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Blake Morrison: A varied literary life

Clive James’ s previous book of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, published in 2012, was a wonderfully energetic volume. There were many crisply written, happy poems in it recalling episodes and scenes from his earlier life, especially as a young man in Australia. He brought to them the same ebullience that he had always had, not only as a writer but also as a highly literate showman.

His new collection is very different. In 2012, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and kidney failure, and in the new poems the ebullience has metamorphosed into a grim determination to describe his life as it has been since then. He writes of the position he has to sleep in “lest I should cough the night away”, the effort it takes him to “file away at some reluctant line” of a poem he is writing.  But he also speaks of the things he does to help himself feel alive still. He watches the goldfish swimming in his daughter’s pond:

. . . never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories as perfect as plain song.
Memories can also comfort him still. He remembers a harbour ferry-boat that he loved, with its livery of green and gold, and how, like his own mind once, its
complicated workings clicked and throbbed
And everything moved forward at full strength.

Above all, he works at poems, most of them in easy, steady iambic pentameters with deft rhymes—and even when these sometimes seem more tired, in an ironic way that helps to remind us of the labour he has had to put into them.

There is one poem in particular that draws together beautifully both the pleasure of memory and his present sorry state. This is “Tempe Dump”, about a rubbish dump, full of shiny piston rings, that he and his gang explored as a boy. The dump was smouldering beneath, and that fire, says James, is the fire that is still within him:

The slow burn of what should be finished with
But waits for the clean sweep that never comes.
There are also a few poems in the book that get right away from his illness. One is about a visit to Kenya on which he encountered a herd of elephants threatening to charge at him, and he says, with a fine touch of his old jokiness:

I know I sound
Like Falstaff telling Hal how many thieves
He put to flight, but really there were fifty
Elephant tightly packed and churning around . . .
Another poem that takes him far away from his own situation is about Syrian President Assad’s wife, Asma, and how he doted on her—but now his blood curdles as he imagines her “unpacking her pretty clothes”.

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