By John Cornelius

Ad Astra: Two Poets on a Stairway to Heaven

Running Upon The Wires
By Kate Tempest (Picador, Sept 2018, rrp £9.95)

The River in the Sky
By Clive James (Picador, Sept 2018, rrp £14.95)


Ostensibly, two collections of poetry. But in reality two extended narratives. Kate Tempest gets her story’s title from James Joyce’s tales, Dubliners:

“My body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”

Clive James’ title, The River in the Sky, refers to the blank pathways between the stars of the Milky Way. Those of us old enough to remember when the extinct art/craft of typography was the province of expert eyes that could spot an unwanted river of white through a badly-set printed book-page of type will appreciate the simile.

Running Upon The Wires is Kate Tempest’s fifth collection of poems but reads like one fulsome account of the end of one (lesbian) love affair and the beginning of the next, including the fraught hiatus in between. Tempest is a brash and extrovert young performance poet but here reveals her vulnerable side:

“I eat and I sleep and
I stare at my feet
And I’m busy, I’m so busy
Leave me alone
I’m typing your name
in my phone…

Her face was stretched as
taught as the tightrope
that we swayed on
As the argument I’d
started and then tried
to walk away from”

Clive James, on the other hand, seems to have been around forever: the sharp-tongued, sarcastic TV presenter and chat show host; the glib but clever quality Sunday papers’ journalist and critic; the densely wordy songwriter who has been dying, seemingly, for a decade or so. This collection, like Kate Tempest’s, is a narrative, not of lost love and new beginnings but of lost life and glimpses of oblivion. James, we are told, is actually dying of leukaemia but is almost embarrassed at how long the process is taking after having trumpeted far and wide his imminent demise.

“All is not lost,
despite the quietness
That comes like nightfall
now as the last strength
Ebbs from my limbs, and
feebleness of breath
Makes even focusing
my eyes a task…

Lying here so ill my memories
– Which, you will have
noticed, Are stoked with
countless deaths –
Could fuel a nebula…

This is my autumn’s autumn.
Claiming the use
Of so much splendour
with my failing eyes
I take it as a sympathetic ruse
To glorify the path of one
who dies…”

If you ever doubted the relevance of poetry, these two books should put you right: a young woman, tough and vulnerable in equal parts, taking you on an excruciating trip from the end of an affair to the beginning of another. Meanwhile, a clever, Saturnine old man sits next to you, points at the stars and says, “Look: this is where we are heading. All of us.”


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