All is not lost
September 1, 2018 3:12 AM   Subscribe

Clive James on his new epic poem: ‘The story of a mind heading into oblivion’

The opening verses of The River In The Sky

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 –
As when, before the merciful excision
Of my mist-generating cataracts,
The money-spiders dwindled in their webs
Between one iron spandrel and the next
On my flagstone verandah, each frail web
The intermittent image of a disc
That glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel
Still spinning when Camus gave up his life,
Out past the journey’s edge. Just such a dish,
Set off with dew-drops like pin-points of chrome,
Monopolises my attention here
In Cambridge as I sit wrapped in the quiet,
Stock still and planning my last strategies
For how I will employ these closing hours.
But no complaints. Simply because enforced,
This pause is valuable. Few people read
Poetry any more but I still wish
To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull
Of gathering: no less a harvest season
For being the last time. The same frail wheel
Could decorate my father’s clean white headstone
In the cemetery at Sai Wan Bay, Hong Kong:
One of my gateways to the infinite
First built when I was just a little child
And flew a silver Spitfire through the flowers –
Clumps of nasturtiums sopping with their perfume –
As if they were low-lying, coloured clouds
There in Jannali, in the summer heat.
Now, one last time, my fragile treasures link
Together in review.

In ancient days
Men in my job prepared for endless travel
Across the sea of stars, where Pharaoh sailed
To immortality, but now we know
This is no journey. A long, aching pause
Is all the voyage there will ever be.
Already it is not like life. I shan’t
Caress the hetaerae of Naukrates,
Only their images: paint on a wall,
Not vivid like a bowl of porphyry,
But pale, chipped, always fading. Here forgive me
When you come kindly visiting, as both
Our daughters do, for you three built the start
Of this tomb when you helped me weed my books
And then arrange the ones left, walls of colour
The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.
Rich shelves of them, these lustrous codices,
Are the first walls I see now in the morning
After the trek downstairs, though when I walk
On further, painfully, I see much more –
Boats in the windows, treasures on the terrace,
As if I weren’t just Pharaoh’s tomb designer
But the living god in the departure lounge
Surrounded by his glistering aftermath –
Yet everything began in these few thousand
Pages of print and plates. Books are the anchors
Left by the ships that rot away. The mud
The anchors lie in is one’s recollection
Of what life was, and never, late or soon,
Will be again.
posted by chavenet (11 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
What a voice. I'll miss him when he's gone and I'm glad he's still getting it out while he's here.
posted by h00py at 3:36 AM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

He has been 'live blogging' his impending death for a while now, and each 'post' gets more beautiful and touching...
posted by PhineasGage at 8:34 AM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

It’s wonderful that he’s still alive and working. Unfortunately I never thought his poetry was any good, and this doesn’t look like the work to change my mind. Write more essays and reviews, Clive.
posted by Segundus at 9:09 AM on September 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

A wise man who literally wrote the book on maybe the defining cultural sickness of the last century, and yeah we're still deep in it.
posted by philip-random at 9:21 AM on September 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

Forty years ago, he and Nancy Banks-Smith stole my heart, and I have lived with my inconstant mistress Journalism ever since.

I am preparing myself to forgive him.
posted by Devonian at 4:48 PM on September 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Can't say I thought this was particularly good poetry - "mist generating cataracts" is some clunker and the book fetishisation is something I'd expect from a content-light buzzfeed article - but I initially liked his Cultural Amnesia as a hits-just-more-than-it-misses scattershot history of trends in 20th century thought. It was disappointing then that it ended up being let down by some pretty fucking vicious racism against asylum seekers in Australia. Came seemingly out of left field during his potted bio of Chris Marker, which I guess is the side effect of an otherwise pleasingly rambly style.

It's shit to see a critic whose stuff was frequently decent literally compare folks defending asylum seekers' and immigrants' rights ("the intelligentsia, ever on the lookout for signs of intolerance") to Nazis, and white Australians to persecuted Jews in the years leading up the the holocaust. Dude used the exact same 'just asking questions' approach to child refugees that Trump's been using. Hard to not watch for signs of the same bullshit in his other work now.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 3:41 AM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]

I don't think that "mist generating cataracts" is a clunker of a line. It seems to me to set up a whole sequence of metaphors of images or life, pouring past, as if seen through a waterfall (a cataract), that culminates in the scene of the moments after Camus' death, which again seems to play powerfully on water imagery by invoking (not for the last time in this extract) Tennyson's Ulysses.

I also don't think that we're seeing a twee fetishization of books. Dude's talking about his children entombing him in books; that's some creepy shit as far as I'm concerned, and a million miles from "books furnish a room" and whatever other garbage you're thinking of.

I don't admire everything about James, but the guy can write a poem.
posted by howfar at 2:45 PM on September 2, 2018

(should add I don't mean what you think is garbage; opinions differ, especially about poems. Just mean that I think I know the sort of general detritus you're referring to.)
posted by howfar at 2:51 PM on September 2, 2018

That is good writing, but not very good poetry. Not BAD poetry, mind you, but meh. Very few lines have the kind of tension of straining against their boundaries that good poetry has. (It's also a bit rambly, but that is not uncommon these days.) By halfway through the extract I was starting to skim.

That "mist-generating cataracts" is a good anchor for a set of images, but the rhythm of the line clunks hard on those two initial hard stresses.
posted by Quasirandom at 10:29 AM on September 5, 2018

Very few lines have the kind of tension of straining against their boundaries that good poetry has.

I don't, personally, think that this is the most useful definition of "good poetry". It seems, to me, both overly narrow (in that there are plenty of good poems that work compliantly with their metre, and because almost any metrical choice can be justified in context) and unsatisfactorily vague, because it doesn't really indicate to people who find a poem metrically satisfying why others have a different view (so, the opening of this poem seems quite metrically interesting to me, because of the metrical ambiguity introduced by the initial trochee, and the way the first two lines each incorporate a three beat foot, which ultimately results in (a) the word "strength" falling at the weakly stressed end of a ten beat line, which is a subtle subversion of the metre, but a useful one, to my mind, because it creates a sense that the exhaustion of that strength is fitting and inevitable, but no less melancholy despite that; and (b) allows the metre to slowly pull into focus, reflecting the poem's slow focusing of images, which, in turn, reflects the opening lines' central metaphor of a failing vision struggling for clarity, without it being entirely clear when it is being achieved. I'm not trying to make a particular argument for the poem's quality by sketching that out, more trying to illustrate that reading of metre is as subjective as any other act of reading, and trying to explain why I am not keen on general statements criticising metrical qualities as critiques of poems).

Personally I don't have a problem with "of my mist generating cataracts" from a metrical point of view. Yes, the substitution of a spondee for a iamb in the second foot slows the line, but I don't think that's an accident: I think it works quite well to emphasise the sharpness of the short syllables in "...ting cataracts". It's not the greatest metrical device in history, and not enjoying it is entirely understandable, but I think it is an artistically justified choice that works closely with the other morphological aspects of the poem and with its meaning.

I think that the right technical decision for a poem is always dependent on the artistic aim of the poet. I don't think that good poetry is fundamentally any more dependent upon straining at boundaries than it is upon any other device, whether prosodic or semantic, and that the success of any one element can only be judged in terms of its function within the whole.
posted by howfar at 6:58 PM on September 5, 2018

So hard to figure out why more of the general public doesn't read poetry these days...
posted by PhineasGage at 10:03 PM on September 5, 2018

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