An oft cited truism is that the Victorians viewed sex as taboo and death as commonplace, while the modern age has reversed this – with mortality being a well contained subject, and sex one of the main currencies of culture. Even with issues such as assisted suicide topping the headlines periodically, death largely remains out of bounds in polite conversation.
In Sentenced to Life, one of Clive James’ later anthology looks death squarely in the eye, while the poet reflects in sensitive and deeply personal ways on the wake of sexual chaos in his own life. Sentenced to Life is an evocative and disturbing collection of verse, springing from James’ struggle with terminal illness and the certainty of his own demise. By turns confessional, militant, and hopeful, James eschews saccharine sentimentality in favour of candid considerations of what it means that his life is drawing to a close. The result is a body of work which strikes the notes of the Preacher in Ecclesiastes time and time again, only without any other hope than that found ‘under the sun’.
Perhaps most telling among all of James’ reflections are those centring around his sexual indiscretions. The poet’s ejection from his marital home in 2012 following the disclosure by Leanne Edelsten that she had been in an eight year sexual relationship with him, made headlines and devastated his wife of 45 years. The effect of these revelations exercises a profound effect on the poetic compass of Sentenced to Life, with the themes of guilt, repentance and wan hope surfacing over and over again. In the piece ‘My Home’ we find a man who is aware of the malady of his soul as much as that of his body,
This is the measure of my dying years:
The sad skirl of a piper in the rain
Who plays ‘My Home’. If I seem close to tears
It’s for my sins, not sickness.
This theme of guilt for wrongs done to those closest to him runs, thread-like, throughout the anthology surfacing at times with almost suffocating realism. In ‘Rounded with a Sleep’ the poet dreams of enjoying time at the beach with his family, but even such joy is punctuated by a guilty questioning of his place in this domestic scene,
It won’t wait long. Just for the moment, though,
There’s time to question if my present state
Of bathing in this flawless afterglow
Is something I deserve. I left it late To come back to my family.
The fact that this is a dreamed reality does not palliate the guilt for James at all, rather the reader is told that,
The setting alters, but the show’s the same:
One long finale, soaked through with regret,
Somehow designed to expiate self-blame.
But still there is no end, at least not yet:
No cure, that is, for these last years of grief
As I repent and yet find no relief.
Throughout the work morality and mortality go hand in hand. Whether it is the frank admission that sexual powers have now abated (Shadows evaporate as they go south/Torn, by whatever longings still persist/Into a tattered wisp, a streak of air, And then not even that. They get nowhere) or the ravages of illness on various organs, James is unflinching in linking his awareness of sexual guilt to his acceptance of death. A heart scan as part of his regular care leads to the pathetically ironic reflection that,
We both know that its physical remit
Was only half the task the poor thing faced.
My heart had spiritual duties too,
And failed at all of them. Worse than a waste
Was how I hurt myself through hurting you.
Most moving of all is his direct appeal to his wife for forgiveness in ‘Balcony Scene’. Here there is a stark portrayal of the fact that sexual infidelity so breaches trust that even his most powerfully woven words might simply result in his wife’s assumption that his ‘repentance comes too easily’. Many who read Sentenced to Life will be stunned by its depiction of our culture’s great taboo – death. But equally moving is the other taboo which James breaches time and time again – that of sexual guilt. In a society which heralds hedonism as the path to true self-realisation, which privileges the right of the individual to pleasure above fidelity to others, these poems speak to the tragedies of broken trust, of redundant repentance, of unresolved regret which so seldom find air time in our media or in our minds. James’ reflection do not lead to any appeals to God or what comes after death (one has to respect as well as lament the consistency of the poet’s atheism here) but they do open an important conversation on the fact of consequence in an age of sexual ‘liberation’.
[This review originally appeared in Solas magazine to coincide with the publication of Sentenced to Life, and is reposted here by way of tribute to Clive James, who passed away yesterday aged 80].