Still Alive, Last Time We Heard

Two poets on the pleasure of memory

Derwent May

Clive James’ s previous book of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, published in 2012, was a wonderfully energetic volume. There were many crisply written, happy poems in it recalling episodes and scenes from his earlier life, especially as a young man in Australia. He brought to them the same ebullience that he had always had, not only as a writer but also as a highly literate showman.

His new collection is very different. In 2012, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and kidney failure, and in the new poems the ebullience has metamorphosed into a grim determination to describe his life as it has been since then. He writes of the position he has to sleep in “lest I should cough the night away”, the effort it takes him to “file away at some reluctant line” of a poem he is writing.  But he also speaks of the things he does to help himself feel alive still. He watches the goldfish swimming in his daughter’s pond:

. . . never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.

Memories can also comfort him still. He remembers a harbour ferry-boat that he loved, with its livery of green and gold, and how, like his own mind once, its

complicated workings clicked and throbbed
And everything moved forward at full strength.

Above all, he works at poems, most of them in easy, steady iambic pentameters with deft rhymes—and even when these sometimes seem more tired, in an ironic way that helps to remind us of the labour he has had to put into them.

There is one poem in particular that draws together beautifully both the pleasure of memory and his present sorry state. This is “Tempe Dump”, about a rubbish dump, full of shiny piston rings, that he and his gang explored as a boy. The dump was smouldering beneath, and that fire, says James, is the fire that is still within him:

The slow burn of what should be finished with
But waits for the clean sweep that never comes.

There are also a few poems in the book that get right away from his illness. One is about a visit to Kenya on which he encountered a herd of elephants threatening to charge at him, and he says, with a fine touch of his old jokiness:

I know I sound
Like Falstaff telling Hal how many thieves
He put to flight, but really there were fifty
Elephant tightly packed and churning around . . .

Another poem that takes him far away from his own situation is about Syrian President Assad’s wife, Asma, and how he doted on her—but now his blood curdles as he imagines her “unpacking her pretty clothes”.

But the prevailing note in these poems, which I have not yet mentioned, is his feeling of guilt. It is evidently about his infidelities to his wife, to whom he more than once appeals, and it makes the poems still more painful. It is something that is clearly hard for him to deal with, and he repeatedly mentions it, without saying much more about it. So it somehow sticks out like a spike in the poems.
When I reviewed James’s previous book here, I quoted some lines W.B. Yeats wrote about his own life:

I am content to live it all again . . .
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

At that time, it was the contentment in living it all again that I was putting the emphasis on, and I was rejoicing in James’s ability to do that. But now I feel like quoting the lines again with a different purpose—and putting the emphasis now on “forgive myself the lot!” I would like to urge James, in this last phase of his life, to do just that.

Blake Morrison began as a poet 30 years ago, but has had a very varied literary life since then. Now he has started writing poems again, many of them about that strange stretch of the Suffolk coast where the sea has for many years been encroaching. In the longest poem here, “The Ballad of Shingle Street” (a real place), he walks cheerfully along the beach, letting his eyes and mind fly about in all directions. Shingle Street is a row of shacks, a wrecking ground, “a bay, a bar, a strip, a trap”. The stones are warm “like aga lids”, but deeper down they are wet and cold:

The oven tops are just a cheat.
Beware the tricks of Shingle Street.

The ballad skips along in this jokey-sinister way, rhyming wildly, all short lines and short words, some more for euphony than for much sense—“A beach, a bitch, a crypt, a con.” It is a good, fresh performance to make a comeback with, if a very light one.

Other poems are like imaginative spray sent up by it. In “Covehithe”, the cliffs are being worn away by the sea, and Morrison blames the buried drowned, who want to get back to it but cannot, and so entice it to come to them. He creates fancies to please women—he tells a girl who has been lying on the beach with him that the pebbles stuck in a row on her back are medals for bravery.

A poem called “Happiness” is more subtle. It quotes Thomas Hardy, who said that happiness was “but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain”, and goes on to tease him by giving as an example of happiness “a breeze flicking through The Mayor of Casterbridge” in a garden under cloudless skies. The last line of that poem strikes an unexpected deeper note by giving, as a culminating example of happiness, “Everyone you love still alive, last time you heard.” As Morrison resumes the craft, shall we hear more of that note?

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