_Nefertiti in the Flak Tower_ contains the some of the best poems written by an Australian (whether James outdoes himself in previous collections, I haven't as yet determined). His technical proficiency (rhymes always apt, never forced or gratuitous; numbers always correct (although I didn't go to the trouble of counting them)) sets him above, I think, even Les Murray, whose _Fredy Neptune_ truly has star quality. This is to say nothing of James's translation of _The Divine Comedy_ -- perhaps the greatest poem written in English -- for which James deserves a knighthood.
James's poems in _Nefertiti in the Flak Tower_ show that the traditional perfect rhymes still have much work to do in rendering a contemporary objective correlative. It is really as though, for all James's very up to the mark wit and humour, we had arrived back at the age of Longfellow via the discipleship of John Betjeman. Indeed, such is in all liklihood the case. A Modernist or Postmodernist, believing that traditional perfect rhymes have lost their currency, must be bemused by what James has achieved.
Although several poems in free form are included in the collection, most of the poems are in traditional form, and the poems in traditional form are in a class apart from the poems in free form. The poems in free form are remarkable for lacking the _poetry_ of the poems in traditional form. James has not absorbed Modernism and Postmodernism so well as someone like Ted Hughes. James needs the beat and plausibility of the old rhyming iambic pentameter.
This is not to depreciate James's achievement: he deserves praise for having resisted Modernism and Postmodernism, as much as another poet deserves praise for having absorbed them. Perhaps there is a certain reaction in Great Britain against the influence and authority of Modernism (Pound and Eliot) and Postmodernism. There is Betjeman; and there is the Movement 'school' of British writers -- Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Donald Davie. James represents Movement 'principles': "And yet it could be that their flight from rhyme/ And reason is a technically precise/ Response to the confusion of a time/ When nothing, said once, merits hearing twice" ("A Perfect Market").
He might also be viewed as standing in the tradition of the 'Augustan school' of Australian poets -- James McAuley, A.D. Hope. This is perhaps a bit far-fetched since nearly all of James's writing life has taken place in Great Britain, but, temperamentally, James's poetry is akin to that of these Australian writers: "Surprised by Vulcan, Venus doesn't care/ A fig, and Mars is merely given pause./ The reason for the cuckold's angry stare/ Might be that her sweet cleft is draped with gauze" ("Oval Room, Wallace Collection"). This is very much like A.D. Hope (who reacted violently to T.S. Eliot), particularly. One is also inclined to think of Norman Lindsay's paintings and Kenneth Slessor's poetry ("Rubens' Innocents").
So James has a British aspect and he has an Australian aspect, and one is chary of saying that one or the other is dominant. Perhaps it is only appropriate to Australia's status as a former infant colony of Great Britain that a distinguished Australian should indivisibly evidence such a royal blend of influences. James himself styles himself as a man of the old empire.
James is a kind of Renaissance man: there appears to be no subject that he is not competent in tackling. In _Nefertiti in the Flak Tower_ he writes about imperialism, colonialism, democracy, despotism, freedom, mortality, sex, scholarship, Whitman, Yeats, Sydney, London. All are dealt with with professionalism, insight and panache.
He does not refrain from jumping on the band wagon: "Have you noticed that sick parrot over there/ Is wearing John Galliano's face before last?/ We should cut the poor bastard some slack" ("Madagascar Full-Tilt Boogie"). But, on the other hand, his tribute to Suu Kyi ("A Spray of Jasmine") is lovely and shows how well able he is to write about living people.
In "Castle in the Air" he claims a kind of droit du seigneur: "Once more I will depart/... Take maidens here and there as is my right,/ And voyage even to eternal night/ As the hero does...." In these days of political correctness (aggressive monogamy), it is quite startling to uncover such a claim. James is perhaps the last believer in a 'baroque' view of male sexual privilege. Yet his poetry is so witty and competent one tries to find ways of granting it to him (perhaps _Lady Chatterley's Lover_ is an authority).
James is an exceptional poet. In these days of chopped-up prose, breakdown of traditional form ("[a]ll out of shape from toe to top": Yeats), James demonstrates a sensibility of fineness and acuity. This is a rare thing and a sublime achievement. Sometimes one is in the mood for writing that has absorbed the lessons of Modernism, Postmodernism, Postpostmodernism and any successors to that, but, on the other hand, it is an enjoyable experience to pick up a collection whose poet has for the most part successfully resisted the very considerable powers of disruption if not destruction.