Good things come to those who wait

Sentenced to Life
, Clive James (59pp, £14.99, Picador)

Clive James began his literary career as a poet and in Sentenced to Life he makes a promise to end it as one. Regardless of his success as a novelist, travel writer or TV critic, poetry is the art form James most wants to be remembered for, so here with the grandeur of a fallen general James makes one last attempt at poetic immortality. 

Immortal or not Clive James has already achieved a very rare feat for a poet, sending the internet into a spin with his lush, lightly contemplative 'Japanese Maple', a poem destined to enter the funeral friendly favourites bag beside Auden, Rossetti, Tennyson and others. The poem displays a synthesis between the life of a tree and the life of its author. The opening line 'Your death, near now, is of an easy sort' could refer to either, however we know that the tree is young and the poet is old:

   My daughter's choice, the maple tree is new.
   Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flames.
   What I must do
   Is live it to see that. That will end the game
   For me, though life continues all the same

The beauty of the poem lies in its simplicity, the neatness recalls Louis Macneice, with perfectly metered lines (count the syllables) but there are imperfections in the craft, in particular the clumsy repetition of that, “live to see that
. That will” and the unimaginative rhymes. 'Japanese Maple' in a vague way recalls 'Tychborne's Elegy', a poem also written under a death sentence but of a very different sort, this one for treason:

   My tale was heard, and yet it was not told,
   My fruite is falne, & yet my leaves are greene:
   My youth is spent, and yet I am not old,

Tychboune also relies on rhyming with the first word that comes to mind, some of the other pairs in his poem are: 'cares/tares' 'paine/gaine' 'sunne/done' 'greene/seen' etc, a few more of the rhyme clusters James uses in Japanese Maple are 'falls/walls/halls', 'air/there/share', 'game/same flame' and at his most ambitious 'on/shone/gone'. Sentenced to Life
is littered with further examples of uninspiring rhymes, this casualness demeans the poetry and produces jarring effect that interrupts the flow instead of aiding it.

The main subject of in Sentenced to Life
is the author's mortality. Clive James suffers from leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. In 2013 he was told by doctors that he would not live much longer. In the title poem, which opens the collection, the reader is offered an image of the terminally ill author lying in a cold bed:

   Sentenced to life, I sleep face up as though
   Ice bound, lest I should cough the night away

Though the illness is different, the image is not unlike AIDS victim in Thom Gunn's 'The Man with Night Sweats':

   I wake up cold, I who
   Prospered through dreams of heat
   Wake to their residue,
   Sweat and a clinging sheet

But whereas Thom Gunn's poem goes on to explore the physical effects of the illness, Clive James' poem is concerned with the impact the illness has on his mind. With the knowledge that his life may soon be over James is able to 'see things with a whole new emphasis'. The poem contains some brilliant imagery, including the pacific sunset 'painting the white clouds when the day is spent',  it end with James' mind basking in the light it 'never left behind'. This fresh perspective is probably the most interesting shade in Sentenced to Life
, the collection is a work of great reflective depth, the poetry has a poignancy brought by the circumstances, but never lapses into self pity.

One of the highlights of the collection is 'Asma Unpacks Her Pretty Clothes', a poem which deals with the false promise of the new regime in Syria conjured by the glamour of Asma al-Assad and her 'uncovered hair that promised progress'. The poem benefits from not having a rhyme scheme:

   It takes forever: so much silk and cashmere
   To be unpeeled from clinging leaves of tissue
   By her ladies. With her perfect hands, she helps.

The image of Asma unpacking is contrasted with young men being beaten by iron bars, praying that death will come soon, at the hands of her husband Bashar al-Assad. It is a powerful contrast of elegance and violence, there is a disconnect between the life of the first lady of Syria and the reality of Syria, a disconnect that Asma cannot really comprehend though 'she must have thought such things could never happen'. Perhaps the emotion that draws James to Asma is guilt, although their guilt is of a very different kind, Sentenced to Life contains
numerous confessions and apologies for James' past infidelities:

   My heart had spiritual duties too,
   And failed at all of them. Worse than a waste
   Was how I hurt myself through hurting you.    
      [from 'Balcony Scene']

These guilty moments are James at his worst, as is is clear he has only been made to feel sorry by being ill. If he was in full health his concerns for his wife's feelings would presumably evaporate as he encountered more 'sirens from the signing queue'.

Sentenced to Life
is quite likely going to be Clive James' last collection, so there is a certain pressure on the last poem to round things off memorably. Fortunately, for posterity, James bookmarks Sentenced to Life with one of the strongest poems in the collection. It is called 'Sunset Hails a Rising' and is a reflection on the words of poets when contemplating death. It takes two great lines, one from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (“O lente, lente currite noctis equi!”) and one from Valéry (“La mer, la mer, toujours recommencée”) and puts them side by side in English:

   Run slowly, slowly horses of the night.
   The sea, the sea, always begun again.

The image of horses and the sea brings to mind the Guinness advert where a surfer conquers the giant waves as they become galloping horses. 'Good things come to those who wait' runs the slogan, it is good advice and it seems to be a lesson Clive James has learnt; be patient, the right words will come in the end.

        © Charlie Baylis 2015