Clive James’s River in the Sky

Clive James, The River in the Sky (Picador 2018)

This book-length poem is part of the extraordinary wealth of writing published by Clive James between discovering he was terminally ill early in the decade just finished and his death in November last year.*

Though awareness of his impending, even imminent mortality is there in all the bits of this huge output that I’ve read, The River in the Sky sets out to tackle it head on, beginning:

All is not lost, despite the quietness
that comes like nightfall now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing my eyes a task

The ancient Egyptians prepared for a journey after death, equipped by their mourning survivors with food and drink and other necessities. But, James says, ‘now we know This is no journey.’ He imagines the room where he lives in his final illness as a tomb lovingly prepared by his wife and daughters, and this poem as the equivalent of a Pharaoh’s journey to the sky. This journey moves in a different different: rather then onwards beyond death, it wanders back over the poet’s life.

That is to say, this is not a systematic autobiography, or a summing up, but it flits from one memory, or dream-like mix-up of memories, to another:

In sunken cities of the memory
Mud-brick, dissolved in time,
Leaves nothing but the carved, cut stones
And scraps of the ceramics.
Time, it is thereby proven, is the sea
Whose artefacts are joined by separateness.

The death of his father in war when James was very young features large. There’s an extended sequence in which he visits Sydney’s Luna Park and various functionaries turn into school teachers and others from his young life. He speaks passionately and appreciatively to his wife and daughters, tells of the death of friends, and recalls moments from his life as a writer and TV personality, as well as bits from movies, music, the history of art, and lovingly realised memories of his native Sydney. The blank verse of the opening pages gives way to less stately verse, but the poetry never loses its sense of decorum.

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which prove now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die.

All the same I was reminded of something a much loved relative of mine said when his death was imminent. His wife told him that he should curb his irritability and stop yelling at his five children because he wouldn’t want to burden them with guilt and resentment in their final memories of him. He may well have followed her advice, but his immediate response was, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ So Clive James, who once presented himself on TV as a balding, overweight would-be Lothario, and was always ready to show off his formidable cultural knowledge and opinionatedness, seems to ask, ‘What do you want me to do? Change?’ In the shadow of death, he doesn’t take on a bogus solemnity. He name-drops shamelessly, humble-brags, and is slightly sleazy, but then surprises with a wonderful phrase. For example:

On the flight from Singapore
Straight down to Perth
When Elle Macpherson
Crossed the aisle to sit beside me
The impact of her beauty
Was exactly like
A mugging from a naiad.
Fame has its privileges
And most of those are drawbacks
But now and the you get to breathe
The aura of the angel –
Occasionally you're dazzled by
The rising of the sun
In the sulphur crest of the white cockatoo.

(To be clear, it’s not the mugging from a naiad that surprises me.)

It’s a lovely, gracious, sometimes silly, often erudite, in parts passionate, always lucid poem. There’s a Japanese tradition of ‘death poems’ – poems that monks write in the hope that they will die with the brush still in their hands. This isn’t exactly a death poem in that sense, but it’s in the same paddock. Reading it so soon after the poet’s actual death, it’s impossible not to be moved by its vitality, and – odd word to come to mind – it’s cheerfulness.


* According to Wikipedia (as at 31 December 2019), between June 2012 and his death in November 2019, he published: a weekly column for the Guardian, ‘Reports of my Death …’ (until June 2017); five collections of essays, including Play All (my blogpost here) and Poetry Notes 2006–2014 (my blogpost here); two book-length poems, of which The River in the Sky is one; four poetry collections, including the mammoth Collected Poems 1958–2015; his translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (my blog posts here, here and here); and seven poems that haven’t been collected. He also continued ‘augmenting’ his website, https://www.clivejames.com

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