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:
his own model.
Muscled and veined, not
a bad old body
for an old man.
The face vulnerable too,
its loosened folds
the earlier outline: beneath
the assertion of nose
still riding the ruins
you observe the down-
turned mouth: and
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."
[Gunn's] Collected Poems are sane, accessible, impressive in their versification and command of language - testaments to intelligence, warmth, and integrity.
The New York Times Book Review
[Gunn] becomes more adventuresome as he grows older . . . Sometimes the poems are so emotionally bald and direct that they are deeply disturbing.
The Threepenny Review
The authority, grace, and, not least, the sheer memorableness of Gunn's lines . . . are naturally composed of temperament, diction, attitude, experience, observation - life itself. But they are expressed (especially early and late in the collection) in measures whose suppleness and strength have the effect of effortlessly italicizing whatever the particular poem's burden is. Gunn's joy lifts the heart; but so do his many recent poems on a topic that could hardly be called joyful.
The Yale Review
An exceptional and fascinating poet with a formal range to rival Auden's, a sensuality equal to Ginsberg's and a profound yet daily humanity that surely surpasses that of any other poet of our times.
The Times Literary Supplement
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.|
Gunn allows his patterns of meter, rhyme and stanzaic form to emerge organically from the material to which he is seeking to give shape. One can almost follow this happening on the page, observation finding its proper rhythm, emotion its spiritual level, the poet discovering new moods, new modes of reflection.
The New York Times Book Review
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.
Read an Excerpt
By Thom Gunn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2000 Thom Gunn
All rights reserved.
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."
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
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.
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 un Christian 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.
Raised, he said, not at home but in a Home.
Bare of associations, words like bed,
Breakfast and birthday hard eternal forms
As standardized as workbench in the shop
Or regulation metal bunk, with edges On which you bark your shins because it's there.
Bare of associations.
Between the boys
Contact, not loose, not free, consisting mainly
In the wrestling down of slave by slave. Call this
The economy of bruises: threats of worse
Pin you in place, for more convenient handling.
And nothing occurs casually but dirt.
So when a big boy slips you a comic book
Because his heart is big, no other reason,
His unfit action organizes time.
It organizes time through revelation
Of an old prophecy preserved in fragments
Among the boys, a corrupt oral tradition
Concerning the advent of the affections: for
They will be born, and live and prosper too,
Before their inevitable martyrdom.
Your mind starts to prepare a place for them:
And it delights in the cool new-found ease
With which it slips the habitual weary tautness
To enter certain unmapped borderlands.
in the breathing room of beds
To thin unsupervised light, a sanctuary,
You glimpse at last a measure of the future
In which you will seek out similar times
Between times, places between places, thresholds
And fire escapes, buses and laundromats,
To tell in a voice guarded and level, "I
Was raised in a Home," as if it were all over
And the quotidian horror had been mastered.
My Mother's Pride
She dramatized herself
Without thought of the dangers.
But "Never pay attention," she said,
"To the opinions of strangers."
And when I stole from a counter,
"You wouldn't accept a present
From a tradesman." But I think I might have:
I had the greed of a peasant.
She was proud of her ruthless wit
And the smallest ears in London.
"Only conceited children are shy."
I am made by her, and undone.
Forty-eight years ago
—Can it be forty-eight
Since then?—they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau's weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.
She had blocked the doorway so,
To keep the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing the things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.
The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.
Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.
One image from the flow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Breathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.
A Young Novelist
whose first book was published in the same week that his lover died
You might say a whole life led up to it,
A novel's publication—instances
Gathered and finished, blurbed and jacketed.
You might say also the same life had led
The same week to another rounding off
—Another body of live instances
Rendered succinct, ash in a plastic sack
Tied off severely, obited and let go,
Let go. He lost the wrestler with the smile
Who pinned him to the mat of love for ever,
He doesn't know which way to turn;
Each stroke of fortune will infect the other;
Each is a thought of terrible unrest.
Once on his way to school a schoolboy surfaced
From all of loss to one cold London street
And noticed minute leaves, they were soft points,
Virgin-green, newly eased out of black twigs,
And didn't know, really, what to make of them;
Then turning back to it found he no longer
Knew what to make of the other thing, despair.
In the Post Office
Saw someone yesterday looked like you did,
Being short with long blond hair, a sturdy kid
Ahead of me in line. I gazed and gazed
At his good back, feeling again, amazed,
That almost envious sexual tension which
Rubbing at made the greater, like an itch,
An itch to steal or otherwise possess
The brilliant restive charm, the boyishness
That half-aware—and not aware enough—
Of what it did, eluded to hold off
The very push of interest it begot,
As if you'd been a tease, though you were not.
I hadn't felt it roused, to tell the truth,
In several years, that old man's greed for youth,
Like Pelias's that boiled him to a soup,
Not since I'd had the sense to cover up
My own particular seething can of worms,
And settle for a friendship on your terms.
Meanwhile I had to look: his errand done,
Without a glance at me or anyone,
The kid unlocked his bicycle outside,
Shrugging a backpack on. I watched him ride
Down 18th Street, rising above the saddle
For the long plunge he made with every pedal,
Expending far more energy than needed.
If only I could do whatever he did,
With him or as a part of him, if I
Could creep into his armpit like a fly,
Or like a crab cling to his golden crotch,
Instead of having to stand back and watch.
Oh complicated fantasy of intrusion
On that young sweaty body. My confusion
Led me at length to recollections of
Another's envy and his confused love.
That Fall after you died I went again
To where I had visited you in your pain
But this time for your—friend, roommate, or wooer?
I seek a neutral term where I'm unsure.
He lay there now. Figuring she knew best,
I came by at his mother's phoned request
To pick up one of your remembrances,
A piece of stained-glass you had made, now his,
I did not even remember, far less want.
To him I felt, likewise, indifferent.
"You can come in now," said the friend-as-nurse.
I did, and found him altered for the worse.
But when he saw me sitting by his bed,
He would not speak, and turned away his head.
I had not known he hated me until
He hated me this much, hated me still.
I thought that we had shared you more or less,
As if we shared what no one might possess,
Since in a net we sought to hold the wind.
There he lay on the pillow, mortally thinned,
Weaker than water, yet his gesture proving
As steady as an undertow. Unmoving
In the sustained though slight aversion, grim
In wordlessness. Nothing deflected him,
Nothing I did and nothing I could say.
And so I left. I heard he died next day.
I have imagined that he still could taste
That bitterness and anger to the last,
Against the roles he saw me in because
He had to: of victor, as he thought I was,
Of heir, as to the cherished property
His mother—who knows why?—was giving me,
And of 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.
Excerpted from Boss Cupid by Thom Gunn. Copyright © 2000 Thom Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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