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At New York Times Dwight Garner Reviews New Clive James Collection

By Harriet Staff

Clive-James

When Clive James learned that he had terminal leukemia, in 2010, he began a “vivifying late-career tear,” as Dwight Garner writes in his New York Times review of James’s most recent collection of poems, Sentenced to Life. “It’s a harrowing collection, gravid with meaning, unflinching in its appraisal of the author’s mistakes, including infidelity, and plain-spoken in its reckoning with his life’s terminus.” More, from the beginning:

Since 2010, when the brilliant Australian critic, poet and memoirist Clive James learned he had terminal leukemia, he’s had his afterburners flipped on. He has been on a vivifying late-career tear.

During this time he’s released six books: poems, essay collections, even a warm and approachable full-dress translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” At 76, the polymathic Mr. James is burning out, not fading away.

There isn’t yet a perfect anthology of Mr. James’s best work, although compilations like “As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002” are very good. A true “Portable Clive” would be an essential book, panoramic in scope. It would include excerpts from his memoirs and a dense lot of his poems. It would contain a great deal of his intellectual journalism for publications in England, where he has lived most of his adult life: television criticism, travel writing and prose about obsessions like Formula One racing and the tango as well as pronouncements on literary subjects. I’m not alone in scanning the horizon for it.

His new volume of poems, “Sentenced to Life,” feels like the most important of his late books. It’s a harrowing collection, gravid with meaning, unflinching in its appraisal of the author’s mistakes, including infidelity, and plain-spoken in its reckoning with his life’s terminus.

Many of this book’s 37 poems feel built to last, including “Lecons de tenebres” — lessons of darkness — in which Mr. James seems to speak not merely for himself but for so many who have allowed career and ego to fizz too freely at the front in their minds. This poem includes these lines:

The mirror holds the ruins of my face
Roughly together, thus reminding me
I should have played it straight in every case,
Not just when forced to. Far too casually
I broke faith when it suited me, and here
I am alone, and now the end is near.
All my life I put my labour first.
I made my mark, but left no time between
The things achieved, so, at my heedless worst,
With no life, there was nothing I could mean.

This poem ends with the poet sensing what “the years have brought/A fitting end, if not the one I sought.”

This would not be a Clive James book if it were not also replete with offbeat humor and flyaway cultural observations. In one poem, while in a hospital, he catches a Sylvester Stallone movie on television and comments, “No-one grits/Like Sly: it looks like a piano sneering.”

Continue at The New York Times.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, January 15th, 2016 by Harriet Staff.