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Sentenced to Life review – Clive James’s poems from death’s door

The critic and wit’s return to poetry is suffused with loss and guilt, yet although his impending death is ever-present in the verse, his humour still shines through

“It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” goes the Woody Allen line. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Not all writers feel the same. Some would like to be there to take notes: death is good material, “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”, as William Empson put it. The ideal would be resurrection – the author, brought back to life, recounting what it feels like to expire. Next best, though not to be wished on anyone, is a drawn-out terminal illness, allowing for lengthy contemplation of what’s to come.

Clive James made his name as a television critic, essayist and wit. But he began as a poet, and four years on from being handed a death sentence (with leukaemia, emphysema and kidney failure – “the lot”), he is ending as a poet. In 2013, he published his 500-page translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he’d been working at for decades but only finalised after getting ill. His Poetry Notebook, a volume of appraisals and apercus, appeared last autumn. And now comes this collection of 37 poems, all composed over the past four years.

Once I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone
Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees
Without my seeing them. I count the bees.

Related: Clive James: ‘I’ve got a lot done since my death’

… those years in the clear, how real were they,
When all the sirens in the signing queue
Who clutched their hearts at what I had to say
Were just dreams, even when the dream came true?

You dream that you might keep it in your head.
But memories, where can you take them to?
Take one last look at them. They end with you.

Related: In search of lost time with my father, Clive James

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