Clive James: The River in the Sky

London: Picador, 2018, 122pp.

It’s probably fair to say that Clive James’s conventional poetry isn’t widely admired by practising poets in Australia and one can see what the problem is. Most of the poems (there are exceptions) are beautifully wrought objects whereby what is essentially a prose idea – an understanding of an experience, a representation of an emotion – forms the structure of the poem. You can hear people arguing that this isn’t what poetry is at all. It’s not that the poems of his various selecteds and the most recent individual volumes, especially those written since the onset of his serious illness, are not often brilliantly achieved it’s that they rarely take the author and reader into surprising and unpredictable areas: into new meanings that can’t be encapsulated in elegant sentences. The River in the Sky (we met the title – a translation of the Japanese words for the Milky Way – at the end of his last book of memoirs where it was floated as a title for a novel about the Pacific War) might be a book which bypasses all these problems. There is a quality of undeterminedness about it which is very attractive. It might be described loosely as a collection of memorable experiences (some of which are familiar from the autobiographical volumes and earlier poems). But the interesting part is the structure whereby these experiences are organised. I’m not sure that James is himself entirely sure about the nature of this structure though, being far cleverer than most of his readers or critics, he can suggest a lot of possibilities – there’s never anything dumb about James’s uncertainties. And that uncertainty makes reading The River in the Sky all the richer an experience.

One of the possible structures that the book suggests for itself is of the epic: except, of course, at just over three and a half thousand lines, this can only be a mini-epic. And the genre of mini-epic allows for plenty of self-deprecating bathos that, in his prose, James is a master of. You can see all this in the opening four words: “All is not lost”. This quotes the opening of Satan’s magnificent rallying speech in the first book of Paradise Lost which is, of course, followed by a list of what hasn’t been lost: the unconquerable will, immortal hate and the courage never to submit or yield. In James’s poem what hasn’t been lost isn’t quite so grand or vicious. Instead it is composed of those memories which are still powerful enough to make a weakened and limited existence meaningful. The memories intensify as the capacities of the body to explore are reduced.

One of the generic features of the epic is the journey into the underworld, present in both the Homeric epics but also in something even earlier like Gilgamesh. In The River in the Sky, this takes place when James, remembering the ever-present Luna Park of his Sydney childhood, imagines seeing it from a restaurant across the harbour, supernaturally lit up:

Always the candy bulbs shone through the night,
But now they shone by day. I could see beams
Of colour in the sunlight. Were there prisms
Piled up like fruit, a rack of fresnal lenses?
A Technicolor Lichtdom stained the streaks
Of cirrus. Had they turned the place into
Some kind of laser farm? . . .

(The fact that this is done in serviceable pentameters suggests that it is an especially written piece for the poem. Other sections, clearly made up from notes, drafts and even sketches for other poems are likely to have a quite different deployment of lines and beats.) Taking a ferry to the fun park James finds his first primary school teacher, Miss Coleman, acting as gatekeeper (ie ticket collector). From that point on the visit becomes a journey through the dream world which is the modern equivalent of Hades in that it isn’t premised on a specific religious notion of life after death and is populated (as we grow older) largely by the dead. The musical accompaniment of the dream world matches James’s own musical education and another teacher recommends the ride through the River Caves. To get to the ride the poet has to pass through a series of crowds all, apparently, drawn from his Postcards television documentaries, a comment, perhaps, that certain parts of ones outward career have to be shed before the inner career can be understood. The journey turns out to take him from a crude exterior to an inner baroque architecture – the Amalienburg – in which the first ghost who speaks to him is that of Mies van der Rohe who sets out on a long discussion of the relationship between baroque extravagance and the severities of De Stijl. It seems a bit like one of the lectures from Paradiso at first but it also raises the issue of how this book is constructed, using here an architectural analogy. At any rate the journey into the River Caves continues by boat – film stars are seen in other boats rather as Dante notices shades of the famous in the different levels of Inferno – and finishes not where the poet expects that it might – “images . . .to do with love, desire, / Even salacity” – but instead with his father’s body, confirming that the experience of losing his father (killed at the end of the war, returning home from a Japanese prison camp) is the central, generating experience of his creative life. And finally, epic-style, there is a companion occasionally invoked. She seems rather like Odysseus’s Athene of Aeneas’s Venus but is called Adrastus. I’m nor sure why she gets the name of the king of Argos but she’s a constant presence in the wings.

But if epic is one possible structural model for what is going on here, there are plenty of others. There is the idea, for example, of the continuous journey – either sailing or flying or riding – in which individual memories are imagined to be ports visited or corners explored, on what is otherwise a coherent movement:

This is the way my memories connect
Now that they have no pattern.
All I can do is make the pictures click
As I go sailing on the stream of thought . . .

There are also plenty of images of circles and webs (including the internet of course which, in YouTube, makes memories of performances revisitable and thus eternally present) and one early passage brings the two together:

An aeon reassigned
To form the towpath now
Of the river of my memory

This is a river song,
Linking the vivid foci
Where once my mind was formed
That now must fall apart:
A global network blasted
To ruins by the pressure
Of its lust to grow, which proves now
At long last, after all this time,
To be its urge to die . . .

Images of circles begin early in the poem. The first description of bodily decrepitude describes seeing money spiders in their webs before going on to transform into discs – “each frail web / The intermittent image of a disc / that glittered like the Facel Vega’s wheel / Still spinning when Camus gave up his life”. (This early description raises the general issue of detail in James’s mind and in his poetry. Everyone knows that Camus died in a car crash but who knew the make of car? James has a sharp eye for precise detail, especially technical detail. It might be no more that the ability of an autodidact arriving from the far end of the civilised world. But the issue here is whether this is a prose virtue or a poetic one. I’m not entirely sure myself though I know that nothing would have been gained if Burns had told us the specific variety of Tea Rose that his love resembled.) At any rate the image of the circling wheel extends to cosmic proportions when the poem gets to focus, as it does a number of times, on the gorgeous disc of the Andromeda Galaxy towards which the Milky Way is slowly travelling. The River in the Sky finishes with a quickly modulated return from the cosmic perspective to the local one:

I had thought this ship was sailing
Across the river in the sky towards
Andromeda, but in the night it stopped
Quite close to home, and on the quay
Boxes were slung ashore that indicated
Another destination altogether,
Somewhere nearby and just across the river.
Don’t quiz me now on how I figured out
This was my destination, just a mile
Away, where my dear elder daughter
Had been building her new studio . . .

Another possible structure for the poem is that of the collection. One of James’s most affecting experiences of beauty involves being taken by his future wife to see the Breviario Grimani, a codex made up of illustrations of medieval life (rather like the better known Très Riches Heures). When The River in the Sky speaks of this as “a rich collection / Of pictures that redeem / The illusion of randomness / One piece at a time”, you know that this is being offered as a possible structural model: a collection of individual illustrations but bound together inside a larger, articulating form. And you get yet another image for the poem when the Grimani’s breviary re-enters towards the end (significantly just after the idea of sailing in the River Caves has been revisited) and James comments how:

Within the decorated borders
Of the magic book
The enchanted houses and the great
Ladies and their daughters
Flocks a mumuration of starlings
The congregations at the poles
Of the bar magnet
Echo within perceptions
Like the Almagest of Ptolemy . . .

This is the prelude to a tricky set of passages about the evolution of birds but the basic point is, I think, the idea that the poet’s mind, in this last (or, perhaps, nearly last) work operates not as linearly as it once did but more like the unpredictable reshapings of the vast flocks of starlings. You don’t see them in Australia but they appear in Europe especially in Rome: “The set of interweaving murmurations / My mind is now becoming / That once was clear for being simple”. It’s a nice symbol both of the complexifying of one’s intellectual reponses and of the way this long poem suddenly changes shape and direction.

One of the things that made James’s television reviews so memorable was its happy mixing of high and low culture, the belief that popular culture could not only be analysed in a sophisticated way (the origin of Cultural Studies) but that it should be accorded respect in its own right when it was capable of producing both beauty and energy. And beauty and energy are the hallmarks of the memories – “my fragile treasures” – out of which the “narrative” of The River in the Sky is made. If it comes as no great shock to find Ljuba Welitsch, famous for her Salome, next to Bill Haley and the Comets, James is largely responsible for that fact.

Ultimately, The River in the Sky prepares for a journey which is no journey. There is an explicit rejection of the ancient Egyptian model of a celestial after-life that one voyages towards so that one can go on enjoying ones vast and expensive collection of material goods. But for those blessed with fantastically rich inner lives, there will always be the question of what will become of these memories. The answer is, unfortunately, that they melt away or, as the poem puts it rather more memorably, they disappear in “the gradual tornado” of destruction. But, in the moments before dissolution they shine most brightly. As I said at the beginning, an aggressively declining physical state seems matched by a growth in clarity and brightness of memories. My first response to The River in the Sky was to compare it to Tony Judt’s wonderful The Memory Chalet. His fate was an even harsher one than James’s. Struck down by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which takes the use of all one’s limbs from one before taking everything else, he worked in the long sleepless nights on memories and his method of dictating the results involved using the geography of a Swiss chalet visited as a child as a set of mnemonics. The idea was taken from Jonathan Spence’s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci and the downsizing from a memory palace to a memory chalet is a piece of humorous modesty worthy of James. It’s not quite the same situation as in The River in the Sky since the mnemonic system was used as a way of remembering the order of the memories and of Judt’s thoughts about them. And, as an historian, Judt saw his memories as having a value as historical data. But the memories have the same enhanced luminosity that they have in James’s work. Judt’s method of organisation follows strict logical procedures. He doesn’t have the issues of structure that a creative piece like The River in the Sky has, but it’s the struggling with structure that makes James’s poem so interesting as it sets out to be something more than collage but at no stage a thesis. How to make a long poem work and cohere has been one of poetry’s unresolved technical issues in the last hundred years. Pound’s Cantos, the first to raise the issue, might make an interesting comparison, but James would be unlikely to be impressed. In his Poetry Notebook: 2006-2014 he calls it a “panscopic grab bag” and “a nut-job blog before the fact”.