Sunday 24 March 2019

Clive James - restless but blessed

Winter Plums

Clive James
Clive James

Niall MacMonagle

Though growing old and dying are as natural as evening fading into night, Dylan Thomas urges us to "Rage, rage against the dying of the light". But for Clive James, pictured, now 75 and terminally ill with leukaemia, there is no rage. Raconteur, critic, polyglot, novelist, man of letters, man of the world, James, author of over thirty books, has lived the life and now at journey's end he sees himself as restless but blessed.

The poems in his new collection, Sentenced to Life Poems 2011-2014, written in extra time, tell of how he can still "talk the talk but cannot walk the walk". Once "I packed a hold-all and went anywhere" now he sees "the shell/ Of what I was" and, confined to home, he cherishes the Japanese anemones, the fish pond, the maple tree outside his window. "I see things with a whole new emphasis"; he not only remembers his Australian boyhood, movies, books, figures from history but he "enumerates my wrongs", tells of "my sin was to be faithless", the lies he told, his absence from home with regretful honesty. Now the predominant mood is gratitude.

Opting for formal structures - the sonnet, end-rhyming stanzas - allows James to shape and convey what should be a crisis, a frightening situation - pills, blood tests, X-rays, scans - with calm control. He sees death as going "where no one will remember you" but James will be remembered for these courageous and clear-sighted "funeral songs"; he claims not to know "how/To say exactly what is in my heart" but in these poems written in shadow, he does. Movingly and admirably.

Winter Plums

Two winter plum trees grow beside my door.

Throughout the cold months they had little pink

Flowers all over them as if they wore

Nightdresses, and their branches, black as ink

By sunset, looked as if a Japanese

Painter, while painting air, had painted these

Two winter plum trees. Summer now at last

Has warmed their leaves and all the blooms are gone.

A year that I might not have had has passed.

Bare branches are my signal to go on,

But soon the brave flowers of the winter plums

Will flare again, and I must take what comes:

Two winter plum trees that will outlive me.

Thriving with colour even in the snow,

They'll snatch a triumph from adversity.

All right for them, but can the same be so

For someone who, seeing their buds remade

From nothing, will be less pleased than afraid?


From Sentenced to Life by Clive James, published by Picador Hardback

Available with free P&P on

Sunday Indo Living

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top