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Kinaesthetic Aesthetics: On Thom Gunn's Poems.

Thom Gunn declared in 1978: "My life insists on continuities--between America and England, between free verse and metre, between vision and everyday consciousness." His intercontinental, style-hopping ways have given us a brace of odd Gunns to enjoy. Born in 1929, Gunn grew up in England and attended Cambridge; his first book, Fighting Terms (1954) landed him almost accidentally in the Movement, the set of unmodernist, plain-spoken UK poets that included Philip Larkin and the young Donald Davie. Following his American life partner Mike Kitay, Gunn moved to California in 1954, where he studied with Yvor Winters at Stanford. In 1960 Gunn and Kitay settled in San Francisco, whose evolving street life--motorcyclists (already present in his fifties poems), then LSD, bars, street fairs, bathhouses, the neighbors, the homeless--furnished frequent subjects for Gunn's poems. Since its beginnings Gunn's poetry has digested, first Winters' rigid formal logics, then the free-verse lines of William Carlos Williams and Basil Bunting, and the expansive open forms extolled by Gunn's friend Robert Duncan.

Some readers regard Gunn as a racy verse-chronicler of "Romantics in leather bars" and "badboy uniforms." Others admire him as a strict craftsman, for his quatrains and sonnets and heroic couplets, indebted to Ben Jonson (whom he has edited) and to Thomas Hardy. A few younger poets (notably August Kleinzahler) seem to model their own work on Gunn's tough free verse. (Gunn insists Kleinzahler has influenced him instead.) Some reviewers find in everything Gunn does a Brit reacting to America. And since The Man with Night Sweats (1999), with its poems about friends who have died of AIDS, many readers consider Gunn first as a dignified gay elegist. (Expect a new book, Gossip, in or around the year 2000.) When I read Gunn I hope first of all for none of these; instead, I thrill at his senses of touch and kinesthesia, of skin and limbs and muscles, poised or excited, at rest or "on the move" (as one early title puts it). Any poet can talk about his or her body; Gunn gets his into his verse.

"Rhythmic form and subject-matter are locked in a permanent embrace," Gunn has written. Only he would imagine the elements of verse as human bodies: his most characteristic rhythmic effects reflect, or copy, or respond to, physical actions people take. Gunn likes the purpose-built stanzaic forms of the seventeenth century, partly because their lengths and breaks can replicate walking, or reaching, or jumping and falling--as they do in "Three," a charming, serious poem about nudists at a California beach. Their three-year-old son
   Swims as dogs swim.
   Rushes his father, wriggles from his hold.
   His body which is him,
   Sturdy and volatile, runs off the cold.

   Runs up to me:
   Hi there hi there, he shrills, yet will not stop,
   For though continually
   Accepting everything his play turns up

   He still leaves it
   And comes back to that pebble-warmed recess
   In which the parents sit,
   At watch, who had to learn their nakedness.


The verbs race and pause along with their characters: Gunn knows the flex and pull of his line lengths and consonants, and puts them all to work to show the child at play.

Gunn rarely shows us a scene without people. At a construction site, he tracks the workers' supple, near-jerky but confident motion, in one-syllable rhymes:
   Downtown, an office tower is going up.
   And from the mesa of unfinished top
   Big cranes jut, spectral points of stiffened net:
   Angled, top-heavy artifacts, and yet
   Diagrams from the sky, as if its air
   Could drop lines, snip them off, and leave them there.

   On girders round them, Indians pad like cats,
   With wrenches in their pockets and hard hats.


The self-sufficient, balanced workers earn their own, grammatically self-sufficient, couplet. "From the Wave" begins with the "concave wall" of a wave-front approaching the beach, and ends in the smooths between the swells:
   Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
   Loosen and tingle;
   And by the board the bare foot feels
   The suck of shingle.

   They paddle in the shallows still;
   Two splash each other;
   Then all swim out to wait until
   The right waves gather.


Wave and beach, spray, crash and tide (along with Gunn's army of retreating 1's) frame the happy surfers as they enjoy, not only the breakers, but one another.

Gunn makes his energy tangible by giving it forms and limits his free verse seems as tight and worked-out as his metre and rhyme. And Gunn's unmetred verse loves to hold action: racing, crawling, shoving, swimming, ambling, flying a plane, having sex, having an argument, or hewing a new path across a wet lawn:
   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.


Enjambments shove the syllabics slowly along beside the snail, leaving a brief crawlspace between the sentences. A sketch of a road, as Gunn's eye rides it,
   adapts to the rigid
   rocky folds of the mountain's skirt
   and the soft slopes of the coast
   that it slips between
   --agile and tactful!--
   sometimes lost in a bend
   but coming round again


The pace of the drive controls the sound, shifting from the crunch of "rocky folds" to sibilants where the road opens and drops. Gunn even takes on inertia, momentum, acceleration, and deceleration: the poet and his brother on their bicycles, in "Hampstead: the Horse-Chestnut Trees,"
   rode between them and
   down the hill and the impetus
   took us on without pedalling
   to be finally braked by
   a bit of sullen marsh
   (no longer there) where the mud
   was coloured by the red-brown
   oozings of iron. It
   was autumn

   or was it?


Gunn zooms his readers downhill with him. And brakes. Only after the bikes stop can he remember, or try to remember, the season.

In John Varley's short story "The Persistence of Vision," deaf-and-blind people establish a commune, with its own customs and tactile language. If Varley's communards composed poems in their "bodytalk," Gunn would be the candidate to translate them. Though (of course) Gunn's poems describe what he sees, he tries hard to do as little as possible with the purely or merely visual, to rely on other, neglected senses. Sometimes he delves into scent, as in "Fennel":
   I stand here as if lost,
   As if invisible on this broken cliff,
   Invisible sky above.
   And for a second I float free
   Of personality, and die

   Into my senses, into the unglossed
   Unglossable
   Sweet and transporting yet attaching smell
   --The very agent that releases me
   Holding me here as well.


But usually (as book titles like Touch and The Sense of Movement announce) touch and kinesthesia take control. And they do so through sounds, as much as through direct description: they have to, since English has fewer words for tactile and kinesthetic feeling than for sight. (Look up the meaning comfortable in the front of Roget's, then look up blue or red, and you'll discover what kind of handicap Gunn gives his language when he eschews the seen.) In "The Hug" the lines interlock and rely on each other as Gunn and his lover do:
   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
   Become familial.


The near-total lack of visual detail makes the vowels and consonants, the elements of aural mimesis, do much of the descriptive work; we hear, the poem encourages us to hear, the felt quality of the hug Gunn describes--what he would feel even if he had closed his eyes.

The divide between "distant" and "close-up," or "impersonal" and "personal," senses--sight and hearing as against touch, smell, taste--is hardly Gunn's discovery: what Gunn has discovered are ways to invoke that division in poems. Downplaying sight, exalting touch, motion, or smell, Gunn invokes the convention that regards the bodily, "lower," earthier senses as less deceptive, closer to the unconscious, or to the soul. Machiavelli wrote (in The Prince) that "Men in general judge more by the sense of sight than by the sense of touch, because everyone can see but only a few can test by feeling" (Trans. Robert M. Adams; italics mine). And Kenneth Burke, 420 years later, wrote (in Attitudes Towards History): "The eyes are the `remotest' of the senses. They lack the immediacy that goes with experiences of taste or contact.... Vision, compared with touch, has a quality of alienation."

Why does vision seem, to these writers as to Gunn, less trustworthy than touch? Sight works from far off, and treats people just as it treats things; it also sets up an asymmetry between looker and looked-at. (You can't see yourself as others see you, unless you arrange to look in the same mirror.) Touch (we feel) distinguishes people from things--a Duane Hanson sculpture looks like a human being, but won't ever feel like a person. And touch is uniquely reciprocal: I can spy on, or overhear, you, but if you touch me, I'm touching you, and in all likelihood we both know it. We use our sense of sight on strangers, and watching strangers can make Gunn nervous about their privacy:
   What am I doing to this man in the yellow jacket?
   Reading him, pretending he is legible,
   thinking I can master what is self-contained.
   I know only his outer demeanor, his clothing and his skin,
   and presume an inner structure I can never be sure of.
   I must return to him as he was,
   a shimmering planet sheathed in its own air.


Seeing without listening or touching, here, makes Gunn anxious--he feels like a voyeur. Sight, for Gunn, often alienates; touch unites. We rarely pay much attention to how we touch strangers, or spend a long time touching them; the habits of ordinary life make us associate our own tactile sense with friends and lovers--the people whom we touch, the people we want to touch us. Gunn uses this property of touch to present, and to analyze, friendship, erotic love, and the finally unerasable boundaries between even the closest selves: in "Jack Straw's Castle" Gunn and his lover
   lie sheetless, bare and close,
   Facing apart, but leaning ass to ass.
   And that mere contact is sufficient touch,
   A hinge, it separates but not too much.
   An air moves over us, as calm and cool
   As the green water of a swimming pool.


"Mere contact" cools Gunn down, secures him. Gunn can pack linguistic power, physical strength, kinesis, friendship, and the (male) sex drive so tightly together that they behave like synonyms. "A Trucker" fits into his rig as if it were one "enormous throbbing body." In "Saturnalia" "the whole body pulses / like an erection, blood / in the head and furious / with tenderness." And even Gunn's vegetables can grow muscular: the eponymous naturalist in "Thomas Bewick" strikes through woods with his walking stick to find "Gnarled branches reaching down / their green gifts; weed reaching up / milky flower and damp leaf." The fascinated Bewick
   loses himself
   in detail,
   he reverts
   to an earlier self, not yet
   separate from what it sees


Bewick's communion with the vegetation copies Gunn's communion with flesh.

Gunn likes to imagine, and praise, such a pre-conscious, "not-yet-separate," collective, self. But Gunn rarely lets his own voice blur or fade. He prefers moments when people barely touch, or almost merge. And he loves to demonstrate ecstasies, appetites, mergings, in other people, or even in animals. When Gunn admires the pig in "Meat" he knows he sounds funny, but we know he means it:
   My brother saw a pig root in a field,
   And saw too its whole lovely body yield
   To this desire which deepened out of need
   So that in wriggling through the mud and weed
   To eat and dig were one athletic joy.


The pig may be ugly if we merely look; consider its motile pleasures, and it turns beautiful. But the human being nearest to that kind of bliss is "The Sand Man," a brain-damaged beachfront derelict:
   He rocks, a blur on ridges, pleased to be.
   Dispersing with the sands
   He feels a dry cool multiplicity
   Gilding his body, feet and hands.


The golden sand's feel on the skin makes it, for the Sand Man, more precious than gold. His "mere innocence / Many have tried to repossess" amounts to, equals, the pleasure he takes in his senses.

No one would want to become the sand man, or a pig (though Gunn's poem "Moly" explores just that change). The aggressive biker boys and street kids who populate all his books run closer to Gunn's ideals. Those strong, hot-blooded heroes--so naive they make him self-conscious--inspire Gunn as few subjects can. "Nasturtium" erects one tensely extended figure for them all:
   Born in a sour waste lot
   You laboured up to light,
   Bunching what strength you'd got
   And running out of sight
   Through a knot-hole at last,
   To come forth into sun
   As if without a past,
   Done with it, re-begun.

   Now street-side of the fence
   You take a few green turns,
   Nimble in nonchalance,
   Before your first flower burns.
   From poverty and prison
   And undernourishment
   A prodigal has risen,
   Self-spending, never spent.

   Irregular yellow shell
   And drooping spur behind ...
   Not rare but beautiful
   --Street-handsome--as you wind
   And leap, hold after hold,
   A golden runaway,
   Still running, strewing gold
   From side to side all day.


Gunn's eight-line stanzas rhyme in quatrains and follow most of the rules for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse--a feat like playing basketball on horseback. Here it's not a stunt, but a way to reflect the young flower's exertions and motions: doubled consonants hold the nasturtium as it sways from side to side, while rhymes and syntax drive it up and on. And those accomplished moves reflect the flower's character: as the "street-handsome," lithe and blithe nasturtium stands to other flora, so the street kids stand to softer peers. This equation--bodily skill = psychological confidence = the poet's ideal, which the form demonstrates--holds for the flower, for "Hotblood on Friday," for the cycle-gang kids in "Black Jackets," for the otter in "The Life of the Otter"--"Who seems to be showing off / but is half lost / in the exuberance of dip and wheel"--and for the stunt-turning boy in "Skateboard":
   Hair dyed to show it is dyed,
   pale flame spiking from fuel.
   Tow Head on Skateboard
   perfecting himself:
   emblem extraordinary
   of the ordinary.

   In the sexless face
   eyes innocent of feeling
   therefore suggest the spirit.


A whole essay (not this one) deserves to be written about Gunn's adolescents, about why and how he admires the youthful, "the disobedient," the "potent in potential." And "Nasturtium" (along with the odes to rebellious kids it resembles) shows off all the qualities Gunn seeks: energy, agility, skill (potential or actual); self-control, self-mastery; lack of self-pity; lack of snobbery; sexiness; "nonchalance"; concealed tenderness; and concision.

I've been enthusing over the mature Gunn, the author of The Man With Night Sweats and The Passages of Joy, the San Francisco man on the street where he lives. But he was not always this confident, or this comfortable. In his first books (Fighting Terms; The Sense of Movement [1958]; My Sad Captains [1961]) control became came a grim end in itself: allegories of exiles and prisoners, in stiff, boxy stanzas with end words like pistons, spelled out Gunn's early dogmas:
    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.


These books get called "heroic" and "martial," but they are also desperate: as Gunn has acknowledged, some of his best early poems look now like plaints from the closet. Before 1965 Gunn's characters are mostly enduring loners, suffering, tortured, or "numb past pain": a teen werewolf; a trucker and his truck; bikers; Nazi foot soldiers; polar explorers; centurions; "Tamer and Hawk"; and St. Martin (who humanly and justly keeps half his cloak for himself so he won't freeze). In 1965 Gunn finished the sequence Misanthropos, whose protagonist thinks himself the last man alive on earth, and learns otherwise in the final lines. Soon after, Gunn began to choose happier alter egos--flowers; a satyr; the centaur of "Tom-Dobbin"; fiercely playful "Apartment Cats"; an inquisitive dog; nudists en famille; surfers; a newborn; an American pioneer couple; transient hippies "discovering" the Pacific; a small plane banking and rising in wind; the sun; and a seed.

What happened? The Sixties? Gay liberation? Yes. (Several poems in Moly [1971] bear the subtitle "LSD.") But what those times and movements did for Gunn, they could do for no other writer. Because Gunn started with such an understanding of his own body, of how to get its rigors into verse, the Sixties countercultures--which elevated community, unselfconsciousness, pleasure--showed Gunn how to use his proprioception, and his sense of his skin, to welcome other people into his poems. Asked to pick a single swivel-point in Gunn's career, I'd nominate "Back to Life" (from Touch [1967]--a book broken up, in the Collected, into Misanthropos plus a handful of "Poems from the 1960s"). In "Back to Life" Gunn walks in a "little park" in S.F., smells limes, watches branches and streetlights, and traces their three-dimensional solidities--
   Touching the lighted glass,
   Their leaves are soft green on the night,
   The closest losing even their mass,
   Edged but transparent as if they too gave light.


Next Gunn notices the other walkers, "boys and girls ... jostling as they grow, / Cocky with surplus strength." Gunn's earlier rebels and heroes could be themselves only alone. But these kids' energy, their adolescent unease, helps them create a social life. Kids hold hands, limes brush streetlights, and Gunn feels, briefly, in touch with them all:
   I walk between the kerb and bench
   Conscious at length
   Of sharing through each sense,
   As if the light revealed us all
   Sustained in delicated difference
   Yet firmly growing from a single branch.


The oscillating metres expand and contract as if to let in other minds. Later "Back to Life" remembers that all of us fall from the branch, "sooner or later separate"; nonetheless, from here on Gunn will seem far more at home with us, far friendlier, more confident, more inviting.

The later, better Gunn thus uses his muscles and bones and fingertips to make himself a social poet. Gunn loves the gay street fair in "At the Barriers" because there "we stretch our sympathies, this is a day of feeling with"--the line makes explicit the serious pun Gunn often asks his readers to make, between "feeling" other people's emotions, and "feeling" the limits and shapes of their skins. Gunn's conversational tones can sound forced: "Time to go home babe, though now you feel most tense." But the same poem ("Fever") that throws up that clunker boasts one of Gunn's best bits of venom:
   Your mother thought you beautiful, I suppose,
   She dandled you all day and watched you sleep.
   Perhaps that's half the trouble. And it grows:
   An unattended conqueror now, you keep
   Getting less beautiful toward the evening's end.


Barely hinted at before 1970, Gunn's talent as a psychological observer informs excruciatingly true poems like "Doily," about (I think) a heroin addict. Here's the whole poem:
   You recognize it like
   the smell of the sour chemical
   that gets into the sweat
   of some people from
   birth onward.

   And you say
   he's out to end his choices
   for good and doesn't realize it.

   I know someone who
   was never let play with dolls
   when he was little, so now
   (he thinks to spite his father)
   collects them.
   But it's the crippled ones
   he cherishes most, particularly
   the quadriplegics: they loll
   blank stomachs depending from blank heads
   with no freedom,
   ever, ever

   and in need.


The longest line lobs out the only real image, "blank stomachs depending from blank heads." (What horrifies Gunn first? Their posture.) Four elegant sentences set up six characters--"you," "I," the addict, the sad "someone" of the second half, the father, the healthy dolls, and the sick dolls, who reveal the half-hidden motives of the rest.

All Gunn's descriptions include justifications: he says nothing he can't understand, and makes no verbal move he can't explain. His habit of judgment gives him the depressing habit of tacking moral tags onto poems that hardly need them: "we savour the approaching delight / of things we know yet are fresh always"; "I tingled with knowledge. / The swiftly changing / played upon the slowly changing." But I trust Gunn as I trust almost no living poet. If his commitment to knowing what he is doing--and his skittishness about seeing--debars him from the visionary, fantastic power of, say, Hart Crane, Gunn offers instead the modest virtues of clarity and reliability. And if you never say, are careful never to say, more than you mean, people will assume you mean more than you say; Gunn's understatements convert his trustworthiness into power. When he says about a pair of evicted mechanics, in "`All Do Not All Things Well,'" "I am sorry that they went," I infer much deeper feeling, even before I read what follows:
   Quick with a friendly greeting,
   They were gentle, joky men
   --Certainly not ambitious,
   Perhaps not intelligent
   Unless about a car,
   Their work one thing they knew
   They could for certain do
   With a disinterest
   And passionate expertise
   To which they gave their best
   Desires and energies.
   Such oily-handed zest
   By-passed the self like love.
   I thought that they were good
   For any neighborhood.


Everything rhymes, by the end, except "greeting" and "love," as if those, too, have been evicted. (Note, too, that the one descriptive adjective in these lines, "oily-handed," is tactile at least as much as it is visual.)

Gunn's motto might be no trust without risk; no risk without trust: each depends on the other to make it worthwhile. Trust and risk have lately become his favorite words: Gunn's HIV-positive "Man With Night Sweats," looking back over his sexual rovings, recalls:
   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.


What the stanza wants us to notice is that "trust" and "risk," for the man who speaks the poem, have come in and through flesh. Others find the same virtues in books. In "His Rooms in College," an aggrieved Oxbridge tutor
   reads, until the chapel clock strikes five,
   And suddenly discovers that the book,
   Unevenly, gradually, and with difficulty,
   Has all along been showing him its mind
   (Like no one ever met at a dinner party),
   And his attention has become prolonged
   To the quiet passion with which he in return
   Has given himself completely to the book.
   He looks out at the darkened lawns, surprised
   Less by the loss of grief than by the trust.


The consoled tutor has befriended the volume, just as he would a living acquaintance. Gunn told the Paris Review in 1993, "A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It's also an influence in the way you see everything--in the way you feel your life": he keeps one root in literary history, draws sustenance from it, even at his most democratic. (And he won't mind if we miss allusions: readers don't need to know--though it's nice to know--that Gunn takes the title "All Do Not All Things Well" from a line in a poem by Thomas Campion.)

Gunn insists on the likenesses between poems and persons, minds and bodies, and (even in his LSD-prompted poems) on the material, physical grounds of even the most outre event. He defines "miracle" (in "The Miracle") first as a partner so sexy and "so slim / That I could grip my wrist in back of him," and then as a come-trail that stays for months:
   `Then suddenly he dropped down on one knee
   Right by the urinal in his only suit
   And let it fly, saying Keep it there for me,
   And smiling up. I can still see him shoot.
   Look at that snail-track on the toe of my boot.'

   --`Snail-track?'--`Yes, there.'--`That was six months ago.
   How can it still be there?'--`My friend, at night
   I make it shine again, I love him so,
   Like they renew a saint's blood out of sight.
   But we're not Catholic, see, so it's alright.'


A sacrament? A guy with a hard-on? Love? All three: their conjunction-disjunctive ties the poem to Donne's "The Relic," the blasphemous, worshipful, erotic, anti-Catholic precedent Gunn has in mind. (Donne's poem ends: "All measure, and all language, I should pass, / Should I tell what a miracle she was.")

Gunn enjoys the Metaphysicals far more than he does metaphysics. "I'm not very spiritual!" Gunn exclaimed in that interview. His thorniest abstractions grow from his forays into psychology, when his fierce, lovely, loving struggles among erotic partners probe the bounds of the ego. Gunn reminisces, in "The Differences,"
   So when you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours
   And learned to associate you with that smell
   As if your exuberance sprang from your pores.


He enjoys shocking us--how many lovers gnaw armpits?--but he's also mulling what the psychoanalytic thinker Jessica Benjamin calls "the problem of domination": how can I love somebody without wanting to control, or to be controlled? (Most of his best love poems take up the same question.) "The Differences" gets wacky in the middle, declaring, "love is formed by a dark ray's invasion / From Mars," which turns out to be translated Cavalcanti. But Gunn's ending grows quietly serious: the skin, the flesh's surface, stands for the borders of respect between lovers, which we can learn to accept and appreciate:
   We lay at ease, an arm loose round a waist,
   Or side by side and touching at the hips,
   As if we were two trees, bough grazing bough,
   The twigs being the toes or fingertips.


It's like Gunn to clarify where all the limbs ended up, and (as in "Jack Straw's Castle") just how toe touched toe.

Because he knows so thoroughly what bodies can enjoy when they stay healthy, his verse can show how they fail when they turn ill. His poems about people with HIV and AIDS make, not death, but illness, weirdly vivid. And because his poems of the seventies and eighties so often found forms for gay friendships, parties and neighborhoods, Gunn can depict how HIV and AIDS menace not just individuals but a milieu. The man in "Still Life" becomes a heraldic symbol of all dying men, a crest (like a lion couchant) on a "field," as his exertions strain Gunn's phrases:
   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.


Disyllabic rhymes (neither, breather) shrink to one-syllable rhymes inside two-syllable words (opposed, enclosed), and then to the desperate gasps of go and O.

Gunn's exertions, in The Man With Night Sweats, strive against the deaths he describes: the Man of the title poem pulls himself back to the flesh that threatens (like an unreliable lover) to leave him:
   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.


We barely see the Man, but we hear what he feels: "to," "as," "if," "from" all carry scary, unaccustomed weight, making for linefuls of spondees, and sentences as effortfully tough as wrestlers' holds. "The Missing" remembers the happy crowd from "At the Barriers" in the same half-numb, determined tones:
   Contact of friend led to another friend,
   Supple entwinement through the living mass
   Which for all that I knew might have no end,
   Image of an unlimited embrace.


To be alive means, here, to be "entwined." The scariest people in The Man With Night Sweats are not the AIDS patients in the elegies, but the nameless dead in "Death's Door," who belong in death, to death, because they no longer care about bodies, or for their friends. In their purgatorial TV room,
   The habit of companionship
   Lapses--they break themselves of touch:
   Edging apart at arm and hip
   Till separated on the couch,

   They woo amnesia, look away
   As if they were not yet elsewhere,
   And when snow blurs the picture they,
   Turned, give it a belonging stare.


Even at his most harrowed, Gunn remembers other poetry, in this case, Larkin's "The Winter Palace," which ends, "Soon there will be nothing I know. / My mind will fade into itself like fields, like snow." Against Larkin's forgetful mind of winter, against the dead in their indifferent armchairs, Gunn uses his poems to show his strength, his friendships, and his turnings "Back to Life." Where the childless Larkin of "Dockery and Son" wanted no son, no social bonds, one of Gunn's ex-lovers chose to adopt one. When Gunn sees the son, in the last poem in The Man With Night Sweats, he makes the adoptive father another alter ego:
   What I admired about his self-permission
   Was that he turned from nothing he had done,
   Or was, or had been, even while he transposed
   The expectations he took out at dark
   --Of Eros playing, features undisclosed--
   Into another pitch, where he might work
   With the same melody, and opted so
   To educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm,
   And love a child to be adopted, though
   The child was still a blank then on a form.

   The blank was flesh now, running on its nerve,
   This fair-topped organism dense with charm,
   Its braided muscle grabbing what would serve,
   His countering pull, his own devoted arm.


That handclasp, with its measured "countering pull," declares that parents and children--like friends, like readers, like lovers, like generations of writers--can care for others while respecting their independence. (It is the unerotic, chastened version of the "ass-to-ass" contact which guaranteed love and trust twenty years earlier, in "Jack Straw's Castle.") Gunn ends his saddest book with a man who looks forward, who holds onto somebody else and repudiates none of himself--as Gunn will not repudiate, will not choose between, American life and English tradition: nor will he choose between metre and free verse, old and new, consciousness and instinct, the pull of feeling and the rule of thought. His tactile talents let him get all these supposed opposites into the bodies his poems imagine, the people they create. And Gunn grabs and holds even those abstract virtues in terms of physical sensations--muscles, strength, warmth, a tug on somebody's willing, living hand.

STEPHEN BURT, a graduate student at Yale, is writing a dissertation on Randall Jarrell. His poems, literary criticism, and essays about obscure rock music have appeared in Popwatch, the Yale Review, Boston Review, TLS, PN Review, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. The University Press of Colorado will publish his first book of poems, Popular Music, this year.3
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Author:BURT, STEPHEN
Publication:Southwest Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 1999
Words:5211
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