Book Review / The River in the Sky by Clive James

“It is at times dream-like, even hallucinatory, as though the words, etched out of cloud formations and therefore ever-shifting and dispersing, are the sprawled-out remains of neurons weary but still firing connections like glittering stars.” – Tess Pearson reviews The River in the Sky by Clive James

The River in the Sky (2018) is a novella-length epic poem from the renowned Australian writer and broadcaster Clive James. James takes the reader through a sequence of ebbs and flows, collecting up imagery and experiences from his own life and travels and inscribing them with mythology.

Clive James is widely known for his hugely successful memoir, Unreliable Memoirs (1980) and his popular television broadcast career. Since announcing in 2012 that he was ‘near the end’ of his life, fighting leukaemia, emphysema, and kidney failure, James has chosen to focus his limited time on poetry. Following Nefertiti in the Flak Tower (2012), a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2013), Sentenced to Life (2015), and Injury Time (2017), The River in the Sky is his latest poetic endeavour.

James evokes both a coming-to-terms with the ending of a life still rich with memories and connections, and an everlasting yearning for that which will never be redeemed. The death of James’ father, who survived being a prisoner-of-war only to die in a plane crash on returning home when James was six, is one such loss which haunts the poem.

Often personal in content, and looser in form than James’ other poems, there is an informal and at times even un-polished feel to the cadence of The River in the Sky. Having grown up watching James on television, I couldn’t help but hear his voice, that distinctive amused tone that borders on sardonic, narrating this poem in my mind. Hearing this voice shaped into overt poetic form illuminated for me the way rhythm and poetry have always been essential qualities of language for James, no matter his medium. He describes:

For how non-fiction pieces ought to sound:

Allusive, rhythmic, fact-filled and poetic

Like the hip talk of a bunch of Yanks in Paris,

Blasé but hungry for sophistication

Though the poem weaves a tapestry of references from a Cambridge-educated and richly ‘cultured’ life, it has a surprising lack of pretentiousness. Instead, it is rendered with tenderness, humility, and ultimately a sense of frailty. Alongside the cultural and mythological imagery are panoramic descriptions of nature, such as the porpoises ‘Crest-hurdling towards the setting sun’, the sea turtles that ‘nest ashore’, or the ‘hump-backed whales’ that ‘cruise by’. There is a feeling here of taking an aerial view of the world as though floating, observing larger patterns and resonances. One can’t help but feel a gentle subtext of the poem is the question: What becomes of all these experiences, what becomes of all this knowledge?

Detachment from the world

Was the wrong idea for me

I was an involved one

I wanted everything

And I will leave the world

In a cloud of a million tendrils

That once joined me to everything

Even the drifting pollen

We are given the sense that in the end, the events in any individual’s life – however grand or small, whether touched by fame and glory or not – might never add up to more than mere components of matter that will inevitably disentangle and decompose, returning to earth like compost, to become ground for the next strains of life.

Just as in this poem

the long path of narration

Is nothing but a forest

Like the trail of images

Collected on the floor

Of Dante’s Purgatory

And the trail is made of trails

That alter in the glittering

Squalls of evening

Racing on Sydney Harbour

Where you see the silver lining of a single wave

That you will never see again

Until you get to San Francisco.

On this global web of water

On which life, like money spiders,

Blooms in sunlight and withers in cold

The whisper of the wind

Is the foretaste of the death

Ushering life into existence

The River in the Sky is a gentle and meandering poem, intended as a closing poetic offering. With one hand it renders the events of an accomplished life in epic form, and with the other it sweeps away their grandeur, revealing a common vulnerability inherent in being any kind of living organism. It is at times dream-like, even hallucinatory, as though the words, etched out of cloud formations and therefore ever-shifting and dispersing, are the sprawled-out remains of neurons weary but still firing connections like glittering stars.


Tess Pearson’s poetry, fiction, and microlit can be found in Southerly, Cordite, Rabbit, Scum Mag, and Swamp, among others, as well as a number of anthologies. Tess has been the recipient of a Varuna Fellowship, winner of the 2017 NWF/SW joanne burns Microlit Award, and a selected participant for the 2018 Fiction Edition of Hardcopy: The Professional Development Program for Australian Writers. She lives on Gadigal land.


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