by Thom Gunn
Reviewed by Stephen Burt
San Francisco Chronicle
All good poets find strains and paradoxes within the language they learn to wield, but Thom Gunn (1929-2004) found more than most. He became a poet of chaste self-control who could celebrate lust; a painstaking inheritor of English verse traditions who moved to America and embraced the freedoms of the late 1960s; an emigre who portrayed, in heartbreaking stanzas, the London of his childhood, and a man enthusiastic about San Francisco, his adopted home.
This relatively slender volume (Gunn's first Selected Poems since 1979) shows his spare technique and his powers of observation, his chiseled stanzas and his careful, even humble, attention to plain speech -- virtues, above all, in "The Man With Night Sweats" (1992), perhaps the finest of the many poetic responses to HIV and AIDS, and the work for which Gunn, in the United States, remains best known.
British readers prized earlier poems. The angular forms of "Fighting Terms" (1954) and "The Sense of Movement" (1957) led to comparisons with Philip Larkin, while the same books' fiercely male heroes -- biker gangs, hawks, a Roman soldier, a werewolf - let critics place him beside Ted Hughes. By the time that second book appeared, Gunn had already moved overseas, following the American graduate student, Mike Kitay, with whom he had fallen in love -- after some time in Texas, they settled in the Bay Area, where they remained for almost 50 years. British critics (so August Kleinzahler's preface quips) thought Gunn "undone by sunshine, LSD, queer sex, and free verse."
In fact, he got better, happier, more versatile, while remaining (as Kleinzahler also says) "a poet of closure, intelligence, and will." He wrote dream-vision poems, where he imagined himself as a prisoner, a centaur, an explorer, the last man on Earth; he wrote, more often, clear poems about places and people, set in hospitals, on city streets, on airplanes ("Flying Above California") or in discos, portraying car mechanics, skateboarders, adoptive gay fathers, cautious, affectionate cats. We can find most of them in this spare selection: We can find, too, the tough, manly motorcyclists, "in gleaming jackets trophied with the dust," who reappear now and then throughout the career.
We can find, too, the bodily experience, the life of muscle and flesh, of bone and skin, that offset Gunn's dry intelligence in his best poems. Here "fingertips/ testing each surface of each thing/ found, timid as kittens with it"; here is the teenage Gunn, sprawled out on a hill (the poem itself, in hesitant free verse, sprawls along with him), trying to get the "sniff of the real." Here are surfers whose "sheathed bodies slick as seals/ Loosen and tingle;/ And by the board the bare foot feels/ The suck of shingle." Here, too, in another poem, is the sea, where "glinting scoops, after a wave has broken,/ Dimple the water in its draining back."
It was because Gunn became such a poet of bodies -- in motion, at rest, in bed, on the road, at the beach -- that he could depict with such tact, in "The Man With Night Sweats," what happened to so many people when their bodies failed. In the dream-vision "A Sketch of the Great Dejection," "the body set out anew on its adventures," only to find "a place of poverty,/ of inner and outer famine/ where all movement had stopped/ except for that of the wind."
Strict forms gave this poet frames for his laments, ways to reflect the strength that these dying men (and they were, for him, men) showed: One patient resembles a heraldic crest:
The angle of his head
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
Kleinzahler - an internationally admired poet who lives in San Francisco -- portrays his late friend, in his preface and through his selections, as a craftsman, a poet of cities and friendships, of self-chastisement and "impersonality," of memory and grief. What the younger poet nearly leaves out, alas, is Gunn as a poet of gay liberation, new mores, new pleasures, both before, and despite, HIV and AIDS; "The Passages of Joy" (1982), Gunn's most strenuous effort in that direction, appears here only in two atypical poems. Gunn seems, here, less fun, less hip and a lot less sexual than he does if you read his late work as a whole.
Readers who want that Gunn should be able to find him; readers who want a fine craftsman, a trustworthy observer, a poet of bodies and of unadorned speech, should delight in these otherwise well-chosen poems.
Stephen Burt, an associate professor of English at Harvard University, is the author of Close Calls With Nonsense: Reading New Poetry, published in March by Graywolf Press. E-mail him at [email protected].