Pippa has very kindly written this review which brings into focus the highlights of Clive James’ recently published (April 2015) poetry collection (subject of our discussion on Tuesday evening).
Before I read these poems I knew of Clive James only as a witty and amusing broadcaster. How ignorant I was! In fact he has written much fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and in 2013 translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. This latest volume of poetry undoubtedly adds to his reputation.
The 37 poems of Sentenced to Life have all been written in the last four years, since James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia, and many of the poems have a valedictory tone – the more so, because James apparently has no belief in any form of afterlife. But memories, where can you take them to? Take one last look at them. They end with you. (From ‘Star System’).
The poems are dedicated to Clive James’ wife Prue, and are shot through with feelings of loss and remorse – loss of life and of this world, which James imminently faces; and loss of the relationship with his wife which he has brought about by his infidelity. In ‘Balcony Scene’, he addresses his wife directly: Worse than a waste Was how I hurt myself through hurting you. And: There is a man here you might care to save From too much solitude. He calls for you. Here two opposing forces will collide – Your proper anger and my shamed regret – With all the weight of justice on your side.
Some of the poems return to childhood memories of James’ homeland, Australia, intertwining nostalgia with musings on his present predicament. ( ‘Manly Ferry’, ‘Cabin Baggage’ and ‘Tempe Dump’). A few have less introspective subjects such as the artist Nina Kogan (‘Nina Kogan’s Geometric Heaven’); or, filming elephants on safari (‘One Elephant, Two Elephant’). But it is the emotional perception and honesty of James’ more personal writing, especially in his acknowledgement of his past failings, which makes these poems so memorable and so touching. Here is a man who bravely wears his heart on his sleeve – and yet the poems are skilfully crafted, and do not slip into over-sentimentality.