Nefertiti in the Flak Tower
by Clive James
Picador, 2012, 96 pages, $39.99
As I write, I have before me Clive James’s translation of The Divine Comedy, just out from Liveright, a division of W.W. Norton, where James and I both have the superb Robert Weil as an editor. It marks a new challenge—and represents years of hard work: first in mastering Italian, then in composing in modified quatrains with masculine rhymes. Now his readers will have even more to enjoy.
James’s latest book of verse, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, follows earlier collections—most notably The Book of My Enemy, Opal Sunset and Angels over Elsinore—and reminds us of all for which we are grateful to him. His daring and accomplished poetic persona has ranged so widely—from lyric to satiric, from sentimental to phallic—and taken on so many challenges, that in him we find what amounts to a personal dialect, within which various modes flourish.
I am a generation older than Clive—many of whose friends are children of my lot—and came to know him in the early 1970s. I have long admired his work (and should disclose here that he gave my most recent “serious” book of verse, Penultimata, a splendid blurb). As Norman Moonbase I figure, along with Kingsley Amis (Kingsley Kong) and—from the North—Philip Larkin (Philip Lawks), in his 1976 mock epic Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage Through the London Literary World. Another of his early works was Unreliable Memoirs, the brilliant tale of his leaving Australia and coming to England—one of the only books I remember actually buying in a street shop to read awaiting lunch at a Soho restaurant. Over the years that followed, he published a variety of poems of differing length, structure and intention, but almost all with formal metrical structure and rhyme schemes.
For James, Australia is “the land that continues to inspire it all, even when I have been long away”. In earlier collections he recalls his youthful experiences in Sydney with nostalgia, in poems such as “When We Were Kids” (“Now we are old and the memories returning / Are like the last stars that fade before the morning”). Here, in “Fashion Statement”, we find him as a student at Sydney University—“The perfect atmosphere for epigrams / To flaunt their filigree like toast-rack trams”—where he and his rackety high-brain booze-happy pals spend their time “Searching for words, and we who wrote them down / Might not have looked it, but we owned the town.”
For nothing rules like easy eloquence
Tied to the facts yet taking off at will
Into the heady realms of common sense
Condensed and energised by verbal skill:
It has no need to check before a glass
The swerve of a frock coat around its arse.
Already ugly and with worse to come
Yet lovely in its setting past belief,
The city got into our speech. Though some
Were burdened by their gift and came to grief,
And some found fortune but as restless men,
We were dandies. We just didn’t see it then.
James is anti-Eliot and anti-Pound (“One had the gab, the other had the gift / And each looked to the other for a lift”), but among poets of previous generations he admires W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden (with some reservations) and Philip Larkin (“Not exactly a torrent of creativity: just the best”). In “A Valediction for Philip Larkin”, from The Book of My Enemy, James’s thirty-three stanzas move from the vividly presented zoological wilds of Kenya—where he first learns of Larkin’s death—through various air connections back to England, as he muses, half-dreaming, on Larkin’s “technique which makes majestic the morose”:
The truth is that you revelled 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.
Even in prose, as the novelist Anthony Burgess has written, “Art begins with craft, and there is no art until craft has been mastered.” So it is a rare pleasure to read James, who has mastered not just the art, but the craft of poetry as well, becoming in the process one of the best poets writing in English. His poetry has never become any of the fashionable forms of word disarrangement that have claimed the title on the sole and insufficient ground that at least they are not prose. In “A Perfect Market”, James gives us a short and memorable guide on how to make a poem. He is clear not only on how to be a poet (“making the thing musical is part / Of pinning down what you are on about”), but also on how to fail to understand the problem. Rejecting the modern argument that the
flight from rhyme
And reason is a technically precise
Response to the confusion of a time
When nothing, said once, merits hearing twice
James instead argues:
The voice leads to the craft, the craft to art:
All this is patent to the gifted few
Who know, before they can, what they must do
To make the mind a spokesman for the heart.
Without this, “those who cannot write increase the store / Of verses fit for those who cannot read”. James repeats Ronsard’s advice—ou plutost les chanter (“Recite your lines aloud … Or even better, sing them”)—saying we are drawn to the sound of good poetry:
Ronsard was right to emphasise it so,
Even in his day. Now, it’s everything:
The language falls apart before our eyes,
But what it once was echoes in our ears
As poetry, whose gathered force defies
Even the drift of our declining years.
A single lilting line, a single turn
Of phrase: these always proved, at last we learn,
Life cries for joy though it must end in tears.
One of James’s characteristics is that his pieces are more often than not written round a context with a visual mental imagery quite different in tone or thought from the text that precedes it. Here it will help us to look at his often personal, unequivocal way of handling the varying and often astonishingly highly novel methods of vividly transforming his subjects into vintage verse. He keeps the balance just right in “Signing Ceremony”, set in the Hotel Timeo, Taormina, with sweeping views of the bay “stretching east / Almost to Italy” and Mt Etna, “Visibly seething in the politest way”.
Here he begins with “shallow vodka cocktails … spreading numb delight as they go down / Their syrup mirrors the way lava flows.” James’s phrasing is individual and unmistakable—to the point sometimes of caricature, though never of contrivance. When he continues, “Tonight might be our last, but this, at least, / Is one romantic setting, am I right?” he is writing lines that could never be taken for anything but Jamesian. Yet in a swift change of tone, he sees in the continuing cycle of Etna’s eruptions a various unity forming one long human drama. He has what is commonly lacking in modern poets, a properly rooted tragic sense, and moves swiftly to higher grade reflection on the transitory nature of life and the role love plays:
Only because it’s violent to the core
The world grows gardens. Out of earth we came,
To earth we shall return. But first, one more
Of these, delicious echoes of the flame
That drives the long life all should have, yet few
Are granted as we were. It wasn’t fair?
Of course it wasn’t. But which of us knew,
To start with, that the other would be there,
One step away, for all the time it took
To come this far and see a mountain cry
Hot tears, as if our names, signed in the book
Of marriage, were still burning in the sky?
James’s writing on women and men’s love has both charm and amiability, praise and surprise. And all the senses, from taste to touch, all the feelings from the heart and tongue and eye and throat. Women in earlier poems are seen over a range of examples from Don Juan in “Sack Artist” (“Reeling between the redhead and the blonde / Don Juan caught the eye of the brunette. / He had no special mission like James Bond”) to Ulysses in “The Nymph Calypso” (“just this once he almost hadn’t lied”). In this volume, James returns to that theme in “And Then They Dream of Love”:
“Were you not more than just a pretty face
And perfect figure,” he thought, kissing one
While clamped against the other, “this embrace
Would not be so intense.”
But follows with reflections on passion in “The Buzz”:
Grown old, you long still for what young love does.
It gives the world a liquid light injection,
A sun bath even in the night.
The old comfort themselves by calling young love blind,
But there is nothing young love fails to see
Except the future. Bodies and their connection
Are all creation, shorn of history.
These are the only humans who exist.
Whoever thought to kiss or to be kissed
Or hit the sack from every known direction
Except them? Visions radiantly true
Don’t change with age. Those that have had them do.
More compelling is “Monja Blanca”, seven eight-line rhymes on the beautiful White Nun flower, “rarest and loveliest / Of all her kind”, in which the poet sees the desire to possess as futile:
Because we have a mind to make her ours,
And she belongs to nobody’s idea
Of the sublime but hers. But that we know,
Or would, if it were not among her powers
Always across the miles to bring us near
To where she thrives on shadows. By her glow
We measure darkness; by her splendour, all
That is to come, or gone beyond recall.
The best of these pages are long and in depth, as in “The Later Yeats”:
Where he sought symbols, we, for him, must seek
A metaphor, lest mere praise should fall short
Of how the poems of his last years set
Our standards for the speech that brings the real
To integrated order dearly bought,
Catching the way complexity would speak
If it had one voice. This, he makes us feel,
Is where all deeper meanings are well met,
Contained in a majestic vessel made
Out of the sea it sails on, yet so strong
We never, watching it our whole lives long,
Doubt its solidity. All else may fade,
But this stands out as if it had been sent
To prove it can have no equivalent.
Yeats’s early poems are “wind-driven boats”—coracles, dhows—“A little navy floats / In his early pages.” Then, “when more substantial things asked to be said”, they become sloops, schooners (“These would have been enough to make him great”), until “at the heart / Of this flotilla” the later work appears as “A huge three-decker fighting ship of state”. James remarks on the musicality of Yeats’s verse:
We’re held in thrall
By music. Music lush, music austere,
All music ever heart-felt, holds the flow
Of splendour in one place.
He deftly weaves echoes of Yeats’s poems throughout, and in the final stanzas, sees the ship as “just a metaphor”
For the battle to make sense of growing old,
And bless the ebb tide. It is outward bound,
Fit for the launch of what we have to give
The future, though that be a paltry thing …
And for a paragon we have the vast
Swan-song of Yeats that brought his depths to light.
Among school children or on All Soul’s Night,
Humble or proud, he saved the best for last
And gave it to the waves—but no. There is
No ship. Just the words, and all of them are his.
James’s themes, particularly in his own later poems, are from the whole human sphere: ageing, sex, dying, pity, nostalgia, melancholy: the lacrimae rerum, and some of the cachinnationes rerum too, played out on a grand stage—as in “Vertical Envelopment”, written in free verse, a form perfectly suited to the poet’s drug-fuelled delusions:
Taking the piss out of my catheter,
The near-full plastic bag bulks on my calf
As I push my I.V. tower through Addenbrooke’s
Like an Airborne soldier heading for D-day
Down the longest corridor in England.
Each man his own mule. Look at all this stuff.
Pipes, tubes, air bottles. Some of us have wheels.
Humping our gear, we’re bare-arsed warriors
Dressed to strike fear into the enemy,
But someone fires a flare. Mission aborted.
The sinisterness, very faintly comic, is exactly suited to the theme. For even here, there is no feeling that any of the words have been selected for their novelty, or chicness, or violence, or egotism. There is an uncertain calm:
On the airfield, the chattering Dakotas
Have fallen silent. Jump postponed again.
Stay as you are. Keep your equipment on.
Among visions of
Soldiers of long ago, in the first years
Of my full span, who went down through the dark
With no lives to look back on
figures of friends who’ve died make an appearance: “My outfit one by one in the green light, / Out of the door and down into the dark”:
The Hitch is with them and I hear him speak
Exactly as he looked the day we met:
The automatic flak came bubbling up
Like champers, dear boy. Overrated stuff.
Recognition of the delusion does not imply tidying up the terrors of it, and when he catalogues the frontal properties of the Jamesian daytime, these too are personal and sinister:
Where are the women? Nurse, my bag is broken.
Sorry, it’s everywhere. She mops, I cough,
She brings the nebulizer and I sit
Exhaling fog. Dakotas starting up
Make whirlpools in the ground mist. Too much luck,
Just to have lived so long when I unfold
And shuffle forward to go out and down
The steep, dark, helter-skelter laundry chute
Into that swamp of blinking crocodiles
Men call Shit Creek. Come, let us kiss and part.
No book by even the best of English poets is faultless, but James’s flaws are meagre and peripheral. Occasional mannerisms annoy—as do some throw-away lines justified only by rhyme. In general his verse has a naturalness and rightness of tone, happily comprehending (as no unity prescribed by critical preconception can) lyric and rhetoric, statement and metaphor, concretion and abstraction.
Talk about “great” and “major” poets is a vulgar distraction. These are perhaps suitable words of half a dozen poets, or fewer. None are alive today, and nothing could be more footling (as Byron pointed out in his own time) than the cries of some weekly critics, like teenagers mobbing a pop singer, “He’s the greatest!” But James would certainly be well up among the front-runners if poetry was, as some base fellows seem to think, a sort of competition. Even for those of us who have for years felt his work to be very fine and moving, this latest volume adds further to his stature. One’s advice is to read these poems first—the serpent beguiled me—then up into the whole oeuvre.
This article first appeared in the New Criterion, April 2013. Robert Conquest’s latest collection of poems, Penultimata, was reviewed in the October 2009 Quadrant by John Whitworth.