BOOK REVIEW / Leather kids in love: Lachlan Mackinnon on the poetry of Thom Gunn: Collected Poems - Thom Gunn: Faber, pounds 20
Saturday 15 January 1994
Faber treated Gunn as a twin of Ted Hughes at first, suggesting that the violence implicit in Gunn's fascination with the leatherclad motorcycling world of youth culture was related to the feral savagery of Hughes' vision of nature. Gunn left Britain for California in 1954, where he still lives, and as his vision unfolded in a context of self-risking hedonism, LSD and low life, it became clear that relations between people, rather than the natural world, were at the heart of his moral questioning. California also enabled him to accept and to trust his own homosexuality as a potential focus of decency. The occasional appearance of slim volumes during the long period when he was out of fashion did not prevent his slipping from general view, but the award of the 1992 Forward Prize to The Man with Night Sweats, a book dominated by Aids, was important because it recognised the measure of his artistry.
The much-anthologised 'On the Move' typifies Gunn's early work as 'On motorcycles, up the road, they come: / Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys', putting birds to flight and causing the poet to reflect that 'Much that is natural, to the will must yield'. Gunn admires the bikers' 'self-defined' restlessness because 'at best, /Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One as always nearer by not keeping still'. The philosophical vocabulary of the poem shows Gunn's indebtedness to French existentialism, particularly that of Jean-Paul Sartre, but what makes it remarkable is the ease with which the poet integrates it into his descriptive writing and the strength of what feels like erotic fascination. Here Gunn uses rhyme and a strict metre, as he has continued to do in tandem with looser forms influenced by American models. Occasionally, he falls into the padding clumsiness all too common among today's strict metrists, but usually his work is characterised by a clarity of language which reflects his admiration for Ben Jonson.
Gunn's clarity contributes to some of his most moving effects, as in 'An Amorous Debate', which begins:
'Birds whistled, all
Nature was doing something while
Leather Kid and Fleshly
lay on a bank and
gleamingly discoursed. . .'
What they talk about is straightforward: ' 'Let's fuck]', he said.' As they do, Leather Kid feels as if his body has 'rolled back its own foreskin'. The poem's brute colloquialism picks up some of the language and imagery of pornography, leaving us unprepared for the end:
'And they melted one
into the other
like the way the Saone
joins the Rhone at Lyon.'
The way in which Gunn suggests a troubadour lyricism has here a tender gravity which is disarming. The space between sex and love is one Gunn continually traverses, as in 'The Pissing'. 'Now as I watch the progress of the plague', Gunn meditates on how an erotically various past gave him 'an involved increasing family'.
'Contact of friend led to another friend,
Supple entwinement through the living mass
Which for all that I know might have no end,
Image of an unlimited embrace.'
The coming of Aids and the deaths of friends cut him off from 'the play of constant give and change', but in this elegiac vision of what was and what might have been Gunn finds a continuum between promiscuity and Utopia which challenges conventional morality through the poet's lyric poise.
'Still Life' (see box) typifies many of Gunn's strengths, which are better shown in short than in long poems. The tough understatement of 'I shall not soon forget' and the precision of 'set' make us credit his truthfulness. The slightly knotty phrasing of 'an obscure knack' suggests a long study of seventeenth-century models - exactness of meaning combined with a momentary condensation of the colloquial tone. The 'astonished O' with which he ends, a gagging bewilderment, is arresting and speaks directly to our senses. The paradoxical title - though frozen in a work of art, there is still life in the dying man - both calls our attention to and rebukes the aesthetic joy the poem is helpless to deny us.
Unconcerned with notions of a literary career, faithful to experience and the thought which is part of experience, Thom Gunn's Collected Poems are more moving as a whole than when they first appeared. Their integrity makes us consider what that virtue is.
I shall not soon forget
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: 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.
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