Sentenced to Life
by Clive James. Published by Picador, 2015.
Reviewed by Dr Sam Guglani.
On a ward round, I notice a colleague speaking with one of the palliative care nurses – about a patient, or perhaps about processes, maybe even about a personal matter. His posture, and what I can hear of his tone, feels familiar. That particular weight and tempo given to conversations with palliative care, like those invoked for hospital chaplains – both the ostensible familiars of death and carriers perhaps of a particular wisdom. What wisdom? What lessons are there for the living – or do we romanticise it all? – from those so near the dying and those close to death?
The extraordinary Clive James – critic, essayist and poet – is unwell and almost certainly close, however modern medicine allows us to define that, to death. In 2011, he developed emphysema, renal impairment and leukaemia. A couple of years ago, medics and media alike anticipated his death as imminent, but new drugs have him in remission, very much alive and impressively prolific. He finds this ‘all a bit embarrassing’ and, regardless of the sensibility of that emotion, there is a sense of the world’s said media shuffling its combined feet and checking its watches. Waiting for him to die, so they can get on with the business of illuminating his life.
James, however, is ‘restored by [his] decline/ And the harsh awakenings it brings.’ And amongst a remarkable number of recent publications – translations of Dante, collections of essays – last year he returned to one of his first mediums of artistic expression: poetry. Described by James himself as ‘funeral poems’, Sentenced to Life feels like a collection of elegies. It forces us to think again about elegy as poetic utterance: what it is for and what action it might hold for the still living. Is it an analgesic against the pain of loss? Or might it turn us to face that loss, face death squarely, and in doing so actually illuminate life? Understood as such, might every poem – as Seamus Heaney is said to have commented – in fact be an elegy?
Throughout the collection, James points to the stark fact of human life’s presence and all our experiences, here, transiently, on this earth. In Event Horizon, he proclaims:
you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live or else nowhere.
And all the poems feel like they follow from this assertion, worrying away at the question of what we then do with our lives, how best to live, questions of meaning. For Clive James, so much meaning clearly gathers in the very fact of the world’s beauty as refracted within the human gaze. In Too Much Light, his cataracts ‘invest the the bright spring day/ With extra glory, with a glow that stings.’ In the title poem, he looks with astonishment at goldfish swimming in a garden pool: ‘never touching, never going wrong:/ Trajectories as perfect as plain song.’ Both poems sing of the imperfections of human agency, our messy trajectories and sight, as being both a source of pain and of wonder. But the fact of dying, of breathing the air ‘as if there were not much more of it there’, heightens for him a sense of sustained astonishment in the brevity and glory of every conscious moment, and its released multitude of revelations. He goes on, in Sentenced to Life, to reflect:
Once I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.
This view of life’s preciousness echoes Dennis Potter who, in the last months of his life, spoke of seeing the beauty of the blossom outside his window in Ross: ‘it is the whitest, frothiest, blossoms blossom that ever could be, and I can see it…The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it.’ Within these poems though, the revelation of our earth- and time-bound lives and of these brightly lit moments, carry further still. They bring us to what T. S. Eliot described as: ‘the only wisdom we can hope to acquire…/ the wisdom of humility.’
This is most manifest in his acknowledgement of the inevitability of death. In Driftwood Houses he declares this unsentimentally:
To hear me talk
You’d think I found my fate sad. Hardly that:
All that has happened is that I’ve hit the wall.
Disintegration is appropriate’
Such honest and forthright acceptance that our flesh must weather and fray feels infrequent in the consumer clamour within medicine and society for longevity, perhaps even for immortality. In Plot Points, further to the expressed awe in Event Horizon, James parallels the universe’s diminishing with our own, and notices how capable we are of choosing to forget both:
While you were reading this
Millions of stars moved closer
Towards their own extinction
So many years ago –
But let’s believe our eyes:
They say it’s all here now.
None of this hard-won sense of truth feels bleak or despairing, but instead is suffused with enchantment and perspective. He suggests that the truth clears away ‘so many souvenirs’. And in a life such as his, there are many such souvenirs. If there is regret in these poems, and there’s much of it, it isn’t around the fact that he is dying, but rather around how he has lived, how he might have lived otherwise: ‘If I seem close to tears/ It’s for my sins, not sickness.’ And from this regret he comes away with the remarkable conclusion that his current state is in fact more authentic than the illusory existence that preceded it. In the brilliant poem, Landfall he asks – ‘those years in the clear, how real were they’, and goes on:
I called it health but never stopped to think
It might have been a kind of weightlessness,
That footloose feeling always on the brink
Of breakdown: the false freedom of excess.
So now, rather than a life of ‘sirens’ and adoration, he asks for, and is gratified by, the present and the real: ‘Remember when I asked for thousand kisses?/ Let’s make it ten. Why not kiss me just once?’ And he arrives at, and brings us to, a place of ‘Thanks for the heartbeat which still lets me live:/ A consolation even now, so late’. Thanks for our life-giving pulse is a different position altogether to one of reductive expectation and rights. Faced with our finitude we might readily arrive at either: at thanks or at greed. However, it is a position of gratitude that opens us to what we owe, over and above what it is we are entitled to.
T.S. Eliot asked not to hear of ‘the wisdom of old men but rather of their folly, / Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession, / Of belonging to another, or to others.’ In the presence of his death, Clive James pushes against Eliot’s assertion and details in formally accessible and powerful poems, a recognition of his essential belonging to others, his fragility and so demonstrates acres of wisdom. In Leçons de Ténèbres, he wonders at the value of this:
But are they lessons, all these things I learn
Through being so far gone in my decline?
The wages of experience I ran
Would service well a younger life than mine.
I should have been more kind. It is my fate
To find this out, but find it out too late.
I can’t agree that wisdom like this can ever be won too late for any of us and, if we choose to listen, it will serve younger lives. So we ought to listen – as patients, as doctors, as one-day patients, and as human beings.