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A Poet Pines, Charms In 'Opal Sunset'

Each of the 82 poems in the Opal Sunset collection by the Australian-born, U.K.-dwelling culture maven Clive James aims for warm glow and clear flow, and a delightfully shocking number of them achieve that lucid state. An ace critic of the printed word and moving image, James brings that eye for the ideas of art and the soul of pop to his lustrous moonlighting.

Film sirens flicker regularly here. The curves of an odalisque by Matisse beckon. W.H. Auden comes in for a rhythmic reckoning — sympathetic but unsentimental — of his late career. The speaker of "Bring Me the Sweat of Gabriela Sabatini" — a bloke, one surely senses, with tastes none too distant from the poet's own — is a tennis fan no longer able to stifle his "croak of need" for the beauties of the women's tour:

James unleashes this "parched howl" for six further stanzas, pining for intimacy with the Argentinean brunette and her supple backhand. In classical fashion, he catalogues and incants. He's not unreasonable ("Out of deference to Billie Jean I did my best / To control my male chauvinist urges"), but his reason loses its battle to the pull of the poem's pleading meter.

Recurring themes include the vanities of literary life (as in the schadenfreude masterpiece "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered"), the tick-tock of mortality ("The breath of life is what finally kills you") and the destructive power of religion (and, not quite paradoxically, the plump grace of angels).

But almost all of the poems touch on desire — parting glances, nostalgic gazes, inquiries into the charms of both Don Juan and Cleopatra. One proof that James, the poet, deserves greater recognition on these shores is his ability to make even the sin of lust ring with the sound of fun.

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Troy Patterson