These beautiful poems are proof that Clive James has made good use of the extra time he has been allotted.
Clive James' Injury Time.
More than five years ago, Clive James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia and he has lived in the shadow of death ever since, greatly surprised by his ongoing survival. Three years ago, he released an acclaimed book of poems under the title Sentenced to Life, a book he thought would be his final publication. And now we have what may, or may not, be his final work: Injury Time. This is a singularly apt title as James makes good use of the extra time he has been allotted.
In the poem 'This Coming Winter’, which brings tears to the eyes, James talks about excluding his granddaughter from his final farewells to family and friends. With a winking reference to Fawlty Towers, he says this is not from fear of hurting her but because he would like to keep her thinking that in some way he is still there when she laughs:
Of my book will turn soon, and it might be
The last, but I would want my death to mean
No more to her than our shared sense of doom
When Basil takes charge of the dining room.'
Many of the poems are about life and death, as is 'Declaration of Intent' where James writes, 'My poem sings of life. Though death is also there'. But he is never maudlin; instead, threads of hope, joy and the love of life permeate his work although thoughts of death are never far away.
James's love of music, which he says he came to late in life, also motivates his work, as in the poem about Beethoven, 'The Rest is Silence'. Comprised of seven parts to mirror Beethoven's 'greatest quartet’, it is a tribute to a man who produced some of the greatest music of all time while deaf, sick and dying.
In 'Imminent Catastrophe’, James appears at first to be on the side of the climate-change deniers. That attitude seems strange for a man as well travelled and well informed as James. It becomes clear, however, that his view is that for the sceptics there is no world once they themselves cease to exist.
At times it is useful to ascribe a ranking to certain things to signal merit or attractiveness, like the star system that appears at the end of reviews like this one. But it is usually wise to take such rankings with a pinch of salt. Having said that, each of the poems in this collection deserves a very high ranking, but depending on the mood and inclination of the reader, some poems may resonate more than others. Because of the evident pleasure James takes in reliving his youth, one of my favourites is the nostalgic 'Photo File’, in which James describes early photographs of himself, including one as a young and vigorous man with 'hair showing the gleam of Brylcreem'.
This book concludes with a few pages of prose in the form of a 'Letter to a Young Poet'. James avers that 'nobody who isn't neurotically driven should be in the game . . . so we can safely assume you are writing poetry because you must'. We can only be grateful that this drive for poetic expression has not deserted James as he heads, hopefully slowly, towards the inevitable.
5 stars ★★★★★
By Clive James
6 September 2018
First published on