Clive James | The New Yorker | FROM “THE RIVER IN THE SKY”

A new epic explores the reaches of a poet’s memory.
By Clive James   October 4, 2018

Editor’s Note:  [Kevin Young]

Egyptian gods and pharoahs, “YouTube’s vast cosmopolis,” Degas and Klimt, the War in which his father was captured, and freed, only to die on the way home, Australian sports, Monk (Thelonious, that is): these are among the many things of Clive James’s moving, magisterial “The River in the Sky,” whose excerpts form our second multimedia poetry feature. The selections found here chart a grand movement, leaping about as the larger book-length work does, but providing a sense of the flowing whole. James’s is a poem of memory, which is to say, of place and passion—one in which figures appear and reappear, ideas remain, and books form “walls of color / The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.”

The poem itself is autumnal, offered late in a life—James, who was born outside Sydney, in 1939, has for years been fighting, and outliving, a diagnosis of terminal cancer—and it is as colorful as that season, as vivid in its details. While at times elegiac, “stoked with countless deaths,” “The River in the Sky” also serves as a testimony to memory as a balm that “could fuel a nebula.” The “river” of the title is both the course of a life and what awaits; it is the noble Nile; the frozen lake in which his friend drowns while trying to save a daughter; and a larger ocean of thought that spans two millennia. The poem is also unafraid to admit the limitations of place and of human knowledge: “There was a lesson there / And I still don’t know what it is.” Ultimately, we are left with the lyric exploration suggested by Monk and his jazz, where lines are not blurred but played in recognition of everything that is “a blur already,” a song “carved out of fog.”

Kevin Young

clive-2Illustration by Seb Agresti

Excerpts from Clive James’ reading of The River in the Sky” [links added]:

In ancient days
Men in my job prepared for endless travel
Across the sea of stars, where Pharaoh sailed
To immortality, but now we know
This is no journey. A long, aching pause
Is all the voyage there will ever be.

                       …… Books are the anchors
Left by the ships that rot away. The mud
The anchors lie in is one’s recollection
Of what life was, and never, late or soon,
Will be again.


Plugged into YouTube’s vast cosmopolis,
We are in Sweden, and Bill Evans plays
“ ’Round Midnight,” Monk’s most elemental thing:
Most beautiful and most bewildering
Because it builds a framework out of freedom.
At the Cambridge Union once, I watched Monk play
That song in his sharp hat and limp goatee
As if the fact that he himself composed it
Back in the day
Merely insured he would forget it slowly,
Instead of straightaway, like where he was.
His eyeballs like hot coals, he jabbed and growled,
At one stage failing to locate the keyboard
Completely. But I walked to the Blue Boar
Beside Tom Weiskel to pay awestruck homage.
Monk thought we were the cops. He disappeared.
Only a few years later, Weiskel, too,
Went missing. Back in the States, majestic
In his tenure, he was skating with his daughter
On a frozen lake. She went through the thin ice
And he died diving for her. So now I
Am the only one of those three men alive.
Let’s call it four. George Russell loved that number.
He heard the sparseness in the classic tones,
Though his idea of swing was Hindemith.


My Americans in Cambridge
Had names from comic books—
Star Lawrence, Mike Smith, Pete Mazan,
Steve Greenblatt, and Tom Weiskel

The skis were long in those days
And Mike Smith’s, made of steel,
Would clatter on the moguls
Of Zurs am Alberg

As he straight-lined a whole hill.
None of them liked the war
But you couldn’t see them losing

Back teaching in the States,
Weiskel, to save his daughter,
Didn’t stop to take his skates off
Before he went in to find her
And they both died in the cold

He’d understand, if ever I should see him
In the halls of Dis,
I just about put up with the idea
Of his death, but not hers.
But he won’t need telling that,
Today, in this long winter ….

[excerpted from Clive James latest book: “The River in the Sky.”]

» Read more of this “new epic” poem,204,203,200_.jpg
“Few people read Poetry any more, but I still wish to write its seedlings down, if only for the lull of gathering: no less a harvest season for being the last time,” writes Clive James in his epic poem, The River in the Sky.

What emerges from this lamentation is a soaring epic of exceptional depth and overwhelming feeling, all the more extraordinary given its appearance in an age when the heroic poem seems to have disappeared from contemporary literature.

Among James’s many talents is his uncanny ability to juxtapose references to early twentieth-century poets with “offbeat humor and flyaway cultural observations” (Dwight Garner, New York Times), or allusions to the adagio of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony contrasted with references to “YouTube’s vast cosmopolis.” Whether recalling his Australian childhood or his father’s “clean white headstone” in a Hong Kong cemetery, James’s autobiographical epic ultimately helps us define the meaning of life.

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