Sentenced to Life
Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
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Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
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And when I walk the mile to town, I show
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The right technique for wading through deep clay.
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A sad man, sorrier than he can say.
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But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day for knowing that his race is run:
My sin was to be faithless. I would lie
As if I could be true to everyone
At once, and all the damage that was done
Was in the name of love, or so I thought.
I might have met my death believing this,
But no, there was a lesson to be taught.
Now, not just old, but ill, with much amiss,
I see things with a whole new emphasis.
My daughter’s garden has a goldfish pool
With six fish each a finger long.
I stand and watch them following their rule
Of never touching, never going wrong:
Trajectories perfect as plain song.
Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known
The name for Japanese anemones,
So pail, 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.
Even my memories are clearly seen:
Whence comes the answer if I’m told I must
Be aching for my homeland. Had I been
Dulled in the brain to match my lungs of dust
There’d be no recollection I could trust.
Yet I, despite my guilt, despite my grief,
Watch the Pacific sunset, heaven sent,
In glowing colours and in sharp relief,
Painting the white clouds when the day is spent,
As if it were my will, and testament –
As if my first impressions were my last,
And time had only made them more defined,
Now I am weak. The sky is overcast
Here in the English autumn, but my mind
Basks in the light I never left bebhind.
Clive James (1939 –
Clive James wrote this poem in 2014 at a time when his health had deteriorated to the extent where time is a very precious commodity. Walking into Cambridge was a great effort. The person he met on this walk was Germaine Greer and she describes this meeting when she selected this poem for the anthology ‘Poems That Make Grown Women Cry’. She does not specifically recall asking CJ whether he aches for his Oz homeland but she certainly remembers the meeting. Germaine Greer was a contemporary of CJ from his Cambridge University days.
Looking at the title ‘Sentenced to Life’ … well that is one way of looking at life for we are forced into life … but to what extent it is a ‘sentence’ is another matter. Of course it is very much a play on words for one who has made much of life through writing and words … whether or not CJ has been happy with his ‘sentencing’ is another matter. But according to his website writing was very important for completion of the translation of Dante’s Inferno kept him alive. In a BBC interview broadcast on 31 March 2015, James described himself as ‘near to death but thankful for life’. However, in October 2015 he admitted to feeling ‘embarrassment’ at still being alive thanks to experimental drug treatment.
It is a very will crafted poem with flowing pentameter rhythm and a rhyming scheme ‘ababb’. CJ is very appreciative of ‘poetic skill’ and I recommend reading his ‘2006 -2014 Poetry Notebook’ for an excellent discussion on poetry.
Looking at the poem –
S1 – his health situation is explained … ice-bound equating to frozen (a death position) …
he feels sorry for himself … a challenge to walk into town … (from the GG commentary on this poem he was walking into Cambridge for breakfast)
S2,S3 – he doesn’t mind death because his race has been run … but his sin, his guilt is being faithless … note – he was thrown out of the family home by his wife after he admitted on a TV show that he had been having a relationship with another woman for eight years – being true to everyone (is this possible) – but he has to come to terms with his failing health and lack of mobility … this gives a new emphasis on life … a lesson to be learnt
S4, S5 – so now he has an appreciation for all the little things he never noticed … he has time to count the bees … he sees things in detail as he watches from his room
S6 – the recall of his birth homeland sunset is not affected by his health problem, his mind can still be trusted … in glowing colours, sharp relief
S7 – so in answer to the question of whether he had an ‘ache for his homeland’ … he gives a clear description of the Pacific sunset from memory – this is sufficient perhaps … ‘heaven sent’ … he is thankful for the power of his mind
S8 – in this way his homeland is forever meaningful … will always be with him … despite the overcast environment – sky and health … his mind basks giving sunshine to the few remaining days
To what extent do expats ache for their homeland origins – to what extent can memory compensate for any ache?
Clive James (1939 – ) is an Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, translator and memoirist, best known for his autobiographical series Unreliable Memoirs, for his chat shows and documentaries on British television and for his prolific journalism. He has lived and worked in England since 1962.
It is nice to look back and cherish key memories … those that still give comfort as we age … perhaps this is a natural process as we look back on life. Sharing such a moment from my life, reflecting back on my days in England before I came to Australia …
Stopping One Day
I remember one day in June.
The height of summer and the sun
still rising on one of those days
that calls all nature into song.
Biking the back lanes of the Hampshire countryside.
Stopping on a bridge over a stream
the clear sparkling chatter below, while beyond
the fields praising their contentment.