Clive James: Sentenced To Life

clive-james-1000163Clive James’ poetry collection, Sentenced To Life, is published by Picador on 9 April. I was lucky enough to be passed a bound proof and have been dipping into it for a while now. Dipping, because these poems have such sadness and death lingering over them it is difficult to read too many at once.

Clive being Clive, of course, is deft. His lightness of touch does not desert him. There are moments of wit that made me laugh. But these are poems written by a man who is dying, and dying fast now. He knows it. He tangoed away from a marriage and back again, repentant.

In this lovely BBC interview, he is candid about his faults, and remorseful. It is hard not to forgive an old, sick man his past mistakes. But it’s not my forgiveness that matters.

The first line of his last poem, Sunset Hails A Rising, starts ‘Dying by inches …’, and this inexorable creep soaks through the whole book. Strung through are phrases that made me catch my breath. In Holding Court he says ‘But in my mind the fires are dying fast.’ Living Doll describes an Aufstehpuppe – a doll that leans but rights itself every time – ‘I wish I were reminded of myself / Merrily dipping in and out of doom.’ However, he knows ‘The truth, alas, is I’ve been knocked askew / For quite a while now and I can’t get back / To find the easy balance I once knew.’

His poems are mostly formal, almost old-fashioned in their presentation. He likes an initial capital to a line. You know where you are with one of those (though I don’t use them myself). Not for him are the scatterings of modern lower case youthful thoughts thrown upon a page at random. There are rhyme schemes to keep order; sonnets to ground us. I doubt Don Paterson would have had to do much editing of the form of these poems. I found it all rather refreshing, to be honest. I can’t remember what I’m supposed to find fashionable at the moment.

He touches on his regret at past behaviour in poems like Landfall, where he remembers a life (before his illness) spent travelling away from his family, with a different focus. ‘But those years in the clear, how real were they, / When all the sirens in the signing queue / Who clutched their hearts at what I had to say / Were just dreams, even when the dream came true?’ He didn’t take his return for granted. ‘Rarely at home in those days, I’m home now, / Where few will look at me with shining eyes. / Perhaps none ever did,’.

He appreciates his family did not have to let him back. Rounded with a Sleep is confessional: ‘Just for the moment, though, / There’s time to question if my present state / Of bathing in this flawless afterglow / Is something I deserve. I left it late / To come back to my family.’

Having so little time left, he lives for now. In Event Horizon he distils his philosophy that it is only in this life that anything matters, comparing his demise to the final pull of a black hole. ‘What is it worth, then, this insane last phase / When everything about you goes downhill? / … it reminds you, just by being there / That it is here we live or else nowhere.’

He’s still funny. The first stanza of Nature Programme is hilarious. ‘The female panda is on heat / For about five minutes a year / And the male, no sprinter at the best of times, / Hardly ever gets there / Before she cools off again.’ I won’t pretend he doesn’t go off into another rumination about death later on in the poem, but we had our giggle.

These will be the last of Clive’s poems, I guess. I’ve spoken before about how much I love his writing, in all its astonishingly varied forms. This is a collection of poems I’ll return to again and again, because poetry is often at its best as a form that can hold grief. You just know these are going to be read at many funerals, not just his own.