Sunday, November 12, 2023

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples

I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples

'I Was Only Coming True'

In the final year of his life, Clive James published a book-length poem, The River in the Sky (2018), a dying man’s last fling. The title refers to the Japanese phrase for the Milky Way. It’s mostly autobiography, a book of well-rehearsed memories, largely unstructured, much of it familiar to readers of James’ earlier work. In my experience and with growing frequency, memories often displace living in the present. The present is quite wonderful, thank you, but memory can be edited for happier consumption, with the boring and distasteful parts removed. It can lend forgiveness to old slights and grudges. When memory is not delusion, mythology or self-justification, it’s a well-earned consolation.

The poem is less aphoristic and tightly written than much of James’ earlier prose and verse. It’s for James completists. He writes that “little of the best wit comes from literature,” and that sounds like a sad confession. James recounts his visit to Finca La Vigia, the Hemingway House in Havana, which was locked but he peers through the windows into the living room:


“I scanned the shelves for spines

Of novels by Ronald Firbank

But couldn’t find them. I knew, though,

That they had to be there somewhere.

One of the things that made him great

Was his taste for stylists

Whose style was not like his.”


This is followed by another act of self-identification:


“I bathed in the radiated neatness

Of thousands of titles

But the sight that moved me most

Was a pair of moccasins

Out there on the carpet like a couple of canoes

Set to take someone bigger than the Yeti

Into the mist that cloaks the waterfall

Of unremitting, ever-extending time,

Which, captured in its density and essence

Will outrun even death.”


A few stanzas later, James shares a brief, inarguable artistic credo:


“Today and since it happened and far ahead,

Barber’s Adagio for Strings

Is the music of 9/11

Nothing aleatoric about it: no dice were thrown

Just beauty, which at the end had better

Be anybody’s fallback mode.”


The poem concludes on a lugubrious decrescendo:


“I thought that I was vanishing, but instead

I was only coming true:

Turning to what, in seeming to end here,

Must soon continue

As the rain does the moment that it falls.”


The final book James published in his lifetime is Somewhere Becoming Rain (2019), his collected writings on Phillip Larkin. The title is drawn from the concluding line of one of Larkin’s masterpieces, “The Whitsun Weddings.” In it I hear an echo of the just-quoted lines from The River in the Sky


“. . .  as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled

A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower   

Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.”