Poetry: <i>Independent</i> Review | clivejames.com
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Independent review

Angels Over Elsinore, By Clive James

A verse collection that ranges from brilliant to funny to not-quite-Larkin

Reviewed by Bill Greenwell

Monday, 12 January 2009

A test. To what does this Clive James simile refer: "...like a nouvelle cuisine hors d'oeuvre,/ A brown-green snail-pulp dollop on a bed/ Of mascarpone hardening to meringue". Even without knowing (the answer's at the end), you can see it has all the skill and problem of James's hyperactive relationship with language. Clever, rhythmically secure, it's still an analogy so busy as to overegg a pair of puddings. But that's why we read him, for the pleasure of his excesses, which hover a skilful inch from parody.

Much of the verse collected here (from 2003-2008) is very funny. James can write slow-fuse poems as well as George Burns told jokes. They develop, do a little hoofing along the way, arrive at a well-timed, laconic conclusion. James being James, there is a casually rich mix of cultural allusions, but the most important quality is complete clarity. Sometimes he can be sonorous, and achieve only a slightly artificial note of grandeur, as in a poem about a painting: "Art must choose/ What truly merits perpetuity/ From everything that we are bound to lose." This is that fatal thing, not-quite-Larkin.

The same overwrought phrasing sometimes weighs down an ending like inferior lead. In "Genesis Wafers" (honeycomb panels on a space probe designed to catch solar particles), James describes the panels as "invaded by stuff torn/ From the incandescent storm that powers the dawn": bombastic language at odds with his merrymaking talent for agreeable scorn, and genuine feeling.

The good stuff is terrific. There's a brilliant onslaught on Donald Rumsfeld's "known unknowns": "now that we know/ We might have known we didn't know, let's keep/ our heads." He depicts a museum with display cabinets of the stuff of cliché: "The ashes of the moth drawn to the flame/ Spilled milk, rough diamond, gift horse, gathered moss". The title poem is a riposte to the idea of flights of angels sending Hamlet anywhere but back to the beginning of Act V, and the skulls in the bone-yard.

Death is high on James's agenda, and he deals with it tenaciously. He sometimes makes a meal of a poem, but this collection essentially finds him in sparkling form, rhyming with gusto. And that simile? It's an analogy for bird-shit. But perhaps you guessed.