Poetry: <i>Injury Time — Notes on the Text</i> | clivejames.com
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Injury Time: Notes on the Text

Greatly gifted and prematurely cut down, James Elroy Flecker invented the Gardener in White at a time when death and decay, in order to fit the globalised imperial picture, were thought to need a touch of orientalist exoticism. Some of his rhythmic momentum, however, was permanently musical. Back in the days of black and white television, the BBC did an enchanting production of Flecker’s Hassan, with Gielgud proving that there was nothing kitsch about the sonorities.

“Finch Conference”: Phil Spector richly deserved his second-degree-murder rap but for anyone of my generation his tainted name still spells rhythmic power. The massed strings and guitars for “River Deep — Mountain High” gave so many of us the idea that the true object of popular music should be to move the male listener as close as possible to Tina Turner riding on the storm. Karsavina’s little book Theatre Street is still always somewhere near me. Dynamism was part of her lyricism. At the time of writing, I am hooked by the way Zenaida Yanowsky can lean into a turn as if her speed was holding her upright. Every page of YouTube is a worm-hole to Andromeda.

Singing Panis Angelicus with his father in the gallery of Modena Cathedral, Pavarotti proved the truth of his unblushing contention that his gift came from God. He was a modest man, however: too modest to believe that the music he made gave him a right to be untrue to his obligations. Finally, as Cavaradossi in Tosca, he was so big that he had to sit down to be shot: but he still turned up for as long as his voice was true.

My poem about Beethoven is in seven parts to echo the structure of his greatest quartet. “They used to say he wrote only one opera, but he wrote the only opera.” I first heard that idea from my dear friend Tony Locantro, who, back in the day when we first hit London, did so much to get me started on the love of serious music: and especially of the great operas. (As an apprentice A&R executive at EMI he had free access to the upcoming releases when they were still in “white label” form.) But for a long time much of the great chamber music was beyond me, and I am still finding out about it now, as the time approaches when it might not be so easy to read a book.

“Declaration of Intent”: Back when I could still travel, in the dance halls of Buenos Aires I would study the way the tango masters, some of them a lot older than the hills, would maintain a hesitation step until the accumulated potential energy delivered them into a surge of forward movement. The rallentando hiatus gave the maestro’s partner time to prepare for the searching reach of a long backward step. It often occurred to me that the parallel with writing poetry was very close. In a poem, to retard the impetus is often to prepare for power.

Carlos Fuentes has been gone now for several years but I still remember the humanist magnificence of the private library at his house in Mexico City. He said the place to see, in the historic Americas, was Oaxaca; but I never got there. The way he talked about Unamuno, however, I have remembered for all the time since. Even in old age, Carlos was a beautiful man in every respect, and the young women on my film team would sigh arias just from being in the same house.

I wrote the first drafts of “Not Forgetting George Russell” when I was locked up in the Closed Ward at Addenbrooke’s after a psychotic reaction to steroids. The editor of the C-text of Piers Plowman was already dead by then but my conversations with him continued; as, indeed, they do today. I should add, however, that the poem didn’t find its final form until I was back in the clear. The idea that scrambled brains are an aid to insight is not one I favour.

Finding the actual world quite bizarre enough, I never found surrealism interesting even when Magritte did it. But I can quite see how the subject of surrealism’s validity might come up with some force if a surrealist as beautiful as Lee Miller gets herself photographed in Hitler’s bathtub. Defending this poem from accusations of triviality, however, I would feel bound to say that she was almost certainly not concerned with making a surrealist statement but merely with having a bath, and that I was justified in calling her “sane”. Later on she got clinically depressed about having taken her famous photographs in the concentration camps but that was a different part of the forest. There is room for an infinite amount of journalistic comment on these topics but perhaps it should start with the fact that Lee Miller was raped and given a dose of gonorrhoea at the age of seven.

Years ago now, on the daunting favela where my production team filmed a key sequence of Postcard from Rio, our local fixer made the mistake of wearing a conspicuous pair of white leather shoes. But the mistake was ours to give him his stipend in advance. He was murdered for it. The extreme tonal range of that city has haunted me ever since.

In “Aldeburgh Dawn”, one of the last poems I began writing “on location”, as it were, most of the factual points about the setting can be easily googled, but the mention of the Falaise Gap might be a mystery to younger readers, because it gives the name of a place to an event happily forgotten. The turkey shoot at Falaise, where the rockets fired by the Typhoons punched holes in the retreating German armour, was the true end for the Wehrmacht in the West. In Aldeburgh at night, and in the early morning, the continent seems not all that far away. The “Duck” was a DUKW, an amphibious vehicle.

Perhaps conserving his powers of effect, the imaginary narrator of “Tactics of the Air Battle” praises the superiority of the P-38 while neglecting to mention that it was limited by its short range vis-à-vis the Mustang (P-51). A better sky in which to look for the true glory of the twin-boom fighter was in the Pacific theatre, where Richard Bong won his forty victories. My device of the ghost pilot narrator enabled me to draw upon the enthusiasms of my childhood: a mental storehouse that fills, I am convinced, far in advance of any urge to write poetry, and goes dim only at the end of life.

Though I was never a true student of gymnastics, I vaulted well enough to be part of Sydney Technical High School’s team that won the Pepsi Cola Shield. I mention this achievement here because the time for securing any further athletic triumphs is running out.