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5 August 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:58pm

Two new poems by Clive James

The author, critic and broadcaster writes two new poems - “Nature Programme” and “The Emperor’s Last Words” - exclusively for the New Statesman.

By Clive James

Nature Programme

The female panda is on heat
For about five minutes a year
And the male, no sprinter at the best of times,
Hardly ever gets there
Before she cools off again.
 
In the South Island of New Zealand
There is a rain forest
With penguins in it.
They trot along the dangerous trails
Towards the booming ocean
 
Where albatross chicks in training
For their very first take-off
Are snatched by tiger sharks
Cruising in water
No deeper than your thighs.
 
Doomed to the atrophy of lust,
Lurching with their flippers out,
Dragged under as they strain for flight,
They could be you:
Wonder of nature that you were.
 
 

The Emperor’s Last Words

An army that never leaves its defences
Is bound to be defeated, said Napoleon,
Who left them, and was defeated.
And thus I gather my remaining senses
For the walk, or limp, to town
Where I have a haircut and visit
The Oxfam bookshop near the bridge.
 
Only a day out of Addenbrooke’s
Where another bout of pneumonia
Damned near nailed me,
I walk slowly now, sitting on low brick walls.
But the haircut is successful,
Completing my resemblance to Buzz Aldrin
On the surface of Jupiter,
 
And in the bookshop I get, for my niece,
The Penguin Book of English Verse
(John Hayward’s excellent anthology)
And the old, neat, thin-paper OUP edition
Of the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation
Of War and Peace, so handy for the pocket.
 
Still in her teens, already reading everything,
She wants to be a writer, and when she visits me
She gets a useful lesson
On how a writer can end up.
But things could have been worse:
I could have been married to Laura Riding,
Whose collected poems I purchase for myself.
Have twenty years of death improved her verses?
 
No, still stridently incomprehensible, befitting
The way she won an argument with Robert Graves
By throwing herself backwards from a window:
A token, no doubt, of an artistic commitment
The purity of whose achievements was proved
By being intelligible to nobody at all
Except her fellow fruit-cakes.
 
Well, she sure left her defences.
Almost everyone wants to be a writer.
My niece, however, has got the knack:
That feeling for a sentence, you can’t mistake it.
The only question is how far you will go,
Even walking ever so slowly,
Away from your fortress. All the way to Russia?
 
But Tolstoy, himself an awful husband,
Waits to make a midget of your memory.
You escaped from Elba
But not from St Helena.
Had you stayed in Corsica
None of this would have happened.
But you left, and now every nut ward in the world
Has one of you at least.
 
The Maudes were married more than fifty years.
In two days’ time, the Tour de France
Will go past here
Where I now sit to gather strength
For my retreat from this hot sun.
It’s time to go. High time to go. High time.
France, army, head of the army, Joséphine. 
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