A Graph Review: 70 but mostly highpoints of 75 plus
Sentenced to Life Clive James
Picador, Hardback. £14.99. 978 14472 8404 8 published 9 April 2015
Clive James is a television writer and presenter, author of more than forty books, poetry, novels, autobiography and criticism (‘Cultural Amnesia‘ is a book I was reading!!! but packed it away in a move and annoyingly have not re-discovered it yet).
“As often happens with poetry, the ostensible meaning and the deeper meaning might be at variance”. Says Clive James in his Acknowledgements in ‘Sentenced to Life’.
Here is the simplicity of story telling, some vignettes, much on the trials of ill health and approaching death. Plenty of nostalgia using a sleight of words that give not a meaning to life but an acceptance of what was and is. Any anger, maybe placed in another’s story but even then quietly dissipated. Throughout, Clive James admits the weight and tedium of his illness through verse with a skill that is sharp and witty. His is a mind still working at full tilt despite a tired body. A burst of humour in a line or two or a lighter-touch poem help to release the tensipns a little. And the landscape? They are of fine images, concise, precise and immediately in the mind.
Frequent glimpses of Australia and regret at not treading its beaches or seeing the sun setting overhead. Relationships and family reach into the poems, the past and the present.
Writing on death is often a poet’s forte, the elegies, the emotion, the memories in sequence or random; usually of a loved one. Clive James, however is processing through his own death, seemingly at a stage of acceptance. Here we have a classic line followed in awesome skill. Did I say simplicity? Even partway through a verse, a line, maybe just touching a word, you could be sign-posted to another thought or possibility.
Despite a concentration on ‘the blackness’, the void, I find this collection is almost purely a celebration and remembrance of life: ‘The sea, the always self-renewing sea/ The horses of the night that run so fast’. The waves seem calm(ish) in these passages, safe in the knowledge that there is continuation, albeit not his/ours. As in the ocean there are many undercurrents to be aware of.
You may find ‘variance’ if you change your perspective a little on further reading. Like fine music, you discover more options on every reading.
As usual I noted poems I especially liked for one reason or another but once again I say the whole collection deserves a place, not only on my shelf but on that of every reader, writer and student of literature.
My attention was especially caught by:
Elementary Sonnet. WinterPlums. Transit Visa. Japanese mMaple
Japanese Maple may well be the anthologist’s favourite.
Other poets to sample: Douglas Dunn: Elegies
Christopher Reid: Scatterings