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31 July 2019

The Floral Clock

By Clive James

The winter bowed out through a luke-warm week
And now the deal is sealed with this spring snow,
Cold only in the way fluff cloaked the creek
In that Kentucky canyon years ago:
A lavish swansdown stole, but there below
Melt-water burbled while guitars rang clean
As banjos, sugar-sweet or fighting mean.

It must be thirty years since I was there,
Breathing that music while men tapped their feet
On a floor that shook. I learned what women wear
In heaven, saw their skirts swirl on the beat,
The skip of strappy shoes. My, they looked neat.
I ask you, did those girls not burn as bright
As sprigs of dogwood brought in from the night?

The dogwood was in bloom and still won’t die
In my mind, which looks back along a blaze
Of mirrors like that great hall in Versailles.
Most of the permanence in these last days
Of my life, of an orbit that decays,
Is merely memory, but still holds fast
Precisely for its roots in the far past.

Here in my garden the camellias
Blossomed too recently to be evoked
Save with an effort. They are gone like stars
Into the early dawn. Each bloom was stoked
With pink brushed silk. They simpered as if stroked
With pride at being lovely. Then the day
Arrived when somehow they had gone away.

High time to cherish my long memories
Of frangipani next to our back door
At home. My mother briskly waved the bees
Aside to clip the flowers. After the war
Each year our little cross was propped before
The granite obelisk up on the hill
As if our tortured Lord were wept for still.

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He was, he was, but tears had turned to blooms:
White blooms with starry hearts of molten gold.
Back at our house our cool dark dining-room’s
Oak sideboard, prized because it looked so old,
Held its own bowl of petals whose each fold
Dripped wealth to mark the time of his return,
Which would be never. Would they never learn?

All flowers are water-clocks. They tell the time.
Only the first we see are always there.
When I was small the death-defying climb
Of honeysuckle up into clear air
Tempted my mouth. I taste it now. I share
Those aspirations. Give me the sweet sky
To hunger for as I prepare to die,

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And I, too, might be led to make a show
Of striving heavenward. A pigeon’s beak
That punches tiny holes in the fresh snow
Has no more strength, but though I grow so weak
I can no longer see, the flowers will speak
Their language, which is time made visible.
It thrilled me from the start. It thrills me still.

From the 2 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, this was Clive James’ last published poem. He died on 24 November 2019, aged 80.