When I was packing for my trip to Sydney I threw the in a book of Clive James essays: Cultural Cohesion. Yesterday, now in Blackheath, I bought his final book of poetry in a local bookstore: Injury Time.
I’m a great admirer of James, but in this case, reading two of his books at the same time is largely coincidental – though it becomes meaningful.
We’re in an Airbnb in Blackheath and last night, after returning from dinner, I sat on the couch and began to read his book of poems.
I don’t know of any writers more clever or learned or versatile than Clive James. His poetry tends to sit a bit lower on the totem pole, but I’ve always found it engaging and affecting. I like poetry without being an aficionado, but I believe that James is one of our greatest poets ever.
The name of this collection alludes to the state of life he found himself in as he wrote it. Having been diagnosed with cancer some years before, he found himself living beyond the decreed span of year’s forecast to him. He suffered the effects and lived through the uncertainty of disease that could – and certainly wood – tighten it’s grip at any time. His time is up, pretty much, but he finds himself on the pitch still pending the final whistle: injury time.
As always, I was drawn in by the easy command of language and the evocative imagery. He’s an intellectual, but while there are splashes of the high falutin’, what sheets these poems homes often are the colloquial references that hit the right spot.
Nearly all these poems touch upon looming death. There’s memory and reminiscence in there, as well as a stock-taking. It would be poignant at any time, but I felt it much more so myself given my own situation. I may well follow the same path and I didn’t want to know it – but I read on, understanding it, feeling it also. And, of course, it finally caught up to him.
There’s so much I could excerpt from what I read – so much that is telling and true, so much that evokes an easy, democratic image that sticks with you long after. How’s this:
The Reaper sobers you. You will be stirred
By just how serious you tend to get
When he draws near and has his quiet word.
His murmur is the closest you’ve heard yet
To someone heavy calling in a debt.
No gun, no flick-knife: none of that gangster thing.
Just you, him, and the fear that you might die…
Like a heavy calling in a debt…brilliant. There’s a lot of brilliance in these poems, and a lot that leaves you pondering.
I went to bed, where I read from his essays for half and hour. Lights out, my head was abuzz with thought. I’ve missed this, I thought. Even just browsing the bookshop for 40 minutes earlier in the day felt like a return to something neglected lately, but once so familiar and vital. Here were words about me and knowledge, eons of experience and the projection of lives lived and lessons learned and perspectives formed – not to mention the sheer creativity and imagination on display.
I once lived within that. My mind was something I nurtured. I delighted in learning. I felt I was on a journey, and part of a grand tradition which, for ten years past perhaps, I have strayed from. But this is me, I thought in the dark. I have to get back to this.
In the morning, I picked up the book again and read some more. I’m fascinated and curious by what I read or learn, but the sum total of what I discover about how Auden’s homosexuality informed his poetry or Robert Lowell’s technical development as a poet doesn’t make me a better man one day to the next. What is vital is the train of thought and conjecture it kicks off in me. I’m in the maelstrom suddenly. I’m reminded of the possibilities of art and the endless speculations it leads to. It feels important because it echoes life and our attempt to harness it. And I am part of that again, my mind darting off in different directions, vibrant and resonant – connected once more.
This is what I remember. It’s what had forgotten. To gain knowledge is fine, but it’s a quest without end. More important is to untether the mind and find yourself searching without constraint. To feel that utter richness of infinite possibility, and wonder. It’s the rediscovery of wonder that counts. It’s what all creativity springs from. It’s what I have to get back to.