From Publishers Weekly
Famous for decades in Britain and in his native Australia as an essayist, critic and television presenter, James has latterly gained attention in both those countries for his poems, long a sidelight, but now moving toward center stage. James's most memorable works include jokes (The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased), and he shows the ease and comic timing of a born performer in free verse and in easily rhymed stanzas. Yet he is not only a comedian: Philip Larkin, he says in an elegy for that poet, didn't sound like poetry one bit,/ Except for being absolutely it, and James sets himself a similar goal. James evokes long-ago student days in Sydney or 21st-century scenes in London, along with male lusts, both absurd (Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini) and touching (a May-December romance glimpsed in a train station). James's high profile may help win reviews, but his selection (not scanty or overlong) will win hearts and minds only if readers find in it what James finds in his favorite paintings: Proofs that the incandescent present tense/ Is made eternal by our transience. (Sept.)
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“In a culture growing weak from forgetfulness,” James says, “to be memorable should be the aim.” That’s a dangerous way to introduce a half-century’s work, rather daring us to find it forgettable. But there is much to remember in these poems (e.g., “I think her tongue was in her cheek, / but with that much plastic surgery it was hard to tell”) that themselves are acts of memorization. Unlike many other contemporary writers, James recalls not only personal memories, like the titular sunset (a phrase that, in an extravagantly clever poem, drifts down the stanzas like the poet moving towards home), but also cultural memories. In “Six Degrees of Separation from Shelley,” he dines with a woman who knew a man who . . . you get the drift. Personal experience is important in this poem because it connects James to a larger cultural history. “Fifty years on, the place still packs a thrill,” James says of Hemingway’s Africa. Fifty years on, his verse does, too. --Patricia Monaghan