In Japanese Maple, the terminally ill author writes that he expects autumn will ‘end the game’
“Your death, near now, is of an easy sort / So slow a fading out brings no real pain,” writes Clive James in a new poem in which the terminally ill author contemplates how the arrival of autumn will “end the game” for him.
Diagnosed with leukaemia and emphysema in 2010, James has over the last year given readers a glimpse into his life through his poetry, last month describing his love for his wife, academic Prue Shaw, in The Emperor’s Last Words. With a nod to Napoleon’s final words about his long-estranged wife, Josephine, James ended that poem: “It’s time to go. High time to go. High time. / France, army, head of the army, Joséphine.”
In Japanese Maple, which has just been published in the New Yorker, the author and critic gives the impression that his end is even closer. Writing about the tree given to him by his daughter, which is planted in the back garden, James celebrates its small splendour, asking his readers, “When did you ever see / So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls / On that small tree”, and insisting that he must “live to see” its leaves “turn to flame” in autumn.
“That will end the game / For me, though life continues all the same,” writes James. “A final flood of colours will live on / As my mind dies, / Burned by my vision of a world that shone / So brightly at the last, and then was gone.”
Japanese Maple follows James’s poem Sentenced to Life, about how his longing to return to his homeland, Australia, is now impossible, and how he might be “Here in the English autumn, but my mind / Basks in the light I never left behind.” Again, the poem sees James in contemplation of a garden, writing how “Once, I would not have noticed; nor have known / The name for Japanese anemones, / So pale, so frail. But now I catch the tone / Of leaves. No birds can touch down in the trees / Without my seeing them. I count the bees.”
The author of a series of autobiographies detailing his childhood in Australia and his move to England, James is also one of the UK’s best-loved critics. His last television review, published by the Telegraph in May, saw him take on Eurovision and Conchita, writing: “One hundred and eighty million people in 45 countries were blown sideways by the uproar emanating from a young woman pretending to be Russell Brand, or perhaps it was Russell Brand pretending to be a young woman.”
Japanese Maple, by Clive James
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
‘Japanese Maple’ by Clive James, first published in the New Yorker, © Clive James, 2014