I struggled to choose which poem of Clive James’s to share in today’s email. Perhaps ‘The Shadow Knows’, in which someone at the end of their life moves through their days in reflection, or ‘Silent Sky’, written for Peter Porter on his death in 2010 – now that’s a memorial poem to rival Auden’s ‘Stop all the clocks’.
You should read both of those poems another time, but today I went for 'Plate Tectonics'. Time is a very hard thing to write about well, yet this poem makes it seem so simple. It lures you into thinking it will be about the majesty of nature – which it is, in a way – before grabbing your ideas and your all too believing eyes and throwing them aside. Life is not long, not really, and the world is not ours, or if it is, then only briefly. I write as if this poem were a sharp rebuff of the reader, but the voice is gentle, wise; you’d be forgiven for thinking that it wasn’t written by a fellow mortal.
Rosanna, picador.com editor
In the Great Rift, the wildebeest wheel and run,
Spooked by a pride of lions which would kill,
In any thousand of them, only one
Or two were they to walk or just stand still.
They can’t see that, nor can we see the tide
Of land go slowly out on either side,
As Africa and Asia come apart
Inexorably like a broken heart.
We measure everything by our brief lives
And pity most a life cut shorter yet.
Granddaughters get smacked if they play with knives,
Or should be, to make sure they don’t forget.
So think the old folk, by their years made wise,
Believing what they’ve seen before their eyes,
And knowing what time is, and where it goes.
Deep on the ocean floor, the lava flows.
‘Plate Tectonics’ is published in Nefertiti in the Flak Tower by Clive James. Clive's Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 is also out now.
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