Clive James’s series of memoirs began in 1980 with the Unreliable one. Thirty-five years and four more very funny books later, the Five Lives of Clive have been rounded with a sixth: a slim volume of poems. It is probably also the most reliable, as if, paradoxically, James took more poetic licence when working in prose. The prevailing tone is a long way from the hilarious self-deprecation of the memoirs. Of course, the knowledge that one is to die tomorrow – or at best next year – concentrates the mind. That impending death, and the guilts and regrets that accompany it, belong to the category of what James calls ‘deeper considerations’ in his recent (and indispensable) collection of essays, Poetry Notebook (2014).
The constraints of formal verse also help concentrate the mind, and James is a fine formalist. Witness his recent 500-page translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2013). Or just read the first page in his new book, and the title poem it carries: ‘Sentenced to Life’. The pivot of this poem, as it moves from a mood of penance to memories of his homeland, is the two beautiful central stanzas:
My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish, each a little finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.