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Tough Love

Boss Cupid • By Thom Gunn • Farrar, Strauss & Giroux • 118 pp • $22.00

One of our finest living poets, Thom Gunn has not evoked the critical gush that some of his contemporaries have excited. Not that Gunn has been ignored. Since 1954, when he left Cambridge to study with Yvor Winters at Stanford, he has received his share of prizes, grants, and recognition. But he's never attracted the critical attention given to John Ashbery, James Merrill, or Seamus Heaney, or the devotees won by Charles Bukowski or Sharon Olds. The neoformalists, who might be expected to champion him, have preferred milder, less demanding poets, such as Donald Justice.

Perhaps it's his own fault. Gunn's poems, it sometimes seems, actively discourage admirers. They are rough, leathery, well-worn. Like men at the gay bars he has so often described, they pose rather defiantly, showing off their wares but daring the reader to make the first move. These are not poems meant to win readers over with geniality and conviviality. They refuse to pretend to any immediate, but specious, familiarity.

The very manner of the poems is meant neither to dazzle nor to endear. Like the other members of the Movement, the literary group that included Donald Davie and Philip Larkin, Gunn has taken Thomas Hardy as his guide. Like Hardy, he employs traditional forms and meter, prefers straightforward if somewhat abstract language, and projects a flinty disdain for comforting illusions. The Movement rejected Dylan Thomas's neo-Romantic flights of fancy. To be sure, Gunn occasionally uses syllabics, free verse, and psychedelic drugs, but he's never used them in a particularly daring way. What he says of Hardy may be equally applied to himself: His aim is "clarity and modesty," and his stylistic hallmark is a "brilliant impetuous clumsiness."

Take, for example, the concluding lines to the title poem of his last collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992). The speaker hugs his body,

As if to shield it from
The pains that will go through me,
As if hands were enough
To hold an avalanche off.
Gunn loves to end lines--and here a poem--with prepositions, the least stable syntactic conclusion. In this case, the ending is made all the more unstable because it is impossible to decide whether "off" is supposed to be a stressed or an unstressed syllable or how closely it should rhyme with "enough." Is "avalanche" supposed to be pronounced as three syllables or elided into two? The uncertain thud at the end of the poem is not a failure of execution but a powerful way to show the collapse of the safeguards we have constructed. Such effects are not designed to bring down the house or send a reader swooning with delight. Instead, they chill with their unsettling appropriateness.

Boss Cupid is filled with these seeming failures. In "A Home," Gunn writes about a young man brought up in shelters. Most of the poem proceeds in steady iambic pentameter. But when Gunn imagines how the boy's mind would experience a real home, he writes, "And it delights in the cool new-found ease / With which it slips the habitual weary tautness." The poem builds up to an almost spondaic stress in the phrase "cool new-found ease" and is then released in the looser, more trisyllabic feet of "the habitual weary tautness." The falling rhythm tells us all we need to know about what it feels like when that "habitual weary tautness" gives out like an old elastic band. The abstractness of the language may put us off until we recognize the concreteness of the rhythms.

A final example of Gunn's "brilliant impetuous clumsiness" may indicate his range. "In the Post Office" presents Gunn following a young bicyclist after he has mailed a package:

... I watched him ride
Down 18th Street, rising above the saddle
For the long plunge he made with every pedal,
Expending far more energy than needed.
If only I could do whatever he did ...
In the phrase "the long plunge," each successive syllable gets a bit more stress, but the gravity of the effect is undermined by the comic mosaic rhyme of "needed" with "he did." The clumsy rhyme stumbles after the graceful boy, in a gentle mockery of the seventy-year-old Gunn, who may no longer have the energy for ostentatiously long plunges but would still like to follow.

Gunn has always eschewed an easy intimacy. In his first volume, Fighting Terms (1954), his reticence was caused by his need to hide his homosexuality. As he told an ambiguous "you": "I am not what I seem, believe me, so / For the magnanimous pagan I pretend / Substitute a forked creature as your friend." But even when he came out in his 1961 collection, My Sad Captains, he kept his distance: "Why pretend / Love must accompany erection? / This is a momentary affection, / A curiosity bound to end." In "Cat Island" from Boss Cupid, he praises cats for not pretending "to be other than whores":

they give you not
the semblance of love
but simply
a look at their beauty
in return for food.
Beauty is present, and also nourishment, but Gunn is careful not to pretend there is more to the relationship. As he tells a young man in an untitled poem:
Save the word
empathy, sweetheart,
for your freshman essays.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Try 'sympathy.' With that
your isolated self may
split a cloak with the beggar ...
When we think we can become one with another person, Gunn suggests, we delude ourselves.

Or worse. One of the more disturbing poems in Boss Cupid is "Troubadour," dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, the "serial murderer, cannibal, and necrophile." The sequence, written in Dahmer's voice, avoids easy moralizing. Gunn's point seems to be that Dahmer's insanity and criminality are exaggerations only in degree of the empathy and intimacy so much celebrated in contemporary culture. Dahmer's murders are an extension of his desire to be joined forever with his beloveds. Unable to accept their separateness, their autonomy, he must literally "taste [their] boyish glow." Dahmer is an uninspired version of Rimbaud, the subject of another of Gunn's poems, who "Ate all provincial France, the pasturing herd / And village-girls he once had thought to wive. / His shit was poetry: alchemy of the word."

For Gunn, distance is a necessary condition for sustaining love. In "Rapallo," one of the more remarkable poems of the collection, Gunn addresses his companion of more than forty years. It begins at evening. Gunn is twenty-three; his companion, twenty-one. They have spent "a spacious day" at the beach, but as Gunn washes out his bathing suit, he loses himself for a minute. The bottom of the sink has filled with sand, like the bottom of an hourglass, and no longer reflects his face. He enters a fugue state, in which his exhausted happiness (which is also his interrupted sense of an integrated self) searches for its original inspiration. "From habit," Gunn at last turns around to see his beloved dressing, and at that moment his sense of self returns: "without you as ground, / How could it stay intact?" The beloved is both the force that keeps Gunn grounded in happiness and the ground against which he needs to picture himself. Yet just as the poem seems to be tilting toward a platonic notion that love is "desire and pursuit of the whole," Gunn pulls back. The poem fast-forwards to the present:

If in four decades matter-of-factly
Coming to be resigned
To separate beds was not exactly
What we then had in mind,
Something of our first impetus,
Something of what we planned
Remains of what was given us
On the Rapallo sand.
Love endures even as romance fades. Indeed, one has the sense that love endures because it has been subsumed into the matter-of-fact life that includes separate beds, which are not entirely removed from what was planned at the beginning. "Impetus," with its suggestion of physics, seems at first an odd choice of word, but it perfectly matches the passivity of the phrase "what was given us"--as if love, though an act of grace, had to accommodate itself to the laws of mechanics.

If we wonder why so few people gush over Thom Gunn, we may need to look no further than this antisentimental eroticism, his unwillingness, even in his love poems, to indulge the reader in the fantasies that are the currency of popular appeal. His stern insistence on his own integrity--poetic, emotional, and physical--wins only our reluctant assent. But that may be all he's after.

David Bergman is professor of English and director of the Cultural Studies Program at Towson University. His most recent book of poetry is Heroic Measures (Ohio State).

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