by Thom Gunn
Farrar Straus & Giroux 2009
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
Music and Verve
In his introduction to his new selection of Thom Gunn’s poetry, August Kleinzahler notes that in an interview with James Campbell, Gunn once stated the following: “I distrust myself with rhetoric.” Yet as Gunn largely eschews emotive abstractions and sentimentality in his poems, he is somehow very personal; the specific poems that Kleinzahler chose for this collection combine to form a speaker that is all at once subtle, expressive and intensely human. The result is this diminutive collection’s triumph.
Gunn’s anonymous yet universal speaker deals with strong and severe subjects such as drugs, AIDS and deaths (including his own mother’s suicide). He harnesses the emotional charge of such topics through his strict use of form, almost always relying on rhyme and meter as a means to synthesis. His often laconic verse achieves immaculate control throughout difficult themes. The only criticism of this collection that is fair is that it is, perhaps, too sparse, including too little. However, the brevity of the book underscores the verve of these particular poems.
Selected covers Gunn’s early work, but emphasizes poems from My Sad Captains, Moly and The Man with Night Sweats. Although a much later collection, The Man with Night Sweats is an integral component of Gunn’s lifework; it addresses the complex and harsh realities of lives affected by AIDS. Gunn explores the ways in which people come to terms with death. Poems like “Lament” and “Still Life,” which appear consecutively in this collection, are able to find the universal humanity in all deaths, the “difficult, tedious, painful enterprise” that it is.
All Everybody Dead and Dying
Even Gunn’s early work addressed the dilemma we face when we encounter loss. In early poems such as “Tamer and Hawk,” the speaker is reflective but destructive. He unexpectedly takes on the point of view of the hawk: “Through having only eyes / For you I fear to lose, / I lose to keep, and choose / Tamer as prey.” The concept here is applicable to any situation in which one feels as though control has been lost. In order to feel in command of one’s own fate when something must be lost, one often takes it upon him- or herself to destroy that which he or she fears losing, even if that means the destruction of one’s own body or life.
Later in “My Sad Captains,” a balance of the emotive and the brusque is flawlessly achieved. Again, Gunn addresses the obstacles that must be overcome in the face of bereavement. A poem that recalls old friends that have passed has the potential to become an overwrought, schmaltzy disaster, but not for Gunn. The remembered friends become “disinterested / hard energy, like the stars.” Just as they are “distant now,” Gunn is able to maintain a somewhat distant or removed tone which allows us to respond with unpolluted emotion; dead doesn’t mean gone, it means reconstituted.
It is the same sense of detachment that allows Gunn to be one of the best romantic poets of the last five decades. Poems like “Touch,” “Three” and “The Bed” examine the ways, both physical and non-physical, in which two individuals can come together to cast off the cold, the darkness, the unknown. From “Touch”:
the ferment of your whole
body that in darkness beneath
the cover is stealing
bit by bit to break
down that chill.
Gunn asserts that human connections, relationships, are the real matter of our lives, that within a simple touch we can find the ability to “walk with everyone.”
Amid Kleinzahler’s nearly ideal choices for this collection lies one significant failure. “Listening to Jefferson Airplane” is a two-line poem: “The music comes and goes on the wind, / Comes and goes on the brain.” It is a nice thought, and under the influence of LSD, or if I’d seen Jefferson Airplane live at the Fillmore East (remember the lights?), it might resonate more. The poem is flinty and takes up a full page in a firmly-controlled Selected. I don’t blame Gunn for having written the poem, but rather I blame Kleinzahler for choosing to include it.
In contrast to “Listening to Jefferson Airplane,” Kleinzahler includes poems like “At the Centre,” which emerged from Gunn’s use of LSD and are much more insightful and weighty than the former. The speaker of this poem is hyperaware of his surroundings, and at the end of the poem he describes the room filled with his friends: “The faces are as bright now as fresh snow.” Though some might describe the line as sentimental, nostalgic, it renders the faces a mere component of the speaker’s environment. It vivifies the emotional quantities of a singular, responsive mind; it implies a ceaseless blending of things and of persons, and it gives all of it value.
Because We Separate
Gunn writes a lot about his friends. In “To a Friend in Time of Trouble,” he comments on destructive relationships by describing a bird scooping up its prey. Then he writes, “You know / It is not cruel, it is not human.” He suggests that in order for an action to be cruel, the actor must be aware of the cruelty. The bird, however, is acting out of necessity; it follows a natural instinct within itself to survive, whereas humans often act out of self-importance. On some level, it is true that the human animal (and whatever we think we know about its ability to cognize) should not be held to a higher standard than other animals, but it seems that understanding natural elements of balance within our environment can often help us deal with “grief and rage,” and the speaker sees his friend benefiting in this way.
Most struggle to understand the elements of the natural world, the balancing act that it is. We particularly struggle to understand the process of death, and many rage against its onset in their lives; however, in “Death’s Door,” Gunn takes a more level-headed approach to the unknown. While some mourn for their loved ones, Gunn chooses to reflect on the fact that they “can feel nothing”; “they unlearned their pain so sprucely” in death.. It is almost as if Gunn doesn’t have the adverse reaction to death that many do, but instead accepts it as an inevitable open ending. For example, he begins the poem with the following two lines: “Of course the dead outnumber us / —How their recruiting armies grow!” Perhaps it won’t be such a bad thing to be “recruited.”
Gunn continues to take a unique look at death. His mother committed suicide, and he didn’t publish a poem on the subject until Boss Cupid in 2000, but in the poem “The Gas-poker,” his attitude regarding death is the same as in his earlier work despite the fact that his own mother is the one that has been “recruited.” As difficult as a death can be for those that are left behind, Gunn’s speaker musters the strength to acknowledge the ways in which death may have been something positive for his mother: decompression. He calls the room in which she met her end the “room of her release.” The poem is straightforward, and does not carry the overbearing emotions that many poems on this topic might.
Which could be said of most of these poems. The poet writes about people; he loves them and cares about them and seeing them die and disappear is a scandal—but a scandal that follows plain logic, that makes sense, as things are wont to blend. Gunn is a master of subtlety, and his ability to write about such distressing subjects in “plain style” is ultimately what makes them moving.