cover image Sentenced to Life: Poems

Sentenced to Life: Poems

Clive James. Norton/Liveright, $24.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-63149-172-6

James (Poetry Notebook 2006–2014), the famous Australian-born British TV personality and cultural critic, muses about his slowed-down, ailing body in moving new verse about illness, debility, and impending death. “The storm blew out and this is the dead calm,” he writes; “The pain is going where the passion went.” James’s humor, his resignation, and his fluency with rhymed pentameters recall Philip Larkin (though a closer match is Larkin’s contemporary, Elizabeth Jennings). If some readers find James’s stanzas to be glib or outmoded, many more will admire—and possibly memorize—their attitudes. James apologizes to loved ones, sometimes vaguely, for his devotion to public over private life; contemplates the tomb, “the last, the truly last house”; and remembers the beaches of his antipodean childhood. He even wrings humor from hospital stays and from the awkwardness of chronic health troubles: “my cataracts invest the bright spring day/ With extra glory.” James’s Anglo-American devotees may expect literary in-jokes and anecdotes, and they’ll find a few good ones in here (the best is a joke about reading Catullus). Mostly, though, James brings his urbane skills to the most serious subjects, telling himself, articulately and accurately, that “I know how/ My death is something I must live with now.” (Jan.)