Book review: Sentenced to Life - Clive James poetry

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 May, 2015, 10:54pm


The punning title of Clive James' latest collection, published with an expectation that it will be his last, is characteristically robust. He is suffering from leukaemia but has been cracking staunch jokes recently about the embarrassment of his continuing survival in the wake of poems written at what he believed to be his last gasp.

Illness has changed his thinking but has not extinguished his spark. It has made him rueful, and grateful, too. Many of these poems are an appeal to the heart, and in particular to the heart of his wife. The collection's defining quality is gallantry and it is this that makes it so moving. There are also some infuriating and, perhaps inevitably, solipsistic poems here, but there is no fault you could highlight of which James himself is not aware and addressing in print.

Each poem is accessible and the secure rhymes have a chiming poignancy - as neat as beds tucked with hospital corners - a protest against formlessness and death. James does remorse almost as well as Thomas Hardy and Echo Point seems an echo of the poems Hardy wrote after the death of his wife.

As a writer, James has always been a performer and he frets about his audience. In Holding Court, he remarks: "People still turn towards me where I sit." In Landfall, he remembers "… all the sirens in the signing queue/ who clutched their hearts at what I had to say", although he is now in some doubt about whether their "shining eyes" were a figment of his imagination. In Early to Bed, he wonders whether to risk a new role: "The grand old man. Do I dare play that part?/ Perhaps I am too frail. I don't know how/ to say exactly what is in my heart/ Except I feel that I am nowhere now."

It was La Rochefoucauld who said, "Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily", yet James proves him wrong in several poems, especially in his unblinkingly bleak Event Horizon - a feat beyond performance - and the darkly witty Transit Visa. But it is Japanese Maple (which has held readers captive since it appeared last year) that mixes celebration, sorrow and acceptance - a perfect, valedictory balancing act. Looking at the maple his daughter planted for him, James writes: "Ever more lavish as the dusk descends/ This glistening illuminates the air/ It never ends/ Whenever the rain comes it will be there/ Beyond my time, but now I take my share."

Sentenced to Life by Clive James (Picador)

The Guardian