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Into oblivion

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

6 April 2019

9:00 AM

The River in the Sky Clive James

Pan macmillan, pp.112, $32.99

Moribund for about nine years now, Clive James has released his newest transcription of the Grim Reaper’s call. You might be forgiven for thinking that his recent output resembles John Farnham’s Farwell Tour, and indeed much of The River in the Sky will be familiar to those who can’t stop reading work by the man who can’t stop writing about himself. He wrote about his Epicurean materialism in earlier poems such as Lucretius the Diver and Star System, and the various anecdotes included – like the one about Thelonius Monk being so high while playing he not only missed chords but the piano – first appeared in his earlier work.

What’s different about The River in the Sky, however, is that it lacks the formalism of his other poems, even those published soon before it like Season to Season and Holes in the Water. In this ‘epic’, James has collected the tesserae of his memories, shoved them in a sack, swung them around and then spilled them on the page. The result isn’t a beautiful mosaic: memories of Robert Browning sit next to one of an ice-cream man, which sits next to one of Ava Gardner, which sits next to one of Grace Kelly, which sits next to one of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, which sits next to one of – but you get the idea. It’s tiring. I’ve only recounted two pages; if you tried reading the whole thing in one go you might start croaking for the end James keeps referring to. He’s deliberately made it hard for the reader to make any connections: he’s dispensed with the usual joints of regular stanzas, metrical unity, and rhyme. Even his punctuation eschews connection: recounting how he and a friend tried to find Thelonius Monk after a show, he writes ‘Monk thought we were the cops. He disappeared.’ A colon or even a semi-colon would have told you that Monk fled because he was afraid of the cops; a full-stop makes you infer it. This is unusual: like a fastidious housekeeper, James never makes you work. He is one of the few modern poets who can write long periodic sentences in verse without getting caught in his own syntax. And he does it so well. I mentioned his poem Star System before because it shows you his effortless filigrees:

The stars in their magnificent array

Look down upon the Earth, their cynosure,

Or so it seems. They are too far away,

In fact, to see a thing; hence they look pure

To us. They lack the textures of our globe,

So only we, from cameras carried high,

Enjoy the beauty of the swirling robe

That wraps us up, the interplay of sky

And cloud, as if a Wedgwood plate of blue

And white should melt, and then, its surface stirred

With spoons, a treasure too good to be true,

Be placed, and hover like a hummingbird,

Drawing all eyes, though ours alone, to feast

On splendour as it turns west from the east.

In this sonnet-stanza you don’t even realise that the third sentence is ten lines long and rhymes all the way through. In contrast, here’s a typical stanza from The River in the Sky:

In Catalina Park, the pool at Leura,

Where the swan-white flying boat awaited

The next old-fashioned war

I swam on my back and look up through

Gun blisters as the sunlight burst

On the empty Perspex

And now those haloed constellations

Blaze at the basis of my memories

Of Schloss Liliencron,

The sparkling rococo plaster swirls

Of Petrodvoretz,

The shimmer at Sirmione

Where thigh-deep you waded like a nymph

As if Catullus, writing, watched you wade,

– Steve Greenblatt in Cambridge

On night I first directed the Pembroke Smoker

Said, ‘My God, she’s beautiful’  –

And I think now, as my life begins to leave me,

Of the many times I saw that beauty

If only as an echo

Like the pearl farms on the Bay of Toba

Where the sun dissolved the water

Into sheets of silver milk;

A floor of light for the dawn’s dancing


In his essay The Metropolitan Critic, James said that Edmund Wilson ‘never has to strive towards perspicuity, since he is never tempted even momentarily to abandon it. And in more than fifty years of activity he has put up such a consistent show of knowing what he means – and of writing it down so that it may be readily understood – that he has invited underestimation.’ You could say the same of James himself, whose poems are admirably clear in an age when obscurity is praised like stigmata; his name is synonymous with clarity and form. Despite snatches of blank verse and a three-sonnet sequence near the end, there’s none of that here. What gives?

James said that his epic poem is ‘the story of a mind heading into oblivion.’ Superficially that seems to be the case, especially if you compare it to his earlier poetry. But the book this most resembles is his collection of essays Cultural Amnesia, which has no unifying concept but has recurrent themes if you read it cover-to-cover ten times over, as I did. In The River in the Sky James mentions ‘a lust for finding form in the unknown.’ Later, in a passage of blank verse, the German-American architect Mies says to James:

Your task, while you are here, will be to find,

The rationale that underpins a show

Of chaos. It exists, you may be sure.

So when, towards the end of the poem, James writes ‘We are dying, Egypt, dying – but from bewilderment’ you should be suspicious. This line alone alludes to Shakespeare, MacNeice, and Eliot, and the cultural allusions in The River in the Sky multiply like cells. But a mind that remembers so much can’t be close to oblivion: memory and tradition preclude it. Here’s James again on Edmund Wilson: ‘Remembering is one of the many duties the literary chronicles perform: not so spectacular a duty as discovering, but equally important.’

Remembering is not only a process of preservation but also one of production; memory is, after all, the mother of the muses. The author of five volumes of memoirs, James knows that discovery is impossible without memory. Keep remembering, Clive. Keep discovering.


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