Editor’s Note:

Egyptian gods and pharoahs, “YouTube’s vast cosmopolis,” Degas and Klimt, the War in which his father was captured, and freed, only to die on the way home, Australian sports, Monk (Thelonious, that is): these are among the many things of Clive James’s moving, magisterial “The River in the Sky,” whose excerpts form our second multimedia poetry feature. The selections found here chart a grand movement, leaping about as the larger book-length work does, but providing a sense of the flowing whole. James’s is a poem of memory, which is to say, of place and passion—one in which figures appear and reappear, ideas remain, and books form “walls of color / The sunlight will titrate from spring to autumn.”

The poem itself is autumnal, offered late in a life—James, who was born outside Sydney, in 1939, has for years been fighting, and outliving, a diagnosis of terminal cancer—and it is as colorful as that season, as vivid in its details. While at times elegiac, “stoked with countless deaths,” “The River in the Sky” also serves as a testimony to memory as a balm that “could fuel a nebula.” The “river” of the title is both the course of a life and what awaits; it is the noble Nile; the frozen lake in which his friend drowns while trying to save a daughter; and a larger ocean of thought that spans two millennia. The poem is also unafraid to admit the limitations of place and of human knowledge: “There was a lesson there / And I still don’t know what it is.” Ultimately, we are left with the lyric exploration suggested by Monk and his jazz, where lines are not blurred but played in recognition of everything that is “a blur already,” a song “carved out of fog.”

Kevin Young