Soften the Razor’s Edge, the Reign of Terror

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Many poems, and many more lines, couplets and quatrains in Opal Sunset are superb, making their lesser companions wan imitations of what Clive James can really do when his interior editor and his varied gifts unite.

Skip Clive James’ sometimes silly introduction to Opal Sunset, Selected Poems, 1958-2008. Make an effort to remember as much a possible from Cultural Amnesia, his prose classic in which he’s as good on Tony Curtis and Beatrix Potter as he is on German martyr Sophie Scholl and many others. Opal Sunset is plenty satisfying without these associations, though exposure to James’ astute, original prose strengthens pleasure in his energetically beautiful poems that are profound, graceful and sometimes angrily ethical without ever slipping into self-righteousness.

James’ interests range wide and his skill almost always lives up to them, even if some of his poems–particularly his 6-page tribute to the deserving Philip Larkin– are too long. “A Valediction for Philip Larkin” gets off to a shaky start with much verbiage about where James was—in Kenya– when he learned of Larkin’s death, getting to the point after more than three pages, that

You were the one who gave us the green light
To get out there and seek experience,
Since who could equal you at sitting tight
Until the house around you grew immense?
Your bleak bifocal gaze was so intense.

On the next page of the same poem, James reaches more of the core of the matter and can almost be excused for earlier filler :

The truth is that you reveled in your craft.
Profound glee charged your sentences with wit.
You beat them into stanza form and laughed :
They didn’t sound like poetry one bit,
Except for being absolutely it.

He’s also speaking of himself here, and pulls it off because all that reveling in his own craft leads to poems that are “absolutely it,” making a reviewer’s task an immersion in serious entertainment.

James is tidier and equally moving on the notoriously slovenly Auden, as he acknowledges what’s been said by many others:

By now of course, we know he was in fact
As queer as a square grape, a roaring queen
Himself believing the forbidden act
Of love he made a meal of was obscene.
He could be crass and generally lacked tact.
He had no truck with personal hygiene.
The roughest trade would seldom stay to sleep.
In soiled sheets he was left alone to weep.

“What Happened to Auden,” is genuinely poignant, matching the best of Frederick Seidel, whose relationship with form, and observation of louche life come to mind often in Opal Sunset, the title poem a lovely song to James’ native Australia. “Hard-Core Orthography’’ is great fun, and its brittle, never heartless tone make it accessibly amusing to those whose Latin is even more limited than mine.

Clive James’ life was shaped and shadowed when his father chose to fight with the Australian army during World War Two. James was six when his father was killed in action, and his mother never remarried. From this he has carved an admirable life in letters, fueled by voracious curiosity, moral imperatives and the openly urgent need to create the sublime where those two meet. He also has a need to give and receive tenderness, and a rigorous internal minder that marries this to clear thinking. Many poems, and many more lines, couplets and quatrains in Opal Sunset are superb, making their lesser companions wan imitations of what James can really do when his interior editor and his varied gifts unite.

“My Father Before Me Sai War Cemetery Hong Kong “ sums up a paradoxical burden he bears so eloquently, declaring, “My life is yours, my curse to be so blessed.” Like prayer, the words , with humble defiance, successfully challenge rational understanding. They instill necessary, utterly irrational conviction that the senior James is listening somewhere, and providing benediction and sustenance, hard-earned by both father and son, and contradicting the announcement that

You can’t see me or even hear the sound
Of my voice though it comes out like the cry
You heard from me before you sailed away.
Your wife, my mother, took her turn to die
Not long ago, I don’t know what to say.

But he does know what to say, which is why this piece belongs with the most treasured, canonical war poems in any language. “Son of a Soldier” deserves the same honors, with its acknowledgement of thirst the writer “could never slake,’’ and other universalities made lyrically particular.

“The Great Wrasse : for Les Murray at Sixty” is a four-page dazzler about a fish native to Australia’s waters, and is free-association, gorgeously wrought . There is no room here for the entire poem, but the fragment below is as vivid and spacious as anything else in it one might select :

Over the reef,
You realize, is where this fish belongs —
Above it and not of it. Nothing is written there,
Enjoyed or cherished. Even the beautiful,
There in abundance, does not know itself.
‘Sex is a Nazi,’ you once wrote, and so
It is here. Killing to grow up so they can screw,
Things eat, are eaten, and the crown-of-thorns
Starfish that eats everything looks like
A rail map of the Final Solution,
But all it adds to universal horror
Is its lack of colour.
Even in full bloom
The reef is a jardin des supplices :
The frills, the fronds, the fans, the powder puffs
Soften the razor’s edge, the reign of terror.

From this tumble of allusions emerges three last lines as flawless as the whole :

And finally, most fabulous of all,
A monumental fish that speaks in colors
Offering solace from within itself.

Those last five words serve as a call to what makes poetry so necessary and why those who love literature wish for the gift of photographic memory, even when the poem names an act of brutality. In “Yusra,” James has a heroine, a young woman murdered by members of the Public Morals Unit of Hamas. They disapproved of the display of her ‘’half unclothed” skin in company with her fiancé and a friend. The other two survive beating, but she, treated more viciously , dies. The effort to comprehend the point of view of her murderers is an essential element in the poem’s power :

Could they not see the laughter in her face
Was heaven on earth, the only holy place?
Perhaps they guessed, and acted from the fear
That Paradise is nowhere if not here.

Yusra, your name too lovely to forget
Shines like a sunrise joined to a sunset.
The day between went with you. Where you are,
That light around you is your life, Yusra.

That light around Clive James deserves long life.
I wish I had the time to memorize so many stanzas
In this volume, so striking and so true.
Instead I cling to pages, talismans.
This somewhat awed and sometimes surly tribute
Is a fragment of what this writer thinks is due.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →