Clive James: Ageless enthusiasm
Clive James's new poems are full of the feeling of growing old. But they are different from most of the poems of which that can be said. The dominating note is struck in a line in the first poem in the book, addressed to a lover he has known for 40 years. "Time was more friend to us than enemy," James tells her. He is not going to sigh and mourn. That is not the sort of thing he does. He looks at his past, is glad of it, recreates it and even finds it better than he thought it was.
One of the many excellent poems here, "Fashion Statement" recalls his life as a young man in Sydney. Although he and his poet friends wore army surplus khaki and "the first T-shirts", he sees now that they were extraordinary dandies — not in their dress, but in their words:
To see the harbour glittering in the sun
Like fields of diamonds and the squall arrive
Across the water sudden as a gun
Was bound to bring the optic nerve alive
Searching for words, and we who wrote them down
Might not have looked it, but we owned the town
For nothing rules like easy eloquence...
He rejoices now in the thought of what they were, even though they did not realise it: "We were dandies. We just did not see it then." Moreover, he still has that "easy eloquence", and uses it now to bring the whole harbour scene to life again.
Another splendid poem, "Book Review", is addressed to Prue Shaw, who edited Dante's Latin tract, De Monarchia, from the manuscripts, and spent 20 years on it. With a deft, joky touch he begins:
If Dante waited seven centuries
To see his Latin tract receive such care
He can't complain...
then soars into a kind of awed, classical eloquence: her work was
Pursued through busy days in precious hours,
Pored over word by word and line by line
Year after year with concentrated powers
Of selfless duty to the grand design...