A Review of Clive James: Sentenced to Life

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book review

John Ellis

A Review of Clive James, Sentenced to Life

New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016
ISBN 978-1-63149-172-6, 80 pp., USA $24.95, hardcover



Author and poet Clive James’ Sentenced to Life is a somber retrospective in the face of illness and aging. Now seventy-six, James has survived a battle with leukemia, and he muses over his existence and the day-to-day routines of managing medication, senility, and memories.
  Throughout, James reports the exertion of penning verse in his infirm state. In his mind, “the fires are dying fast”; a single page of double-spaced poetry takes him half the day to compose. The collection is nonetheless a vibrant display of James’ prowess as a poet as well as his propensity toward seemingly effortless meter and rhyme; the majority of it moves in stanzas that embody unforced rhyme scheme, natural and well-crafted at the same time:

        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.

There are several departures from this, but they make for comfortable variation. Meter and rhyme is a key ingredient in James’ previous collections as well; perhaps because he has had so much practice, James’ sense of organic word pairings is unparalleled here.
  In addition, the collection straddles a line between solipsistic and universally accessible as it asks what life is in the face of death. One wonders if Sentenced to Life, so starkly honest, borders too closely on the . . .
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