Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Kid growing old

On Clive James's recent poetry


“This year I almost died.”

That arresting sentence comes from Clive James’s poem “Fashion Statement,” published in January this year, but written towards the end of 2010. James isn’t writing in someone else’s voice here. He is speaking for himself. He really did almost die last year.

What happened? There are clues in several of the recent poems. “Vertical Envelopment,” published in December 2010, revealed that James had been hospitalised twice during the preceding months: first with a serious bout of emphysema (“The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer”); and later, in New York, after being “felled” by a blood clot. The same poem makes a glancing but ominous reference to the poet’s “CLL / Leukaemia that might hold off for years.” Slow-moving as this form of the disease may be, it still sounds like something one would firmly prefer not to have. On the plus side, subsequent poems suggest that the battered Kid from Kogarah is in far better shape now than he was last year – although still weak, still on “meds.”

It’s interesting that James should have chosen poetry as the place to write about these crises. Although he has always viewed himself as a poet first and foremost, his critics, even his most sympathetic ones, haven’t always agreed with him on that. For a long time, it seemed as though he would never, as a poet, shake his reputation as a writer of “mere” light verse – the kind of verse that wasn’t about to cope with blood clots and burst catheter bags. But when the time came for James to write about these things – when the moment arrived to smash the emergency glass – poetry was the instrument he reached for.      

This won’t surprise anyone who’s been keeping tabs on his recent work. Over the past fifteen years or so, his poetry has entered an enthralling late phase. The poems have become candid and richly autobiographical; they have acquired emotional heft. They are circling back to themes that have preoccupied him his entire life. And they are addressing them in a sincere, stripped-back, definitive-sounding tone – the tone of a man who wants to get important things said.

His last book of poetry, Angels Over Elsinore, was published in 2008. Since then, new poems have kept appearing, at a prodigious rate, in an array of international magazines. For the moment – until the appearance of his next slim volume – these poems can be read for free on James’s exemplary website. Had we lost him last year, we wouldn’t just have lost the author of a marvellous (and marvellously varied) body of work. We’d have lost a man whose body of work is still growing, in interesting and unexpected ways.

To understand the turn his recent poetry has taken, we’d better look at one of his not-so-recent poems first. “Go Back to the Opal Sunset”, written in the late 1980s, is a representative enough sample of the earlier James. It begins: 

Go back to the opal sunset, where the wine
Costs peanuts, and the avocado mousse
Is thick and strong as cream from a jade cow.

The opal sunset is Australia, land of the poet’s birth. The poem chalks up a list of Australia’s richest-hued charms, and contrasts them with the stark demerits of England, the poet’s adopted home (“Now London’s notion of a petty crime / Is simple murder or straightforward rape”).

The poem has all the classic Jamesian qualities. There is humour:

                             … Make your escape
To where the prawns assume a size and shape
Less like a newborn baby’s little toe.

And there is appreciation of the female form, with special reference to the rear end:

Bottoms bisected by a piece of string
Will wobble through the heat-haze like a dream.

But all these juicy attractions imply an obvious question. If Australia is so fantastic, what exactly is keeping the poet away? It must be some pretty potent force – some force even more magnetic than the lure of buttock and prawn. The final stanza acknowledges the question, and attempts a response:

What keeps you here? Is it too late to tell?
It might be something you can’t now define,
Your nature altered as if by the moon.
Yet out there at this moment, through the swell,
The hydrofoil draws its triumphant line.
Such powers of decision should be mine …

Considering the lavish specificity of the preceding stanzas, the poet’s two-line attempt to answer his own question sounds conspicuously vague. He doesn’t even seem to be trying. You can almost hear his relief when he can go back to evoking exterior things: the swell, the hydrofoil’s “triumphant line.” 

One shouldn’t complain too loudly about a poet who can conjure the jade cow and the baby’s little toe. Nor should we expect a comic poem to culminate in a torrent of searing self-analysis. But still: that unsatisfactory last stanza casts a forked-tongue effect over the poem’s whole argument. You begin to wonder about the sincerity of those earlier stanzas. Do they really mean what they say? If they do, why can’t the poet be equally forthright about what’s keeping him in England? Is it really something he “can’t” define? Or is it something he won’t?  

You could ask similar questions about a lot of James’s earlier work. For a long time, he had a marked tendency to shy away from personal revelation in his poetry, and to compensate for this coyness with flamboyancy of technique. This resulted in some richly entertaining verse, but critics who considered James an essentially “light” poet had, in those days, a point. Back then, you didn’t get the whole of Clive James in his poetry.

These days you do. “Castle in the Air,” published in 2010, returns to the theme of “Opal Sunset”. But it opens up all the curtains on it; it lets in the light from every angle. The poem begins:

We never built our grand house on the edge
Of the Pacific, close to where we first
Drew breath, but high up in the cliffs, a ledge
Glassed in, with balconies where we would be
Enthralled to watch it hit the rocks and burst –
The ocean that still flows through you and me
Like blood …

He sounds like a different man. But the difference is that we’re no longer watching him perform; we’re listening to him think. James himself has defined a poem – brilliantly – as something that can’t be quoted from except out of context. “Opal Sunset” didn’t rise to that status: its poetic effects were local, and readily detachable. But the poetry of “Castle in the Air” is much harder to prise loose. The lines run on with an airy openness that matches the cliff-top view; until the fifth line, you can’t quote one line without also quoting part of the next. The language is willing to follow the thought, no matter how complicated the thought gets. Indeed you get the sense, as you do from all serious poetry, that the poet is using language to articulate things he doesn’t quite know yet. He’s using poetry as a tool to get at the truth.   

The first word of the poem, “we,” is part of that truth. There was no suggestion, in “Opal Sunset,” that the poet was a married man. But in fact he has been married since 1968 to the Australian-born academic Prue Shaw, with whom he has two daughters. Shaw appears here and there in his memoirs under the name of Françoise, and their daughters make a couple of cameo appearances too. But all three are rendered in sketch form only, and this is quite deliberate. James has always classified his family as “civilians.” He has long defended their right not to be written about, even by him. 

Laudable as this principle was and is, it imposed a grave handicap on an artist whose greatest theme has always been – why deny it? – himself. Writing about his childhood and youth, James was on safe ground: those parts of his life belonged mainly to him. But the memoirs, for my money, stopped reading like classics after the third volume, in the last chapter of which the protagonist got married. Volumes four and five have a decidedly skimpier feel: you can sense the largeness, and the importance, of the private territory that the author is denying you access to.

A little over ten years ago, James began to relax this stricture in his poetry. Perhaps he felt that the poem, by the turn of the century, had become a safely under-the-radar form. Maybe his retirement from TV at around the same time was also a factor. In any event, his decision to start writing about the central relationship of his life has had a tremendously liberating effect on his verse. His wife stars in some of his most substantial and moving later poems: “Flashback on Fast Forward”, “Book Review,” “Signing Ceremony.” And permitting himself to open up on the autobiographical level seems to have led to a general relaxation of James’s technique. Almost every poem he writes now, whether his loved ones appear in it or not, has the same unfettered feel: the tone is transparent and unselfconscious; the lines open out and run on to accommodate the flow of introspection. In hindsight, some of his old poetry now reads as if he wrote it with one hand tied behind his back. Finding the voice in which to speak about his marriage seems to have been a decisive leap in James’s evolution from an essentially comic poet into a serious one.

This is not to say that he has stopped writing funny poems. “The Australian Suicide Bomber’s Heavenly Reward,” published in 2005, ranks among his most savagely amusing pieces of verse. But that poem, as its title implies, isn’t autobiographical. Like all his most successful comic poems (“A Gesture towards James Joyce,” “One Man to Another”) it uses humour to sharpen a philosophical position: it is cultural criticism in verse form. James’s funniness as a critic has always been an extension of his fundamental seriousness. But in his autobiographical work, humour may have served more as a weapon of self-defence than of attack. He wouldn’t be the first Australian male to use wit as a means of parrying the awkward personal question.

The awkward personal question is precisely what his most interesting recent poems set out to answer. The language in which they do so tends to be boiled down, reduced to essentials: the jokes and extravagant metaphors have been skimmed off the top. To return to “Castle in the Air”:

          … We’ve talked about that view
So often we can watch the seagulls fly
Below us by the thousand. There’s the clue
Perhaps, to what we might do for the best:
Merely imagine it. The place to die
Is where you find your feet and come to rest.

In his prose, James wouldn’t use a cliché like “find your feet” without qualifying it somehow. (“We found our feet in gyrating winklepickers” – he’d say something like that, only better.) And he would, if speaking of a bunch of flying seagulls, use a more evocative phrase than “by the thousand”. But James’s late poetry, like a lot of late poetry, doesn’t seek to be dazzling from line to line. It is building, stealthily, to richer effects:  

                       … Small prospect of return
Once you’re accustomed to the change of air,
The calm of being here instead of there –
The slow but steady way that it grows dark.

Again the last line contains a well-worn phrase. Lulled by the preceding lines, you’re almost ready to take the cliché “slow but steady” at face value, as if the closing-in of the English evening were a welcome thing. But the poem’s heavy preponderance of wrap-around lines makes its few end-stopped lines stick out like sore thumbs. They demand a second look. And that long English evening, looked at a second time, seems suddenly more sinister. The topic of death has already been raised by the preceding stanza, but only in a theoretical way: England is the place where the poet will, at some indefinite point in the future, die. But maybe the darkness is already closing in.      

James’s recent poetry is full of effects like this: the stark phrase that jolts you with a sudden uppercut of meaning. The surface of his poems no longer glitters like the harbour at noon. But now you can see the dark shapes in the depths.

There are troubling undertows, too. Superficially, and starting with its title, “Castle in the Air” seems to want to endorse the poet’s decision to settle in England. But the poem keeps getting pulled in other directions. It never quite settles down, because its author hasn’t quite settled down yet either.

In the second-last stanza, he gets up early for his morning walk. Having “done” his “meds” (this is a post-hospital poem), he sets out on “the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive.” He thinks about his English home. Much as he still loves it,

                         … I feel the waves arrive
Like earthquakes as I walk, and not until
I’m gone for good will I forget the thrill –
Nor will the urge to start again grow less.

The penultimate line seems to have wrapped the poem’s general argument up. Australia is in the blood, the bone, and always will be; but England is home. But again the poem’s drift is compromised by that niggling final line – a line that embodies the poem’s restless tendency to keep rebelling against its own conclusions.

That line propels us into one last stanza, which is all restlessness:

As always in my dreams I spread my chart
In the great room of the grand house on the cliffs
And plot my course. Once more I will depart
Alone, to none beholden, full of fight
To quell the decapods and hippogryphs,
Take maidens here and there as is my right,
And voyage even to eternal night
As the hero does, made strong by his cold heart.

We are denied the resolving chord, but that is part of the poem’s honesty. Apparently the poet doesn’t feel a sense of resolution yet. In his memoirs, he has often proclaimed himself a restless man. But you can’t always tell, reading the memoirs, exactly how fair dinkum he is being. He’s the one who decided to call them “unreliable”, after all.

But there is no doubting the reliability of the late poems. They have attained a transparency through which you can watch the unsettled mind thinking things through. In his dreams at least, the poet still wants to answer to nobody. He still wants the right to take maidens.

Even the most casual of James-watchers will know that he’s always had an eye for the maidens: an eye at the very least. But how does that work out for a married man? His memoirs have never pursued that question to the hilt, and you could argue, plausibly, that the answer is none of our business.    

But a serious poet – a poet who wants to gamble on the prospect of moving you – must be ready to tell you things that aren’t your business. In 1997 James published a poem that seemed to concede this point once and for all. Entitled “Son of a Soldier”, the poem was built on a set of facts well known to readers of the memoirs. When James was five, his father was killed while returning from military service in the Pacific. James was left alone with his devastated mother, who never remarried. 

The memoirs had made it clear that this was the central trauma of James’s youth. But “Son of a Soldier” revealed that the trauma was ongoing. “I was fifty-five years old / Before I began to cry authentically,” the poet says. Kneeling at the grave of his father, he tells the dead man: “Had you come home, I would not be what I am.”

A stanza later, he turns from his father’s grave to address his wife. “Let me explain,” he begins:

“ … The love that he did not return to make
To the first woman I knew and could not help,
Became in me a thirst I could never slake
For one more face transfigured by delight,

Yet needing nothing else. It was a doomed quest
Right from the start, and now it is at an end.
I am too old, too raddled, too ashamed.
Can I stay in your house? I need a friend.”
“So did I,” she said truly. “But be my guest …”

I would guess that James had to think very hard before publishing these intensely personal lines. Perhaps he suspected, even then, that “Son of a Soldier” would prove a watershed poem. It certainly looks like one in retrospect. Until then, he had been the kind of poet who left things like this out. Here, suddenly, was a poem that left nothing out. All the ugliest bits of psychic shrapnel lying around his workshop were packed into it. The echoes of Dante in the husband-wife dialogue wrap a bit of insulation around the jagged content, but not much.

It’s conceivable that James had to get “Son of a Soldier” out of his system before he could write the steady stream of gentler personal poems that have followed. The poem describes an emotional undamming, an opening of the floodgates; and its composition seemed to initiate an artistic undamming too. Once you’ve been as frank as that in print, you’ll probably never need to be so frank again. You can simply relax, and speak freely all the time.

Which is what James’s poetry has done ever since. These days he wields the ladies’ man theme – or the ex-ladies’ man theme – to more poignant effect. The protagonist of “Beachmaster” (2009) is an old man on an Australian beach:

Scanning the face of a crestfallen wave
He sees his life collapsing to a close,
A foaming comber racing to its grave.

Has anyone ever thought to call the face of a wave “crestfallen” before? If not, why not? Like Calvino’s Mr Palomar, James’s man on the beach derives a general lesson from watching the sea. As the older waves expire, new ones keep rising like “green” young men,

                 … queuing to take their turn
To die so that the sea might live again.
That much it took him all his life to learn.

The next stanza reveals that the ageing protagonist isn’t alone. “The latest Miss Australia” is on the beach too, “propped on her elbow in the burning sand.”

She strokes her thigh as one by one they fall,

Those high walls in the water. Look at her,
But shade your sad glance carefully, old man –
For she will never see you as you were,
A long way out, before the end began. 

“Old man.” That phrase conjures the spectre of Yeats – Yeats wearing a dab of zinc cream – but otherwise the poem doesn’t sound especially Yeatsian. James’s attack on the theme of ageing is linguistically gentler; there is even a touch of Frost in the way he shepherds you to that suckerpunch final line.

Not all of James’s recent poems are as forlorn as “Beachmaster”. It would be wrong to imply that the great humourist has morphed into a sad-sack. In “Status Quo Vadis” (2006) the poet chases lost time more vigorously, and has obvious technical fun trying to catch it. Polysyllabic rhymes are flung out like fistfuls of lollies; rapidly sketched scenes and eras collapse back into one another like a photograph album flipped through at speed. Some of the old formal dazzle is back, combining with the melancholy theme to wonderful effect. There is also a (slightly) heartening epigram about the upside of transience: “It’s not a wonder if it never ceases.” Who else could phrase the matter as neatly as that?

“Overview” (2008) achieves a similar effect by tracking the perpetual motion of the poet’s granddaughter, who won’t sit still for photos: “My wife gets pictures only of where she was.”

                        … Everything happens now.
None of it hangs together except in thought.

But the poem manages to catch the granddaughter in flight, so the act of writing is at least partly redemptive: it defeats time. Writing about Philip Larkin, James observed that the quality of the work can overcome the sadness of the subject matter, and transmute despair into beauty. Now we can say the same thing about him.  

We can say it in italics about “The Falcon Growing Old” (2010), which might be the finest poem James has ever written. Published late last year, the poem already feels like a classic, a walk-up start for the anthologies. It is compact, streamlined, uncannily masterful. The opening stanza, which lays the basis for an extended analogy between ageing falcon and ageing writer, is close to perfect:

The falcon wears its erudition lightly
As it angles down towards its master’s glove.
Student of thermals written by the desert,
It scarcely moves a muscle as it rides
A silent avalanche back to the wrist
Where it will stand in wait like a hooded hostage.

I think we can lay to rest, around now, the argument about whether James is a great poet. A great poet is a poet who can write a stanza like that. “Scarcely moves a muscle” would be a cliché in almost any other context. In the context of evoking a bird in flight it is wholly unexpected, and a masterstroke. It crystallises the suggestion that flying, for the veteran bird, has become an effortless process: a matter of angling down, nonchalantly. Then, via that stunning phrase for the texture of the flown-through air (“a silent avalanche”), the falcon lands to pose for that terminal simile: “like a hooded hostage.” This is a startling enough image by itself, before it occurs to you what hooded hostages stand in wait for.  

In the next stanza the falcon’s fate is confirmed: the bird “will have its neck wrung”, and “one of its progeny will take its place.” But then the focus switches to the “ageing writer”: similarly “bound for the darkness”, but for the moment able to scorn doom, and gravity, by writing phrases that feel to him like acts of flight: 

Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless.

The comparison is magnificently sustained until the poem’s final lines, where the writer is still to be found riding the air, 

Correcting for the wobble in the lisp
Of sliding nothingness, the whispering road
That leads you to a dead-heat with your shadow
At the orange-blossom trellis in the oasis.

We know now that James, last year, came perilously close to merging with his own shadow. But that near-miss only sharpened a turn in his poetry that was already occurring. Mortality, and vanished time, had been much on his mind anyway; he was already working a rich, late-hit seam of meditative verse, and was already speaking with the intense clarity of a man writing against the clock. Turning seventy, and then nearly dying, have only made him attack the same seam more urgently. Slow down, you want to tell him. Recuperate. Rest on your laurels for a while. Then again, if there are more poems like “The Falcon Growing Old” around the corner, you don’t really want him to slow down just yet.  

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, May 2011)