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16 April 2015updated 25 Jul 2021 6:14am

We are stardust: the restrained elegance of Clive James’s Sentenced to Life

"The world you quit / Is staying here, so say goodbye to it."

By John Burnside

Sentenced to Life
Clive James
Picador, 60pp, £14.99

At first glance, it would seem inevitable that a book whose main concern is with the author’s old age, illness and proximity to death might be mildly depressing. Poets from Catullus to Milton to Ted Hughes have elegised others wonderfully, but when they turn that gift on themselves, the danger of self-pity, in particular, becomes all too clear and the reader is tempted to look away.

All of which makes Sentenced to Life a brave and risky book, and by the time we reach “Compendium Catullianum”, whose opening line gleefully combines Catullus’s best-known Lesbia poem with the Monty Python dead parrot sketch – “My girlfriend’s sparrow is dead. It is an ex-sparrow” – we know that Clive James’s trademark wit will more than carry him through. Indeed, with its mixture of technical verve (James has always been a master of form) and self-deprecating wit to leaven the pathos, it seems that, as he moves through the phases of life’s penultimate stage (the final stage being death itself), he has reached the pinnacle of his powers.

If not classic Kübler-Ross, Sentenced to Life does move through stages, from an initial concern with failure and sin in life (references to sins, follies, guilt and betrayal crop up frequently in the first half of the book) to a marvellous, hard-won assertion of continuity in the last several poems, especially the beautiful “Japanese Maple”:

My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:

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What makes this so effective is the way James uses short, declarative sentences in the first three and a half lines, then moves on into something more discursive, a flight that the previous lines have earned:

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colours will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

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On the way to this partial acceptance of mortality – naturally, James avoids any glib sense of closure in the book – the dying poet comes to see that “Just for a time, so little means so much:/More than I’m worth, I know, as I know how/My death is something I must live with now.” This knowledge emerges after James has come through what might approximate to the denial stage in the Kübler-Ross sequence: a series of poems about a third of the way in to the book which digress into humorous, sometimes slightly surreal anecdotes about the doomed gangster Bugsy Siegel, Gabriele D’Annunzio and “Denis Zafiro, Last of the Great White Hunters –/Reduced now, a fact worth blessing, to the role of guide –”, about whom the best that can be said is that “it’s never wise to argue/With a man who actually knew Ava Gardner” (as opposed, presumably, to the narrator of the Bugsy Siegel story, a waiter at the Nacional in Havana who “had built a long career/Out of once having slept with Ava Gardner”). “Plot Points” is particularly digressive, ranging from the tale of the dead hippo found at Berlin Zoo after the war with an unexploded mortar sticking out of its side to Alan Turing’s suicide by cyanide-apple, yet there is no hiding that these sidewinding stories all centre on mortality and transience.

The turning point that takes James into the last phase of acceptance is the beautiful – and highly risky – “Star System”. It would have been so easy for this poem to have fallen flat on its face and so brought the entire edifice down with it, but James slips deftly past that kind of sentimentality, partly through sheer command of form and partly because he knows that, although we may be “stardust”, as the Woodstock lyric has it, that doesn’t mean we are, ipso facto, “golden”. His own version of our history in space speaks of how “our young men/Walked plumply on the moon and saw Earth rise” (that “plumply” is delicious) before moving on to our cosmic origins:

. . . By luck, by fate, by chance,
All of the elements that form the world
Were sent by cataclysms deep in space,
And from their combination life unfurled
And stood up straight, and wore a human face.

The poem ends, not with an easy optimism, but with a resignation in the face of mortality, which cannot, finally, be avoided. Yet this graceful and formally achieved resignation is exactly what makes the poem so poignant, because we know, even this far along, that if death could be avoided the speaker would take the offer. Only by passing through this stage can the poet move on to the idea of a continuity that transcends the self – of what James P Carse calls the “one infinite game”. “Transit Visa” embodies this transition. Compared even to “Japanese Maple” or the wonderfully poignant “Driftwood Houses” (one of several pieces first published in the New Statesman) it may be the collection’s most affecting piece.

Here, the poet allows himself one backward glance to “Star System” before moving to a hushed, stoical conclusion:

. . . That radiance
Is not a way of saying this will pass:
It says this will remain. No play of chance
From now on includes you. The worldyou quit
Is staying here, so say goodbye to it.

By this stage, it would be hard to imagine a more elegant and restrained farewell.