Book Review: Nefertiti in the Flak Tower
By Clive James
There’s something strange in Clive James’ insistence on being a poet. He’s the fiercest polymath and autodidact still living in the Republic of Letters, author of a great autobiography (Unreliable Memoirs), a great novel (Brilliant Creatures), a great essay collection (Cultural Amnesia), and, in the teeth of his critics, a great translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But through it all he’s also consistently published poems and collections of poems, including his latest, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower, and he’s done so without any change in his tone, much less the change of tone readers have come to associate with contemporary poetry. His verses adhere to metrical rules Edmund Spenser would have recognized on sight, and they have actual subjects that range beyond the last four random things the poet happened to see, and they have rhetorical aims that are neither reductive nor juvenile. James is sharing the same hardcover-poetry market with writers like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins (indeed, Collins provides a blurb for this current book), but compared to what they do, he might as well be writing in Martian picto-glyphs.
It’s defiantly anachronistic, this ongoing project of his. James obstinately refuses to sequester poetry to a cloister or a madhouse. He has taken pains to gain a mastery of poetic forms in an age when such mastery – and such forms – are disdained. The poems in Nefertiti in the Flak Tower are carefully-shaped resonant individual worlds, and they are demotic in ways that must be equally baffling to both our worst contemporary poets and our best ones. It’s not hard to imagine Frederick Seidel or August Kleinzahler reacting to James’ poetry with an inner sneer, and it’s not hard to figure out why. What, of their sidelong views and percipient language, is present for instance in this collection’s title poem, about how the ancient bust of Nefertiti was hidden in deep storage during World War II and then put back on display when the bombs stopped falling? It’s practically conversational by comparison:
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.
It’s true there are pretty tangles among these poems (“And Then They Dream of Love” is a particularly – and, tellingly, atypically – tortured evocation of love’s quarrels), but the vast majority of them are James’ own thoughts and reflections, stretched and pounded into pentameter and rhyme, as in the old-man-longing of “Beachmaster,” in which the narrator spots “the latest Miss Australia” lounging on the sand and reminds himself of practicalities:
… Look at her,
But shade your sad glance carefully, old man –
For she will never see you as you were,
A long way out, before the end began.
And although there’s some variety here, the collection’s central preoccupations, with aging and imminent death, are almost omnipresent – and understandable in a writer who’s recently received some dire warnings about his health. We get an absolutely lovely tribute to James’ wife Prue Shaw in “Book Review,” and in the characteristically titled “On Reading Hakluyt at High Altitude” we get the old familiar James still exulting in the open enthusiasms that have made him such a wonderful literary guide all these years:
How unimaginable the past seems.
When read about in detail! All that pain
With little gained or even less, the schemes
To get rich quick turned rotten by the rain –
Or ruined by the lack of it. All dreams:
Except the few that worked gave us this plane
We fly in now, our voyage just begun –
To catch the giant sling swung by the sun.
But by far the most recurrent obsession here is with loss, with extinction, with the unglamorous fact that the poet is losing old friends – such as James’ fellow poet Peter Porter, commemorated in the grandly moving “Silent Sky”:
We try to give thanks that you made old bones,
But still I see the beach at Troy, the fires
For fallen heroes. This is an event
Proving for all the great work that lives on
A great life dies, and leaves an empty tent –
An aching void to measure our time by
As overwhelming as a silent sky.
And even here, you involuntarily notice that the idiomatic saying ‘to make old bones’ is carted onstage in order to fill out of line’s numbers. It’s entirely right we now expect our poets to slice away the lazy idioms from the bone of their telling; it’s entirely right that we now expect such paring to trump scansion. It’s strange that James so clearly doesn’t think that way. Take the obviously heartfelt “The Later Yeats,” in which James sets out to capture in verse this poet he knows so consummately well:
… This, he makes us feel,
Is where all deeper meanings are well met,
Contained in a majestic vessel made
Out of the sea it sails on, yet so strong
We never, watching it our whole lives long,
Doubt its solidity. All else may fade,
But this stands out as if it had been sent
To prove it can have no equivalent.
“Our whole lives long” here is mere place-holding, and it’s hard to understand a poet who thinks it’s acceptable for poetry to do that sort of thing, like a 21st century version of Chapman’s finny tribes. It’s hard to understand Nefertiti in the Flak Tower just in general, hard to know what need these poems – so many of them only first cousins to Outback drinking-song lilts – fill in their author’s heart that isn’t filled by the wide spectrum of prose he commands so thoroughly.
There’s great, quiet enjoyment to be had in these pages, but it’s tempered by the sense of a great writer tinkering with an entire genre, to see if he can make it do first this, then that. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned feeling, akin to reading the verses of Samuel Johnson. Which we still do, 200 years later – so maybe there’s a method to this madness after all.