorrow – for himself as well as for the family he has hurt with his past behaviour – runs like a river through this collection. It could make for excruciating reading, except that James is also a grateful man, pleased to be alive and invigorated by the clarity of purpose gifted to him by immobility and sickness:
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.
He becomes absorbed, for example, in the way six goldfish move through his daughter’s pond, and then by trees and flowers in the surrounding garden:
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.
These lines announce what all the poems in Sentenced to Life set out to do: atone for the ‘sin’ of faithlessness (and, as James himself admits, his habit of attention-seeking) by paying attention – especially to home and family, but also to the craft of writing. The dominant sense in this collection is sight: hindsight, foresight, vision, revision (and television too, a medium that James loves). The poems are suffused with shades of darkness and bursts of light and colour. “I thank my lucky stars for second sight,” he writes in “My Home”.
In Injury Time, however, the dominant sense is hearing. The poems seek sound – voice, speech, music and breath – even as they circle closer and closer to the idea of silence. “The Rest is Silence or Stroking Her Feet to Opus 131″, for example, ends with the observation that, after listening to Beethoven, “Silence returns, but is not the same void / We heard before the start.” Love and art – and listening better – have changed it.
In both collections, James builds his poems tight. His poem “Carpentry of the Quatrain”, in Injury Time, describes “the magic box” effect of writing poems within the formal constraints of rhyme and metre. James excels at this, building solid structures capable of holding the lifetime of regret, happiness and learning he pours into them. It’s not necessarily easy, especially for a big intellect like James’: “But there are ideas that refuse to fit, / the thought that needs more space to have its say / No matter how severe you are with it.”
But even then, the best way to contain
The sprawl is to remember, flying blind,
Your ideal of the right cup for the rain.
With nothing spilled and everything designed,
Wish and fulfilment click, the whirlpool swirls
And freezes, and it’s there before your eyes:
The cubic lattice of selected pearls
Stacked rim to rim, the orderly surprise.
Injury Time is less concerned with atonement than with the remarkable business of still being alive, the miracle of each breath, and the ongoing desire to keep on making “the right cup for the rain” – even when, as the poem “Head Wound” tells it, deadpan: “The carcinoma left a bullet hole / High on my forehead. It looked like a tap / By a pro hit-man.”
Clive James reflects on mistakes, joy, life, luck, and how to talk about death in this 2015 BBC interview.
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. A poet, novelist and former physiotherapist, she is currently a creative practice PhD candidate at the University of Otago.
The line “I am here now, who was hardly even there” is from “Landfall” by Clive James in Sentenced to Life.