The Australian poet and critic Clive James has just released two new books—a fine way to start a year when everyone thought you’d be dead. The title poem of his new poetry collection Sentenced to Life begins by locating its author, who was diagnosed with leukemia, lung disease, and kidney failure in 2010, in the strange limbo of a day he thought he’d never live to see:
Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run…
The passage echoes James’s recent translation of The Divine Comedy, where in the second Canto, Dante notes the gathering silence as he and Virgil approach the entrance to the afterlife:
The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of living things
Just as Dante’s narrator was sentenced to wander the underworld, refining his spirit and his craft, James has treated his recent years at death’s door as a visionary poetic struggle. The atmosphere, heavy with both anxiety and restfulness, suggested by the “darkening air” that brings “the working world of living things | To rest” characterizes Sentenced to Life from cover to cover. The double-meaning of “life sentence” shouldn’t be lost on his readers: James feels compelled to serve the time left by making it meaningful, one sentence at a time, even if this process feels as difficult as “wading through deep clay.”
This sentiment also dominates Poetry Notebook, his latest book of criticism. He introduces it by noting how the urgency of illness has relegated him to short pieces. To those of us used to his longer essays, this might seem like cause for disappointment, but James’s writing has always shined when compact, and there is enough critical bite in one page of Poetry Notebook to digest for days.
In his typical aphoristic style, James can sum up a whole critical argument in a single epithet. A highlight from the first few pages:
“…like abstract painting, abstract poetry can extend the range over which incompetence fail[s] to declare itself. That [is] the charm for its author.”
Or even more compressed and memorable:
“Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement.”
Clive James has survived a lot over the last five years, including an abundance of encouragement. His two latest releases reveal as much talent as ever. They are enough to make us hope his life sentence will last a good deal longer.