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Against Gregariousness

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Facing the wind, the hovering stormy petrels
Tap-dance on the water.
They pluck the tuna hatchlings
As Pavlova, had she been in a tearing hurry,
Might once have picked up pearls
From a broken necklace.

Yellowfin drive the turbine of sardines
Up near the surface so the diving shearwaters
Can fly down through the bubbles and get at them.
Birds from above and big fish from below
Rip at the pack until it comes apart
Like Poland, with survivors in single figures.

The krill, as singletons almost not there
But en masse like a cloud of diamond dust
Against the sunlit flood of their ballroom ceiling,
Are scooped up by the basking shark’s dragline
Or sucked in through the whale’s drapes of baleen—
A galaxy absorbed into a boudoir
And nullified, a deep-space mass extinction
Watched only by the Hubble telescope.

Make your bones in a shark family if you can.
If not, be tricky to locate for sheer
Translucence, a slick blip that will become—
Beyond the daisycutter beaks and jaws—
A lobster fortified with jutting eaves
Of glazed tile, like the castle at Nagoya
Hoisted around by jacks and cranes, an awkward
Mouthful like a crushed car. That being done,
Crawl backwards down a hole and don’t come out.


Source: Poetry (March 2011)
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Against Gregariousness

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  • Critic, author, poet, and lyricist Clive James was born in Sydney, Australia, and educated at Sydney University and Cambridge University.
    James is the author of several collections of poetry, including Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008, Angels over Elsinore: Collected Verse 20032008, and the satirical verse epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World: A Tragedy in Heroic Couplets (1974). James’s assured, formal poems range in theme from romantic love to satire, and are composed in a wry voice reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s. Reviewing Opal Sunset, Village Voice critic Abigail Deutsch noted, “James’s artistry lies in his ability to seem both casual and careful: He observes an imperfect world with acerbic off-handedness, often setting his informal voice within formal verse.”
    As “The Metropolitan Critic,” James anonymously contributed a regular column to the Times Literary Supplement. His weekly television review column for The Observer, which ran from 1972 to 1982, has been...

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