by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
I was in San Francisco for the “Summer of Love.” They were heady days. I got to hear all the cool bands, and anything seemed possible. People, mostly kids like me, came from many places seeking a lot of things, but Freedom was on everybody’s list.
Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was already there. He was an Englishman, who had gone to Trinity College, Cambridge, after two years of national service, and there he met the Love of His Life, at a cast party for an Amateur Dramatic Club production of Cyrano de Bergerac, on December 7, 1952 – one of the cadets in the show, an American student named Mike Kitay. They would be together in a changing relationship for the rest of Gunn’s life.
The poetry Gunn wrote at Cambridge became his first book, Fighting Terms, which was published in 1954. While his poems paid homage to the poets of earlier ages, he was already experimenting.
To his Cynical Mistress
And love is then no more than a compromise?
An impermanent treaty waiting to be signed
. . . . By the two enemies?
– While the calculating Cupid feigning impartial blind
Drafts it, promising peace, both leaders wise
To his antics sign but secretly double their spies.
On each side is the ignorant animal nation
Jostling friendly in streets, enjoying in good faith
. . . . This celebration,
Forgetting their enmity with cheers and drunken breath,
But for them there has not been yet amalgamation:
The leaders calmly plot assassination.
“To his Cynical Mistress” from Fighting Terms, © 1954 by Thom Gunn – Faber and Faber
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 to feel,
In my possessive thought
Of catcher and of caught
Upon your wrist.
You but half civilize,
Taming me this way.
Through having only eyes
For you I fear to lose,
I lose to keep, and choose
Tamer as prey.
“Tamer and Hawk” from Fighting Terms, © 1954 by Thom Gunn – Faber and Faber
When Mike Kitay returned to the U.S. for military service in 1954, Gunn applied for scholarships at American universities, and got a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, which is about 35 miles south of San Francisco.
Considering the Snail
The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth’s dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,
pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail’s fury? All
I think is that if later
I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.
“Considering the Snail” from from My Sad Captains and Other Poems, © 1961 by Thom Gunn – University of Chicago Press
By 1960, Gunn and Kitay were living together in ‘The City’ (one of the charming arrogances of true San Franciscans is that they just call it ‘The City’ because for them, it is the only one which counts.) Their house on Cole Street became part-commune, part perpetual open house, but for thirty-three years there were at least three of their original five housemates grounding it (of the other two, one left, and one died of AIDS). There were many lovers and sexual partners, but he and Kitay remained together. Gunn taught off and on at UC Berkeley’s English Department (1958-1999), and he wrote.
Thom Gunn had found Home, but it was no lonely garret or rustic retreat. He loved the night life, “loud music, bars, and boisterous men.” Smoke-filled bars, where sex came easy and anonymous. He was a seeker after Eros, after the ecstatic experience.
In the silence that prolongs the span
Rawly of music when the record ends,
The red-haired boy who drove a van
In weekday overalls but, like his friends,
Wore cycle boots and jacket here
To suit the Sunday hangout he was in,
Heard, as he stretched back from his beer,
Leather creak softly round his neck and chin.
Before him, on a coal-black sleeve
Remote exertion had lined, scratched, and burned
Insignia that could not revive
The heroic fall or climb where they were earned.
On the other drinkers bent together,
Concocting selves for their impervious kit,
He saw it as no more than leather
Which, taut across the shoulders grown to it,
Sent through the dimness of a bar
As sudden and anonymous hints of light
As those that shipping give, that are
Now flickers in the Bay, now lost in night.
He stretched out like a cat, and rolled
The bitterish taste of beer upon his tongue,
And listened to a joke being told:
The present was the things he stayed among.
If it was only loss he wore,
He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion,
Complicity and nothing more.
He recollected his initiation,
And one especially of the rites.
For on his shoulders they had put tattoos:
The group’s name on the left, The Knights,
And on the right the slogan Born To Lose.
“Black Jackets” from Collected Poems, © 1994 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Straus & Giroux
And all kinds of drugs were abundantly available, which provided another kind of ecstatic experience.
Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake.
I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?
Leathery toad that ruts for days on end,
Or cringing dribbling dog, man’s servile friend,
Or cat that prettily pounces on its meat,
Tortures it hours, then does not care to eat:
Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.
What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.
These seem like bristles, and the hide is tough.
No claw or web here: each foot ends in hoof.
Into what bulk has method disappeared?
Like ham, streaked. I am gross—grey, gross, flap-eared.
The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature
That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
If I was not afraid I’d eat a man.
Oh a man’s flesh already is in mine.
Hand and foot poised for risk. Buried in swine.
I root and root, you think that it is greed,
It is, but I seek out a plant I need.
Direct me gods, whose changes are all holy,
To where it flickers deep in grass, the moly:
Cool flesh of magic in each leaf and shoot,
From milky flower to the black forked root.
From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin
And human title, putting pig within.
I push my big grey wet snout through the green,
Dreaming the flower I have never seen.
“Moly” from Moly, © 1971 by Thom Gunn – Faber and Faber
On weekends, there might be a trip to Sonoma County to visit the Geysers:
Gunn: “Everyone walked around naked, swimming in the cool stream by day and at night staying in the hot baths until early in the morning. Heterosexual and homosexual orgies sometimes overlapped: there was an attitude of benevolence and understanding on all sides that could be extended, I thought, into the rest of the world. When I remember that small, changing society of holidays and weekends, I picture a great communal embrace. For what is the point of a holiday if we cannot carry it back into working days? There is no good reason why that hedonistic and communal love of the Geysers could not be extended to the working life of the towns. Unless it is that human beings contain in their emotions some homeostatic device by which they must defeat themselves just as they are learning their freedom.”
In 1961, he published his third collection of poems, My Sad Captains and Other Poems.
My Sad Captains
One by one they appear in
the darkness: a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand
perfectly embodied, all
the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos. They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.
They remind me, distant now.
True, they are not at rest yet,
but now they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.
“My Sad Captains” from My Sad Captains and Other Poems, © 1961 by Thom Gunn – University of Chicago Press
A lot of people in The City were collecting experiences like kids collect baseball cards. But only a few of them had the talent and drive to transform their experiences into some kind of art. Thom Gunn was one of the few.
He was praised by American poet David Biespiel: “If 20th century verse written in English can be seen as a battle between memory and voice – between the phenomena and its history, on the one hand, and the poet’s conviction and feeling about it, on the other – then Gunn’s importance lies in the accuracy with which he unifies the language and emotion of experience.”
“Nothing is harder
on the soul
than the smell of dreams
while they are evaporating.”
– Mahmoud Darwish
When it all came crashing down, Thom Gunn became a searing chronicler of the AIDS epidemic. While he and Kitay were spared, many of their friends were not.
The Man with Night Sweats
I wake up cold, I who
Prospered through dreams of heat
Wake to their residue,
Sweat, and a clinging sheet.
My flesh was its own shield:
Where it was gashed, it healed.
I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,
A world of wonders in
Each challenge to the skin.
I cannot but be sorry
The given shield was cracked,
My mind reduced to hurry,
My flesh reduced and wrecked.
I have to change the bed,
But catch myself instead
Stopped upright where I am
Hugging my body to me
As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
“The Man with Night Sweats” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
“The Hug” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Lines for My 55th Birthday
The love of old men is not worth a lot,
Desperate and dry even when it is hot.
You cannot tell what is enthusiasm
And what involuntary clawing spasm.
“Lines for My 55th Birthday” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tights: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
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.
“Still Life” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
Words for Some Ash
Poor parched man, we had to squeeze
Dental sponge against your teeth,
So that moisture by degrees
Dribbled to the mouth beneath.
Christmas Day your pupils crossed,
Staring at your nose’s tip.
Seeking there the air you lost
Yet still gaped for, dry of lip.
Now you are a bag of ash
Scattered on a coastal ridge,
Where you watched the distant crash,
Ocean on a broken edge.
Death has wiped away each sense;
Fire took muscle, bone, and brains;
Next may rain leach discontents
From your dust, wash what remains
Deeper into damper ground
Till the granules work their way
Down to unseen streams, and bound
Briskly in the water’s play;
May you lastly reach the shore,
Joining tide without intent,
Only worried any more
By the current’s argument.
“Words for Some Ash” from The Man with Night Sweats, © 1992 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
His later work was a mix of his ever-evolving style, and a return to ancient myths and classical allusions.
Cats met us at
reclining in the sun
to check us in
with a momentary glance,
of a grassy island.
the Devil’s Bridge,
and “the best Byzantine
church in the world”,
long saints admonitory
on kiln-like inner walls.)
And lunch in a shady court
where cats now
the restaurant, table
by table, gazing into eyes
pleading “I’m hungry
and I’m cute”, reaching
front paws up to knees
and always getting
before zeroing in
on the next table, same
routine, same result.
with the furred impudence
of those who don’t pretend
to be other than whores,
they give you not
the semblance of love
a look at their beauty
in return for food.
Models, not escorts.
They lack, too,
the prostitute’s self-pity,
being beyond shame.
And we lack
what they have.
“Cat Island” from Boss Cupid, © 2000 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
. . . . . . . Alpheus
behind, Arethusa still
leading, they dart
through sea as if
comet pursued comet
through dark tons
. . . . . . . they shoot,
until at last
brought short on
despair or the shock
of land again, she
stops, he closes
they join in coral
. . . . . . . water
And later, bubbling
. . . . . . . a fountain.
Though a cup
dropped in his stream
in Arcadia bob
a week later to
the surface of a spring
in Ortygia, that spring
has her name, for he
has entered her
meanings, his water
subdued to hers
in the ground she led him to
ground of her goddess.
Arethusa was a Nereid, a water nymph, who lived in Arcadia. One day, she steps into a clear stream to bathe, but it is really the river god Alpheus, who flows down through Arcadia to the sea. He instantly desires her, but she flees, wishing to remain a chaste attendant of Artemis, and calls on her goddess to save her. Artemis hides her in a cloud, but Alpheus continues to search for her. When Arethusa becomes a stream again, Artemis breaks the ground to allow her passage to the sea, where she travels under water to the island of Ortygia, still pursued by Alpheus, who catches up with her there, mingling his waters with hers.
“Arethusa Raped” from Boss Cupid, © 2000 by Thom Gunn – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
The final few years of his life, Thom Gunn’s inspiration ran dry. Their neighborhood had become “gentrified” around him, many old friends were gone, and Eros was beginning to turn his back on him. He died on April 25, 2004, the cause of death listed as “acute polysubstance abuse,” a more genteel way of saying drug overdose.
He leaves for us over a dozen books of poetry, bursting with every kind of experience, from the highest to the lowest – euphoria, paranoia, despair, and joy – a life lived to wring the juice of every experience out of it.
- Boss Cupid (2000)
- Frontiers of Gossip (1998)
- Collected Poems (1994)
- The Man With Night Sweats (1992)
- The Passages of Joy (1982)
- Selected Poems 1950-1975 (1979)
- Jack Straw’s Castle (1976)
- Moly (1971)
- Touch (1967)
- Selected Poems by Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes (1962)
- My Sad Captains and Other Poems (1961)
- The Sense of Movement (1957)
- Fighting Terms (1954)
- The Occasions of Poetry (1982; U.S. edition, 1999)
- My Life Up to Now (1977)
- Thom Gunn, photograph by Rollie McKenna, bromide print, 1957
- The Chess Game, painting by George Goodwin Kilburne
- Icelandic gyrfalcon 1759 – unknown artist (Livrustkammaren museum)
- Snail – Cochlitoma zebra var. Fulgurata – J. Green
- Black Leather Jacket
- Saturn Devouring His Sons by Goya
- August night sky – meteor shower
- John Keats 1821, by Joseph Severn
- Thom Gunn and Mike Kitay in their Cole Street garden – photo by Billy Lux
- Man’s Arm with IV
- California Coast near Bodega Bay – photo by Aron Bosworth
- Cat Island cats
- Undine, by John Williams Waterhouse
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud