Sunday, 31 March 2019

It Ain't Over Yet

I am a great admirer of Clive James - Australian essayist and poet.  A few years ago I purchased his Collected Poems 1958-2015, a weighty 500+ page tome, and have enjoyed returning to this collection to admire his verse time and again. 

For the past six or seven years, James has been terminally ill with leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure. His 2015 collection Sentenced to Life was meant to contain his final works, featuring verse about his illness and his reflections on life, all with his razor-sharp wit and intellect. Despite the melancholy backdrop, these poems are full of life. A few of my favourites are 'Japanese Maple', 'Cabin Baggage' and 'Landfall'. Many speak to his illness and imminent death, such as the opening stanza of 'Japanese Maple':

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort. 
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain

While Sentenced to Life was expected to be the last collection of Clive James' verse, his illness was prolonged and he continues to make the most of his extra time. James continued writing poems and gathered his work together in the 2017 collection Injury Time. This collection is less sombre as James' health has improved (though the prognosis has not changed). It is almost as if he is using this extra time to score as many goals as he can - to get his affairs in order and say all he needs to say.

The collection begins with the 'Return of the Kogarah Kid' which is an 'inscription for a small bronze plaque at Dawes Point':

Here I began and here I reach the end.
From here my ashes go back to the sea
And take my memories of every friend
And love, and anything still dear to me

Thoughts of death appear again in James 'This coming winter' which begins:
This coming winter I will say goodbye - 
In case I do not live to see the spring - 
To all my loved ones one by one. That way,
Taking my time each time, I need not be 
Besieged at the last hour, with the fine thing
Eluding me that I wished to convey...

But it is not all doom and gloom, there is humour and wisdom throughout. My favourites in this collection 'The Rest is Silence', 'Finch Conference' about a gathering in his garden, 'Edith Piaf on YouTube' a reflection on love,  and the essay 'Letter to a Young Poet'.

Of the two collections, there is an urgency in Sentenced to Life which I feel makes it the more powerful. I sincerely hope that James continues to write and there may be more to come, but if Injury Time is his last, he has left us with a remarkable collection to remember him by.