Issue #185 - Michael Oliver

Michael Oliver


What Outlasts Life?


Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013, 86 pp., $26.50).



Clive James writes poems that are poetry. That is, his poems speak with verbal music, like the poems poets used to write, before fine writing was denounced and damned, by righteous anti-intellectuals. An axiom of creativity declares that knowledge must precede creation — knowledge of both method and domain. A poet must know how to form a poem, and a poet must know what each feeling is (as Susanne Langer said — and she was right) in order to create a lasting poem.

   James defends his poems in a poem that might be considered his poetics, not to mention his severe assessment of the way some other poets write. To make his point he first calls on Ronsard:


But on the whole it’s useless to point out

That making the thing musical is part

Of pinning down what you are on about.

The voice leads to the craft, the craft to


All this is patent to the gifted few

Who know, before they can, what they

     must do

To make the mind a spokesman for the



As for the million others, they are


This is their age. Their slap-dash in


For all who would take fright were thought expressed

In ways that showed a hint of being planned,

They may say anything, in any way.

Why not? Why shouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they?

Nothing to study, nothing to understand.

                                      (“A Perfect Market”)


One line in these two stanzas is outstanding, and it is not easy to forget:  To make the mind a spokesman for the heart. The fact that we might easily remember this one line is owing to its beauty: its precision and its flawless rhythm of iambics in pentameter, its sharp caesura and its rising cadence. Like the lines of Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley, Keats, and Yeats — to name the standards — and to chasten Ezra Pound’s curse to “make it new,” which ruined English metre for the last chaotic hundred years — Clive James’s lines require that we listen, and then think about what he is saying. Shakespeare and the others live forever. Who can now recall a line from Pound?

     The poems in this fascinating volume, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, are the products of an old man knowing that his life is in its final days. He may be dying, but his mind is living, and he strives to make a testament that will ensure that he, at least, remembers what his life has been before he dies. What is it, then, that he remembers most?  This tottering libidinous old man. Of course the answer is predictable, but still it is a little disappointing. Sex is what his poems have in mind. Not merely as a theme to be considered, but as lust imagined in the act. Not often does a poet celebrate the sense of touch involved in copulation with a woman in the way James does. The story is, his wife of many years — a scholar who translated Dante’s work — expelled  him from her own refined embrace because of his obscene philandering. “How sensual pleasure feels. It can’t be seen,” says James in “Oval Room, Wallace Collection,” and this might be the motto of his mind.

     If this is so, it might be disconcerting. Fortunately, James’s poetry is what concerns us here. His life and thinking are irrelevant. Consider how his verse articulates the secret touch, the female mystery, as he describes the hidden White Nun Orchid:


  ... Her sweet hunger is displayed

  By the labellum, set for bees in flight

  To land on. In her well, the viscin gleams:

  Mesmeric nectar, sticky stuff of dreams.

                                       (“Monja Blanca”)

The point is that these lines transcend the thought. The theme of touching is transformed to sight, and pleasure is expressed in terms of beauty, by the images and metaphors and rhythm, making what is unknown to the eyes intelligibly visual and rare.

     Not only is the coarseness of plain sex redeemed by James’s fine poetic writing, but the love he feels toward his wife is also uttered with exquisite grace. He speaks to her as they sit near Mount Etna and watch lava spilling from the peak:


  Only because it’s violent to the core

  The world grows gardens. Out of earth we came,

  To earth we shall return. But first, one more

  Of these, delicious echoes of the flame


  That drives the long life all should have, yet few

  Are granted as we were. It wasn’t fair?

  Of course it wasn’t, but which of us knew,

  To start with, that the other would be there.


  One step away, for all the time it took

  To come this far and see a mountain cry

  Hot tears, as if our names, signed in the book

  Of marriage, were still burning in the sky?

                                      (“Signing Ceremony”)


This poem is romantic through and through, and only tragic if we know what happened after that late night of married love. A reader should not listen to the gossip. What the poem says is all important.

     At the centre of this poignant book is “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower,” read best as a hopeful meditation on the painful ravages of time. The poem opens with a playful image, and some musing on the portrait bust that has become a captivating icon:


  If there were one thing that Egyptian Queens were used to

  It was getting walled up inside a million tons

  Of solid rock. Nefertiti had a taste of that

  Before the painted head by which we know her —

  That neck, that pretty hat, those film-star features,

  The Louise Brooks of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms —

  Emerged to start a tour of the museums

  That finished in Berlin, almost for keeps.

  It could have been the end, but for the flak tower:

  With all the other treasures she was brought there

  And sat the war out barely shivering,

  Deep in the armoured storeroom built by slaves —

  The old scenario again ....


The poem then describes the massive bombings, and the bombers shot down on the towers, all the horror of concussive warfare, till it ended and the Queen emerged. Years later James goes on a visit:


  In Berlin in the spring I cross the bridge

  To the Museumsinsel just to see her

  And dote on her while she gives me that look,

  The look that says: “You’ve seen one tomb, you’ve seen

  Them all.” For five long years the flak towers stood

  Fighting the enemy armies in the sky

  Whose flying chariots were as the locusts

  An age but less than no time to Nefertiti,

  Who looks as if she never heard a thing.


Now read again that last pentameter — James’s trademark and how fine it is!  What, though, does Nefertiti symbolize?  That she embodies exemplarity is evident to anyone who sees her. James implies that she is everlasting. But what is she? Not just Art but Beauty. This is how the poet lives forever. Not by seizing days and wanton women, but by writing poems beautifully, great lyrics that are never touched by time.

     Clive James has done that, with true dignity, as in this farewell poem to himself:


  The light as it grows dark has come for you

  To comfort you. It is the sweet embrace

  Of what your history was bound to do:

  Close in, and in due time to take your place.

  You can’t believe it, but it’s nothing new:

  Your life has turned to look you in the face.

                            (“The Light As It Grows Dark”)


That final line is unforgettable.