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Boss Cupid

Boss Cupid

by Thom Gunn

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A great poet's freshest, most provocative book.

He dreams at the center of a closed system,
Like the prison system, or a system of love,
Where folktale, recipe, and household custom
Refer back to the maze that they are of.
--from "A System: PCP, or Angel Dust"

Taste and appetite are contraposed in Boss Cupid,


A great poet's freshest, most provocative book.

He dreams at the center of a closed system,
Like the prison system, or a system of love,
Where folktale, recipe, and household custom
Refer back to the maze that they are of.
--from "A System: PCP, or Angel Dust"

Taste and appetite are contraposed in Boss Cupid, the twelfth book of poems by the quintessential San Francisco poet, who is also the quintessential craftsman and quintessentially a love poet, though not of quintessential love.Variations on how we are ruled by our desires, these poems make a startling and eloquent gloss on wanton want, moving freely from the story of King David and Bathsheba to Arthur Rimbaud's diet to the tastes of Jeffrey Dahmer. As warm and intelligent as it is ribald and cunning, this collection of Thom Gunn's is his richest yet.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Imagine an Auden less reticent . . . Almost all of Gunn's virtues are on display here: his playful metrical dexterity, his unflinching celebration of both beauty and its transience.” —Paul Gray, Time

“Passion in all its obsessive gnarly complexity [serves as] the dominant motif in Boss Cupid . . . But in the end, Gunn's great lyric versatility, his edgy wit, and his mastery as a portraitist [underscore] 'the intellect as the powerhouse of love'--and of Gunn's poetics. He is at once the most visceral and cerebral of poets, delineating desire and its fallout with an objective precision.” —Carol Moldaw, The Antioch Review

“[He has] a formal expertise as polished and apparently effortless as any in contemporary poetry . . . Gunn can choose his form and can fashion, within its enabling limits, breathtaking sweeps through a wide range of fraught feeling.” —Michael Thurston, The Yale Review

Big Boss Man

Thom Gunn's acclaimed 1992 poetry collection, The Man with the Night Sweats, significantly broadened both his popular audience and his critical reputation. Yet that collection's contemplative, commemorative poems chronicling the catastrophe of AIDS in his community were so elegantly final, and so absorbed in questions of ending, that one wondered nervously what Gunn might do next. The release of Collected Poems in 1994 made Gunn's silence of recent years all the more deafening.

Boss Cupid shows how well this time was spent. The book is not merely an extension of the concerns and sensibility of The Man with the Night Sweats, it represents a further stage in Gunn's development. Raised in middle-class London, a graduate of Cambridge, and a fixture of the San Francisco gay scene since 1954, Gunn possesses a hybrid dialect, a formal style, and a viewpoint peculiar to itself. His singularity is perhaps most instantly discernible in his use of meter and rhyme; the complaint that "all the good rhymes in the English language have been used up" has met its match in the infernally ingenious pairings of lines like these: "Friends by the bedful, lounging on one sheet,/Playing cards, smoking, while the drugs come on, Or watching the foot-traffic on the beat,/Ready for every fresh phenomenon" ("Saturday Night").

But in Boss Cupid, these idiosyncrasies of style and substance are put to new purpose. Gunn seems to have reached the third phase of the famous paradigm Kierkegaard laid out in his masterwork Fear and Trembling: If the elegiacal, sober tone of The Man with the Night Sweats approximates the knight of infinite resignation, then the spirit of this collection is the knight of infinite faith, who, after having made due sacrifice, receives the world back again. These poems are more exuberant, mobile, and light, but their lightness is the lightness of a dancer, of the expert manipulation of weight, and not a lack of substance. They feel freer, not in the sense of being looser -- for they are, as always, finely chiseled -- but in the sense of a trapeze artist exploring wider and wider arcs. If Gunn's trapeze act is a performance, it is nevertheless accomplished at no loss of intimacy -- the poet throws himself into the breach. Although these poems take delight in executing daredevil wordplay, they never devolve into linguistic games. In fact, the pieces that best show off Gunn's mastery are the ones that are most "serious," such as those dealing with religious topics or with death. Here Gunn demonstrates how a tight wit and intelligence can actually enable empathy, rather than forestalling it by tainting a subject with irony. This is a rare and difficult feat, as exemplified by his consideration of the gay bathhouses of the '70s, in the conclusion to "Saturday Night":

      What hopeless, hopefulness. I watch, I wait --
      The embraces slip, and nothing seems to stay
         In our community of the carnal heart.
      Some lose conviction in mid-arc of play,
         Their skin turns numb, they dress and will depart:
      The perfect body, lingering on goodbyes,
         Cannot find strength now for another start.
      Dealers move in, and murmuring advertise
         Drugs from each doorway with a business frown.
      Mattresses lose their springs. Beds crack, capsize,
         And spill their occupants on the floor to drown.
      Walls darken with mold, or is it rash?
         At length the baths catch fire and then burn down,
      And blackened beams dam up the bays of ash.

Gunn's work is successful in this elaborate maneuver because of its innate generosity. It is generous toward the reader, equally distant from hermetic obscurity as from maudlin confessionalism. And it is generous toward its subject, generous with the unusually high quality of its attention. For example, in Gunn's laments for the dead, the deceased friend himself shines through, instead of being swallowed up by the survivor's mourning and self-absorbed meditation. Even when Gunn turns his scrutiny on himself, as in "The Artist as an Old Man," his gaze is clear and fair:

      Vulnerable because
      naked because
      his own model.

      Muscled and veined, not
      a bad old body
      for an old man.
      The face vulnerable too,
      its loosened folds
      huddled against
      the earlier outline: beneath
      the assertion of nose
      still riding the ruins
      you observe the down-
      turned mouth: and
      above it,
      the assessing glare
      which might be read as
      I've got the goods on you
      asshole and I'll expose you.

Perhaps the art most like Gunn's new work is Roman sculpture; a classical sympathy runs through the poems of this book, which exemplify clarity, beauty, balance, wit, and elegance. They are variously humorous, playfully sexual, mischievous, and above all, squarely human. Gunn might as easily have been characterizing himself when he wrote of William Carlos Williams: "His stylistic qualities are governed...by a tenderness and generosity of feeling which makes them fully humane. For it is a human action to attempt the rendering of thing, person, or experience in the exact terms of its existence."

—Monica Ferrell

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gunn, who grew up in England in the '30s and '40s, and has long resided in San Francisco, remains deservedly famous for his poetic chronicles of gay male lust, love, grief and urban life, and for his masterful, unshowy, reader-friendly poems in traditional forms. In his first collection since 1993's lauded The Man with Night Sweats, Gunn treats his readers to lovely stanzaic lyric, amiable Ben Jonson-style epistles, cogent blank-verse essays and taut quatrains; he offers up, too, great descriptions of aging hustlers, versatile bartenders, cool kids, elective affinities and enduring affections, many in a muscular, terse free verse. His interests in disinterested judgment, on sociability and friendship, reappear along with his interest in sex. To his poems about people and places, Gunn adds a brace of short takes on Greek and Biblical stories and legends: Arachne, Arethusa, the loves and lovers of King David. (A brief set of poems in the person of gay serial killer, cannibal and necrophiliac Jeffrey Dahmer are overwhelmed by their subject.) The loose sequence "Gossip"--about a third of the book--consists of quick, memorable, short-lined free-verse portraits: "Frank O'Hara's last lover," the survivor of a brutal "Los Angeles childhood," a Berkeley student "fueled/ on wit and risk/ and Ecstasy." Standalone short poems include a dignified and forceful ode about stained-glass windows and a capsule biography of a man "Raised, he said, not at home but in a Home." While all these ought to satisfy both neophytes and longtime Gunn fans, the latter may be most strongly affected by Gunn's pair of poems on his mother's suicide, a subject on which he has not before published verse: "I am made by her," one poem ends, "and undone." (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Kirkus Reviews
Gunn's lengthy and distinguished poetic career includes numerous volumes of poetry and essays, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship. His acclaimed last book, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), was marked by its wrenching, delicate AIDS elegies. The new collection strikes a tonal balance between an unsentimental awareness of death and a wry but often exuberant account of the everyday tyrannies of love. `Save the word / empathy, sweetheart, / for your freshman essays,` drawls one poem. `In the Post Office` begins by describing a sexual attraction to a stranger, but resolves into a meditation on a friend's death. In the poem's final lines, elegy and celebration merge. The poet becomes the `survivor, as I am indeed, / recording so that I may later read / Of what has happened, whether between sheets, / Or in post offices, or on the streets.` Perhaps the poems are at their best when they take their greatest risks, as in `Troubadour: Songs for Jeffery Dahmer` - in which a catalogue of horrors, including a severed head perched on a shelf `between headcheese and lard,` emerges bathetically from the desire to `find more tangible effects / Than what the memory collects.` Gunn's inventive yet controlled formalism, a hallmark of his work, is reminiscent of Renaissance poets like Wyatt and Donne. His liberal use of classical and biblical allusion is never gratuitous, as the sexy, thoughtful cycle about King David that closes the book attests. A lithe and lyrical volume by a master of contemporary poetry.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt



When in his twenties a poetry's full strength

Burst into voice as an unstopping flood,

He let the divine prompting (come at length)

Rushingly bear him any way it would

And went on writing while the Ferry turned

From San Francisco, back from Berkeley too,

And back again, and back again. He learned

You add to, you don't cancel what you do.

Between the notebook-margins his pen travelled,

His own lines carrying him in a new mode

To ports in which past purposes unravelled.

So that, as on the Ferry Line he rode,

Whatever his first plans that night had been,

The energy that rose from their confusion

Became the changing passage lived within

While the pen wrote, and looked beyond conclusion.


Forty years later, and both kidneys gone;

Every eight hours, home dialysis;

The habit of his restlessness stayed on

Exhausting him with his responsiveness.

After the circulations of one day

In which he taught a three-hour seminar

Then gave a reading clear across the Bay,

And while returning from it to the car

With plunging hovering tread tired and unsteady

Down Wheeler steps, he faltered and he fell

-Fell he said later, as if I stood ready,

"Into the strong arms of Thom Gunn."

Well well,

The image comic, as I might have known,

And generous, but it turned things round to myth:

He fell across the white steps there alone,

Though it was me indeed that he was with.

I hadn't caught him, hadn't seen in time,

And picked him up where he had softly dropped,

A pillow full of feathers. Was it a rime

He later sought, in which he might adopt

The role of H.D., broken-hipped and old,

Who, as she moved off from the reading-stand,

Had stumbled on the platform but was held

And steadied by another poet's hand?

He was now a posthumous poet, I have said

(For since his illness he had not composed),

In sight of a conclusion, whose great dread

Was closure,

his life soon to be enclosed

Like the sparrow's flight above the feasting friends,

Briefly revealed where its breast caught their light,

Beneath the long roof, between open ends,

Themselves the margins of unchanging night.

The Antagonism

to Helena Shire

The Makers did not make

The muddy winter hardening to privation,

Or cholera in the keep, or frost's long ache

Afflicting every mortal nation

From lord to villagers in their fading dyes

-Those who like oxen strained

On stony clearings of the ground

From church to sties.

They sought an utterance,

Or sunshine soluble in institution,

An orthodoxy justified, at once

The dream and dreamer warmed in fusion,

As in the great Rose Window, pieced from duty,

Where through Christ's crimson, sun

Shines on your clothes till they take on

Value and beauty.

But carved on a high beam

Far in the vault from the official version

Gape gnarled unChristian heads out of whom stream

Long stems of contrary assertion,

Shaped leaf ridging their scalps in place of hair.

Their origins lost to sight,

As they are too, cast out from light.

They should despair.

What stays for its own sake,

Occulted in the dark, may slip an ending,

Recalcitrant, and strengthened by the ache

Of winter not for the transcending.

Ice and snow pile the gables of the roof

Within whose shade they hold,

Intimate with its slaty cold,

To Christ aloof.

Copyright © 2000 Thom Gunn

Meet the Author

Thom Gunn, born in 1929, has received many awards, most recently a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader's Digest Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship. His works include The Man with Night Sweats and Collected Poems.

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