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Sentenced to Life review – Clive James’s spark is not extinguished

He jokes about each new collection of poetry being written in expectation that it will be his last, but the defining mood of James’s latest is one of grateful gallantry

The punning title of Clive James’s latest collection, published with an expectation that it will be his last, is characteristically robust. He is suffering from leukaemia but has been cracking staunch jokes recently about the embarrassment of his continuing survival in the wake of poems written at what he believed to be his last gasp. Illness has changed his thinking but has not extinguished his spark. It has made him rueful, and grateful too. Many of these poems are an appeal to the heart, and in particular to the heart of his wife. The collection’s defining quality is gallantry and it is this that makes it so moving. There are also some infuriating and, perhaps invevitably, solipsistic poems here, but there is no fault you could highlight of which James himself is not aware and addressing in print.

Each poem is accessible and the secure rhymes have a chiming poignancy – as neat as beds tucked with hospital corners – a protest against formlessness and death. James does remorse almost as well as Thomas Hardy and “Echo Point” seems an echo of the poems Hardy wrote after the death of his wife (“The Haunter”, “The Voice”). James’s use of the third person recalls Hardy, too. “His body that betrayed you has gone on / To do the same for him.” It is perhaps easier in moments of intensity to shift from “I” to “him” – a tiny sidestepping of responsibility. The poem’s setting is Australian, with its blue valley and whip-bird, and, in the title poem, he explains that his native Australia is his inner landscape still: “… The sky is overcast / Here in the English autumn, but my mind / Basks in the light I never left behind.”

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

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