A new selection of poems by the celebrated gay poet
Thom Gunn has been described as “one of the most singular and compelling poets in English during the past half-century” (Times Literary Supplement). Gunn was an Elizabethan poet in modern guise, though there’s nothing archaic, quaint, or sepia-toned about his poetry. His method was dispassionate and rigorous, uniquely well suited for making a poetic record of the tumultuous time in which he lived.
Gunn’s dozens of brilliantly realized poems about nature, friendship, literature, sexual love, and death are set against the ever-changing backdrop of San Franciscothe druggy, politically charged sixties and the plague years of AIDS in the eighties. Perhaps no contemporary poet was better equippedby temperament, circumstance, or poetic giftto engage the subjects of eros and thanatos than Thom Gunn.
This New Selected Poems, compiled by his friend Clive Wilmer and accompanied by insightful notes, is the first edition to represent the full arc of Gunn’s inimitable career.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Thom Gunn (1929–2004) was educated at Cambridge University and had his first collection of poems, Fighting Terms, published while still an undergraduate. He moved to northern California in 1954 and taught in American universities until his death. His last collection was Boss Cupid (FSG, 2000).
Clive Wilmer is a poet and translator. He lives in Cambridge, England.
Read an Excerpt
from FIGHTING TERMS (1954)
The huge wound in my head began to heal About the beginning of the seventh week.
Its valleys darkened, its villages became still:
For joy I did not move and dared not speak,
Not doctors would cure it, but time, its patient skill.
And constantly my mind returned to Troy.
After I sailed the seas I fought in turn On both sides, sharing even Helen's joy Of place, and growing up — to see Troy burn —
As Neoptolemus, that stubborn boy.
I lay and rested as prescription said.
Manoeuvred with the Greeks, or sallied out Each day with Hector. Finally my bed Became Achilles' tent, to which the lout Thersites came reporting numbers dead.
I was myself: subject to no man's breath:
My own commander was my enemy.
And while my belt hung up, sword in the sheath,
Thersites shambled in and breathlessly Cackled about my friend Patroclus' death.
I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.
But, when I thought, rage at his noble pain Flew to my head, and turning I could feel My wound break open wide. Over again I had to let those storm-lit valleys heal.
Even in bed I pose: desire may grow More circumstantial and less circumspect Each night, but an acute girl would suspect That my self is not like my body, bare.
I wonder if you know, or, knowing, care?
You know I know you know I know you know.
I am not what I seem, believe me, so For the magnanimous pagan I pretend Substitute a forked creature as your friend.
When darkness lies without a roll or stir Flaccid, you want a competent poseur.
I know you know I know you know I know.
Cackle you hen, and answer when I crow.
No need to grope: I'm still playing the same Comical act inside the tragic game.
Yet things perhaps are simpler: could it be A mere tear-jerker void of honesty?
You know I know you know I know you know.
Leave me. Within a minute I will stow Your greedy mouth, but will not yet to grips.
'There is a space between the breast and lips.'
Also a space between the thighs and head,
So great, we might as well not be in bed.
I know you know I know you know I know.
I hardly hoped for happy thoughts, although In a most happy sleeping time I dreamt We did not hold each other in contempt.
Then lifting from my lids night's penny weights I saw that lack of love contaminates.
You know I know you know I know you know.
Abandon me to stammering, and go;
If you have tears, prepare to cry elsewhere I know of no emotion we can share.
Your intellectual protests are a bore And even now I pose, so now go, for I know you know.
Shelley was drowned near here. Arms at his side He fell submissive through the waves, and he Was but a minor conquest of the sea:
The darkness that he met was nurse not bride.
Others make gestures with arms open wide,
Compressing in the minute before death What great expense of muscle and of breath They would have made if they had never died.
Byron was worth the sea's pursuit. His touch Was masterful to water, audience To which he could react until an end.
Strong swimmers, fishermen, explorers: such Dignify death by thriftless violence Squandering with so little left to spend.
Tamer and Hawk
I thought I was so tough,
But gentled at your hands,
Cannot be quick enough To fly for you and show That when I go I go At your commands.
Even in flight above I am no longer free:
You seeled me with your love,
I am blind to other birds —
The habit of your words Has hooded me.
As formerly, I wheel I hover and I twist,
But only want the feel,
In my possessive thought,
Of catcher and of caught Upon your wrist.
You but half civilize,
Taming me in this way.
Through having only eyes For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose Tamer as prey.
Incident on a Journey
One night I reached a cave: I slept, my head Full of the air. There came about daybreak A red-coat soldier to the mouth, who said
'I am not living, in hell's pains I ache,
But I regret nothing.'
His forehead had a bloody wound whose streaming The pallid staring face illuminated.
Whether his words were mine or his, in dreaming I found they were my deepest thoughts translated.
'I regret nothing:
'Turn your closed eyes to see upon these walls A mural scratched there by an earlier man,
And coloured with the blood of animals:
Showing humanity beyond its span,
'No plausible nostalgia, no brown shame I had when treating with my enemies.
And always when a living impulse came I acted, and my action made me wise.
And I regretted nothing.
'I as possessor of unnatural strength Was hunted, one day netted in a brawl;
A minute far beyond a minute's length Took from me passion, strength, and life, and all.
But I regretted nothing.
'Their triumph left my body in the dust;
The dust and beer still clotting in my hair When I rise lonely, will-less. Where I must I go, and what I must I bear.
And I regret nothing.
'My lust runs yet and is unsatisfied,
My hate throbs yet but I am feeble-limbed;
If as an animal I could have died My death had scattered instinct to the wind,
Regrets as nothing.'
Later I woke. I started to my feet.
The valley light, the mist already going.
I was alive and felt my body sweet,
Uncaked blood in all its channels flowing.
I would regret nothing.
from THE SENSE OF MOVEMENT (1957)
On the Move
The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Has nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense Or the dull thunder of approximate words.
On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt — by hiding it, robust And almost hear a meaning in their noise.
Exact conclusion of their hardiness Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts They ride, direction where the tyres press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control To dare a future from the taken routes.
It is a part solution, after all.
One is not necessarily discord On earth; or damned because, half animal,
One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes Afloat on movement that divides and breaks.
One joins the movement in a valueless world,
Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,
One moves as well, always toward, toward.
A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-defined, astride the created will They burst away; the towns they travel through Are home for neither bird nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
At the Back of the North Wind
All summer's warmth was stored there in the hay;
Below, the troughs of water froze: the boy Climbed nightly up the rungs behind the stalls And planted deep between the clothes he heard The kind wind bluster, but the last he knew Was sharp and filled his head, the smell of hay.
Here wrapped within the cobbled mews he woke.
Passing from summer, climbing down through winter He broke into an air that kept no season:
Denying change, for it was always there.
It nipped the memory numb, scalding away The castle of winter and the smell of hay.
The ostlers knew, but did not tell him more Than hay is what we turn to. Other smells,
Horses, leather, manure, fresh sweat, and sweet Mortality, he found them on the North.
That was her sister, East, that shrilled all day And swept the mews dead clean from wisps of hay.
Autumn Chapter in a Novel
Through woods, Mme Une Telle, a trifle ill With idleness, but no less beautiful,
Walks with the young tutor, round their feet Mob syllables slurred to a fine complaint,
Which in their time held off the natural heat.
The sun is distant, and they fill out space Sweatless as watercolour under glass.
He kicks abruptly. But we may suppose The leaves he scatters thus will settle back In much the same position as they rose.
A tutor's indignation works on air,
Altering nothing; action bustles where,
Towards the pool by which they lately stood,
The husband comes discussing with his bailiff Poachers, the broken fences round the wood.
Pighead! The poacher is at large, and lingers,
A dead mouse gripped between his sensitive fingers:
Fences already keep the live game out:
See how your property twists her parasol,
Hesitates in the tender trap of doubt.
Here they repair, here daily handle lightly The brief excitements that disturb them nightly;
Sap draws back inch by inch, and to the ground The words they uttered rustle constantly:
Silent, they watch the growing, weightless mound.
They leave at last a chosen element,
Resume the motions of their discontent;
She takes her sewing up, and he again Names to her son the deserts on the globe,
And leaves thrust violently upon the pane.
The Silver Age
Do not enquire from the centurion nodding At the corner, with his head gentle over The swelling breastplate, where true Rome is found.
Even of Livy there are volumes lost.
All he can do is guide you through the moonlight.
When he moves, mark how his eager striding,
To which we know the darkness is a river Sullen with mud, is easy as on ground.
We know it is a river never crossed By any but some few who hate the moonlight.
And when he speaks, mark how his ancient wording Is hard with indignation of a lover.
'I do not think our new Emperor likes the sound Of turning squadrons or the last post.
Consorts with Christians, I think he lives in
Hurrying to show you his companions guarding,
He grips your arm like a cold strap of leather,
Then halts, earthpale, as he stares round and round.
What made this one fragment of a sunken coast Remain, far out, to be beaten by the moonlight?
Two minutes long it pitches through some bar:
Unreeling from a corner box, the sigh Of this one, in his gangling finery And crawling sideburns, wielding a guitar.
The limitations where he found success Are ground on which he, panting, stretches out In turn, promiscuously, by every note.
Our idiosyncrasy and our likeness.
We keep ourselves in touch with a mere dime:
Distorting hackneyed words in hackneyed songs He turns revolt into a style, prolongs The impulse to a habit of the time.
Whether he poses or is real, no cat Bothers to say: the pose held is a stance,
Which, generation of the very chance It wars on, may be posture for combat.
The Allegory of the Wolf Boy
The causes are in Time; only their issue Is bodied in the flesh, the finite powers.
And how to guess he hides in that firm tissue Seeds of division? At tennis and at tea Upon the gentle lawn, he is not ours,
But plays us in a sad duplicity.
Tonight the boy, still boy open and blond,
Breaks from the house, wedges his clothes between Two moulded garden urns, and goes beyond His understanding, through the dark and dust:
Fields of sharp stubble, abandoned by machine To the whirring enmity of insect lust.
As yet ungolden in the dense, hot night The spikes enter his feet: he seeks the moon,
Which, with the touch of its infertile light,
Shall loose desires hoarded against his will By the long urging of the afternoon.
Slowly the hard rim shifts above the hill.
White in the beam he stops, faces it square,
And the same instant leaping from the ground Feels the familiar itch of close dark hair;
Then, clean exception to the natural laws,
Only to instinct and the moon being bound,
Drops on four feet. Yet he has bleeding paws.
Jesus and his Mother
My only son, more God's than mine,
Stay in this garden ripe with pears.
The yielding of their substance wears A modest and contented shine:
And when they weep with age, not brine But lazy syrup are their tears.
'I am my own and not my own.'
He seemed much like another man,
That silent foreigner who trod Outside my door with lily rod:
How could I know what I began Meeting the eyes more furious than The eyes of Joseph, those of God?
I was my own and not my own.
And who are these twelve labouring men?
I do not understand your words:
I taught you speech, we named the birds,
You marked their big migrations then Like any child. So turn again To silence from the place of crowds.
'I am my own and not my own.'
Why are you sullen when I speak?
Here are your tools, the saw and knife And hammer on your bench. Your life Is measured here in week and week Planed as the furniture you make,
And I will teach you like a wife To be my own and all my own.
Who like an arrogant wind blown Where he may please, needs no content?
Yet I remember how you went To speak with scholars in furred gown.
I hear an outcry in the town;
Who carried that dark instrument?
'One all his own and not his own.'
Treading the green and nimble sward I stare at a strange shadow thrown.
Are you the boy I bore alone,
No doctor near to cut the cord?
I cannot reach to call you Lord,
Answer me as my only son.
'I am my own and not my own.'
To Yvor Winters, 1955
I leave you in your garden.
In the yard Behind it, run the Airedales you have reared With boxer's vigilance and poet's rigour:
Dog-generations you have trained the vigour That few can breed to train and fewer still Control with the deliberate human will.
And in the house there rest, piled shelf on shelf,
The accumulations that compose the self Poem and history: for if we use Words to maintain the actions that we choose,
Our words, with slow defining influence,
Stay to mark out our chosen lineaments.
Continual temptation waits on each To renounce his empire over thought and speech,
Till he submit his passive faculties To evening, come where no resistance is;
The unmotivated sadness of the air Filling the human with his own despair.
Where now lies power to hold the evening back?
Implicit in the grey is total black:
Denial of the discriminating brain Brings the neurotic vision, and the vein Of necromancy. All as relative For mind as for the sense, we have to live In a half-world, not ours nor history's,
And learn the false from half-true premisses.
But sitting in the dusk — though shapes combine,
Vague mass replacing edge and flickering line,
You keep both Rule and Energy in view,
Much power in each, most in the balanced two:
Ferocity existing in the fence Built by an exercised intelligence.
Though night is always close, complete negation Ready to drop on wisdom and emotion,
Night from the air or the carnivorous breath,
Still it is right to know the force of death,
And, as you do, persistent, tough in will,
Raise from the excellent the better still.
Being without quality I appear to you at first as an unkempt smudge, a blur,
an indefinite haze, merely pricking the eyes, almost nothing. Yet you perceive me.
I have been always most close when you had least resistance,
falling asleep, or in bars;
during the unscheduled hours,
though strangely without substance,
I hang, there and ominous.
Aha, sooner or later you will have to name me, and,
as you name, I shall focus,
I shall become more precise.
O Master (for you command in naming me, you prefer)!
I was, for Alexander,
the certain victory; I was hemlock for Socrates;
and, in the dry night, Brutus waking before Philippi stopped me, crying out 'Caesar!'
Or if you call me the blur that in fact I am, you shall yourself remain blurred, hanging like smoke indoors. For you bring,
to what you define now, all there is, ever, of future.
from MY SAD CAPTAINS (1961)
In Santa Maria del Popolo
Waiting for when the sun an hour or less Conveniently oblique makes visible The painting on one wall of this recess By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,
I see how shadow in the painting brims With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out But a dim horse's haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.
But evening gives the act, beneath the horse And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,
Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,
Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.
O wily painter, limiting the scene From a cacophony of dusty forms To the one convulsion, what is it you mean In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?
No Ananias croons a mystery yet,
Casting the pain out under name of sin.
The painter saw what was, an alternate Candour and secrecy inside the skin.
He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent Young whore in Venus' clothes, those pudgy cheats,
Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,
For money, by one such picked off the streets.
I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel To the dim interior of the church instead,
In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this
– For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.
Excerpted from "New Selected Poems"
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Abbreviations and References xv
from Fighting Terms (1954)
The Wound 5
Carnal Knowledge 6
Tamer and Hawk 9
Incident on a Journey 10
from The Sense Of Movement (1957)
On the Move 15
At the Back of the North Wind 17
Autumn Chapter in a Novel 18
The Silver Age 20
Elvis Presley 21
The Allegory of the Wolf Boy 22
Jesus and his Mother 23
To Yvor Winters, 1955 25
Vox Humana 27
from My Sad Captains (1961)
In Santa Maria del Popolo 31
Modes of Pleasure ('New face, strange face, for my unrest') 35
The Byrnies 36
Claus von Stauffenberg 38
Flying Above California 40
Considering the Snail 41
The Feel of Hands 42
My Sad Captains 43
From an Asian Tent 47
from Positives (1965)
The Old Woman 51
from Touch (1967)
The Goddess 55
The Last Man 58
Memoirs of the World 63
Elegy on the Dust 71
The First Man 73
Pierce Street 80
from Moly (1971)
Rites of Passage 85
For Signs 88
From the Wave 92
Street Song 94
The Discovery of the Pacific 97
from Jack Straw's Castle (1976)
Iron Landscapes (and the Statue of Liberty) 104
Last Days at Teddington 106
Jack Straw's Castle 107
An Amorous Debate 118
from The Passages Of Joy (1982)
Sweet Things 130
San Francisco Streets 134
Transients and Residents 137
Talbot Road 144
Night Taxi 151
from The Man With Night Sweats (1992)
The Hug 157
The Differences 158
To Isherwood Dying 161
The Stealer 161
The Man with Night Sweats 165
Her Pet 173
The J Car 175
The Missing 177
from Boss Cupid (2000)
My Mother's Pride 183
The Gas-poker 184
To Donald Davie in Heaven 186
The Artist as an Old Man 188
A Wood near Athens 190
Dancing David 193
Index of Titles and First Lines 279