Porn stars & Englishmen
Thom Gunn's contradictions
by Peter Campion
by Thom Gunn. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 111 pages, $22.
Thom Gunn is a poet known for his daring subject matter. In the mid '50s, after
leaving his native England for the American West Coast, he composed strictly
rhymed lyrics about Elvis Presley and biker gangs. In his 1972 book
Moly, he wrote explicitly of experiences with LSD. In a volume 10 years
later, Passages of Joy, he described the "sexual Jerusalem" of the gay
scene in New York and San Francisco. But Gunn's poems have never fallen to mere
sensationalism. Instead, by using unpredictable subjects that challenge his
reader's assumptions and his own, he's raised the stakes of his artwork.
How exciting it is, then, to see the poet push his reach and grasp even farther
in Boss Cupid. Just as rhyme and meter alternate with free verse here,
so gay porn stars share space with English aunts. If Gunn includes a long poem
on King David, he places one on serial-killer Jeffrey Dahmer in the same
section. And isn't this shiftiness just what the title of the book implies?
When we admit that Mother Venus's sneaky son is in fact our boss, we begin to
understand what Cambridge poet Tom Sleigh has admired in Gunn: "the ability to
give up the self to change in others, to change in oneself and in the world."
This process is Gunn's true subject matter, whatever person, incident, or time
period his individual poems portray.
And by submitting to changes, Gunn lets those he portrays break through the
narrative framework he sets around them. After describing a friend's
frightening addiction to angel dust, he follows with a poem about the friend's
rehabilitation. A poem of fond praise for the poet's mother's social savvy
precedes one that graphically describes her suicide. Shifting from line to line
and page to page, Gunn's subjects quote, in effect, Walt Whitman's oft-quoted
"very well then, I contradict myself."
This ability to embrace contradiction reveals itself in Gunn's formal
strategies. Take the way that form reflects content in "The Butcher's Son." Set
in the wartime England of the poet's youth, the poem is about an English
butcher who grieves because his son is presumed dead. When the son in fact
returns, showing up at a school dance, Gunn tells how much the son resembled
his dad. And just as the young soldier's features "contained his father's," so
the poem's rangy free-verse lines contain tight rhymes that show through the
But beyond his mastery of technique lies Gunn's moral yet imaginative sense of
other people's unpredictability. "I change, therefore I am," might be Thom
Gunn's revision of Descartes. And his book enacts this process. So it is that
one poem in Boss Cupid ends with suicide, but "The Butcher's Son" ends
with that "light within the light/That he turned everywhere."
THE BUTCHER'S SON
Mr Pierce the butcher
Got news his son was missing
About a month before
The closing of the war.
A bald man, tall and careful,
He stood in his shop and found
No bottom to his sadness,
Nowhere for it to stop.
When my aunt came through the door
Delivering the milk,
He spoke, with his quiet air
Of a considerate teacher,
But words weren't up to it,
He turned back to the meat.
The message was in error.
Later that humid summer
At a local high school fete,
I saw, returned, the son
Still in his uniform.
Mr Pierce was not there
But was as if implied
In the son who looked like him
Except he had red hair.
For I recall him well
Encircled by his friends,
Beaming a life charged now
Doubly because restored,
And recall also how
Within his hearty smile
His lips contained his father's
Like a light within the light
That he turned everywhere.