Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Craft: Clive James study #5 - The Sentimental Son

Of course, there is more than one kind of travel, and I suppose one of the reasons we like to travel physically is because it enables a more ambitious journey of the mind to take place: our thoughts, which shouldn't really be hostage to stillness, are nevertheless liberated by physical movement and by encounters with the new, or, more relevant for this post, new encounters with the old.

James' poem "Occupation: Housewife" (available for free here) relates the poet's return to Sydney, the town of his upbringing and, in a way, the source of the debt that made it necessary for him to leave his hometown and make a name for himself as a writer living abroad - the "books, degrees, the money" that proclaimed his success. Now he is returning to visit his mother, to wait with her, "to what end we know". But, before the end (termed at the close of the poem as her going "out of this world"), James and his mother recall the Sydney of World War 2, when his father was serving abroad and his mother was "waiting for when / The Man Himself came back from Overseas".

For personal reasons, I find this poem a moving one - as for James, my father was absent from my life, and I think I understand something of the debt to that absence that James describes. But perhaps what is more interesting than me being able to relate to this work is the broader question of how James evokes a sense of nostalgia and time travel: it is not, after all, possible to rely on the readership consisting of those with absent fathers.

Instead, he begins the poem with two symbolic images that he will return to at the end. The first is the "Toni", a cheap perm that in the poem's first temporal setting (the War) is being advertised in "paragraphs of technical baloney" as an alternative to the "Expensive Perm". (Throughout, James uses capitals to signal the higher, unquestionable status attached in the mindset of the day to certain objects.) The "Toni" fails, and within two hours the perm is as "limp as the spear-points of household germs". The second symbol of the age is home brewing, "another false economy" but also a source of humour - we get the story of "one mum" whose "copper blew its lid / Like Krakatoa". The resulting foam "murdered her hydrangeas at a stroke".

Relating these two symbols are the twin War concerns of going without and waiting. You went without real perms and real booze, and made do with the "Toni" and the home brew kit, no matter the consequences, in part because you were fortifying yourself to go without "The Man Himself", with "only the Yanks to offer luxuries / At a price no decent woman thought of then".

"She who had kept / Herself for him for so long" is the one whom James now visits, and together they trade "stories of the way things were" - the "Toni" and the explosion in the backyard. And the reason that this poem can be emotionally meaningful for all readers is that the moment of James' return to Sydney is laden with the symbols of the past - the material markers of time passing establish the sense of loss. We understand now that there is more than one journey being made, most significantly for James the one that relates all of his travels to his mother's staying home, her waiting.

I have recently learnt, from reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), that a common characteristic of grief is expecting the lost one to return. This, of course, is not altogether the same as waiting. But grief, going without, and waiting are linked. In the case of "Occupation: Housewife", they are linked by the journey back.