I found myself moved by David Free’s defence of Clive James’s late poetry in this month’s Australian Literary Review. Free has performed a kind of literary biopsy, diagnosing the condition of James’s health as revealed in his recent poems:
Vertical Envelopment, published in December last year, revealed that James had been hospitalised twice during the preceding months, first with a serious bout of emphysema (“The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer”); and later, in New York, after being “felled” by a blood clot. The same poem makes a glancing but ominous reference to the poet’s “CLL / Leukaemia that might hold off for years”. Slow-moving as this form of the disease may be, it still sounds like something one would prefer not to have.
…and argues that these new reflections typify a more serious and personal phase in James’s work. The piece coincides with the official news that James is being treated for leukaemia—presumably the chronic lymphocytic leukaemia initialled in “Vertical Envelopment”, along with the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or “COPD / Which sounds as if it might star Dennis Franz / As Andy Sipowicz, but it turns out / To be the bug they once called emphysema”.
ALR editor Luke Slattery writes that it was Free’s essay that prompted him to contact James to inquire about the state of his health. It probably says something about the attention paid to poetry—maybe in general, maybe his in particular—that James’s leukaemia only became worldwide news in May, although “Vertical Envelopment” was published last November. You can’t assume that a poem is autobiographical or true, of course, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making this up—especially if you’ve been to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge:
Taking the piss out of my catheter,
The near-full plastic bag bulks on my calf
As I push my I.V. tower through Addenbrooke’s
Like an Airborne soldier heading for D-day
Down the longest corridor in England.
I was always a fan of James as a television personality, and was devoted to Clive James on Television and Saturday Night Clive through high school. People used to tell me I sounded like James when I’d hazard a sarcastic observation and it thrilled me, as if a tone or inflection were as good as an insight. I watched him with my Dad, who he reminded me of, and whose sense of humour I inherited in the usual way—first groaning at, and then stealing, all his jokes.
It was only here in Cambridge that I started to read James’s memoirs and his poetry. A lot of it is tinted with the experience of an Australian in England, and I suppose it suddenly seemed a lot more relevant to me. There are long passages of May Week was in June—one of the most perfect titles ever—that have helped me understand the place and even survive some of it. Like the joyless winters:
Your first academic year in Cambridge is so arranged that you must learn to appreciate your surroundings in winter, when the trees are waterlogged traceries and the buildings are doomy silhouettes between sky and fen. Captain Cousteau diving without lights saw more colour under a continental shelf than you will see in Cambridge between November and March. Also he kept relatively dry. So you either hang yourself from despair inside one of the venerable edifices or else learn to love them for their shape alone.
And it was one of James’s most recent poems, “Fashion Statement”, that warmed me, deep in this last winter, with its memories of the place I’d just left again:
I see it now, the truth of what we were
Back then when we were young and Sydney shone
Like a classic silver milk-shake canister
Trapping the sunlight in a cyclotron
Of dented brilliance.
This year I almost died.
I wonder whether this is the poem that set David Free on his search. “Vertical Envelopment” appeared in <a href="http://www.standpointonline.co you could check here.uk/node/3594″>Standpoint magazine and on James’s website, but “Fashion Statement” made the Times Literary Supplement and was probably the first really public announcement of his health problems. It certainly arrested me.
We live a few doors away from James’s Cambridge house, as we discovered from one of his letters to the TLS. We have the same “Front windows on a trimly English park”, if I’m reading “Castle in the Air” right. The first time I saw him—perhaps off on “the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive”, or else just to Sainsbury’s—was a private thrill but also something of a shock. He looked a bit reduced, a bit tired, he wasn’t smiling that crinkling, self-delighted smile. I thought it might just have been the twenty years since Saturday Night Clive, or the prospect of Sainsbury’s. Now I guess it probably wasn’t. I haven’t spoken to him. On Hallowe’en, in the early dusk between the neighbourhood trick-or-treaters, I almost told him I liked his Clive James mask. I’m glad I didn’t, now. But I wish I’d told him how much I’ve enjoyed and admired his work, throughout my life but never more than here and now. I hope I’ll get another chance.
Everyone agrees that James is a keen satirist and humorist, but there’s an ongoing argument over whether he’s a serious or significant poet. Guy Rundle argues in Crikey that it’s a kind of cultural cringe that keeps James’s poems in Australian literary pages. But the anti-James brigade must have its own cultural component as well: we save a particular vitriol for those who leave and don’t come back, especially if they dare to claim a continuing connection to, let alone authority over, the place that first formed them.
You might think David Free’s analysis of James’s late poetry shows the kind of accommodation you might expect for a man in poor health, but Free has been defending James’s serious writing for some time. I don’t know much about poetry, and a lot of good and terrible poetry seem pretty similar to me. I love “Fashion Statement” and many of the others; they are at the same time nimble and intensely focused. I find a few of them a bit chaotic in their allusions, and less intimate than my favourites. I also feel that Free might be working too hard to explain why the occasional clichés in James’s poetry aren’t really clichés. But I’m convinced by his argument that many of the lines in “The Falcon Growing Old” are all the evidence we need that James is a proper poet, writing here about writing:
Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless.
Get well soon, Clive.