April 28th, 2004

Thom Gunn

cpratt informed me that poet Thom Gunn passed away on Sunday. As some of our regular readers will know, Gunn has been the subject of frequent discussion in our household. knicolini had a very unpleasant experience with him as a UC Berkeley undergraduate. But my own memories of him, aside from the memory of Kim's memory, are positive.

He was nice to me in person -- being a ragged-looking, burly blond didn't hurt, I suspect -- recognizing me years after the creative writing seminar I had with him. He was unfailingly supportive of my good friend Josh Weiner, both as a poet and a Ph.D. student. And there was something saultary about the image he projected in Wheeler Hall, of someone who had given up the bullshit that being a professor in the 1950s and 1960s required and then returned to the university on his own terms.

I often tell the story of how I wrote a portfolio of poems -- I only had one "real" poem to my name -- the night before the application deadline for his seminar because I wanted to hear his lovely voice read my words, even if he were going to harsh on them during the critique.

Gunn was often severe in the classroom, sure of what he liked and dismissive of what he didn't. But his advice was usually good, even when a student needed to reject it, as Annalee frequently did. That productive tension was on my mind last week, when I wrote the entry about her poem "Michele Dressing".

Kim and I have often talked about his put-down of her writing -- "Terribly melodramatic, don't you think? Unless, of course, you've lived that way" -- as a way of getting at other issues. I honestly believe that Gunn thought she was manufacturing drama for her poetry, rather than drawing upon her life experiences. He was dead wrong. But Kim and I both knew plenty of Berkeley students who engaged in precisely that sort of self-manufacturing.

The irony in all this is that Kim and I are only together because of Thom Gunn. Had Priscilla not taken that class with Annalee, Leanne, and Josh -- not to mention Blake Davis, the inimitable Lance, and the self-manufacturing Kay Sundstrom -- in the spring of 1988, I never would have met her. Strangely, then, it feels like Gunn is responsible for Kim's life becoming more like the life he imagined her to have, with all the plusses and minuses that entails.

I taught some poems in The Man With Night Sweats to my Literary Analysis class this semester. I didn't tell them they were written by a man and let them reflexively misinterpret them as a woman's perspective for a bit. Because those students are, by and large, good readers, they started to realize that something was amiss even before I spilled the legumes. To their credit, they demonstrated open minds once the maleness of the poems had become apparent.

I'm glad I taught those poems. I'm going to share one with you in Gunn's honor. It resonated for me in the classroom because I'm a parent. As I was writing here about the strange convergence of Kim's melodramatic past with her mundane -- and often mundanely exasperating -- present, though, I realized that the poem's power derives from that sense you get when you see someone months or years later and their life has taken a radically different course. You try to reconcile the past with the present. You try to imagine how someone you had passionate, carefree sex with can patiently walk a small child across an intersection. You recognize the fissures in every self. And, if you're lucky, you briefly understand that there's no need to reconcile, that the urge to box everything you know about a person into a square-edged receptacle is the real threat to your relationship with them. For it's in the negative space of those fissures that the possibility for transformation lives. Close them and you die inside.

As The Man With Night Sweats beautifully indicates, the passage from life to death is one of those fissures, whether in the bedroom or the beyond. The body gone, we return through language.

I can hear your voice, Thom Gunn:
A Blank

The year of griefs being through, they had to merge
In one last grief, with one last property:
To view itself like loosened cloud lose edge,
And pull apart, and leave a voided sky.

Watching Victorian porches through the glass,
From the 6 bus, I caught sight of a friend
Stopped on a corner-kerb to let us pass,
A four-year-old blond child tugging his hand,
Which he held against with a slight smile.
I knew the smile from certain passages
Two years ago, thus did not know him well,
Since they took place in my bedroom and his.

A sturdy-looking admirable young man.
He said, 'I chose to do this with my life.'
Casually met he said it of the plan
He undertook without a friend or wife.

Now visibly tugged upon by his decision,
Wayward and eager. So this was his son!
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.
When we discussed the poem in class, we couldn't figure out the third line's "like loosened cloud lose edge." Something seemed to be missing. Copying the poem here, I was tempted to insert a comma between "cloud" and "lose," thinking that there might have been a typographical error. But I realized that almost all the punctuation in the poem feels wrong.

I think Gunn must have wanted readers to feel both the sense of loss that comes when something you expect is withheld and the stress imposed by punctuation that comes too soon, under the wrong circumstances. "Casually met" almost insists on the comma's closure. There's nothing comfortable about the line, "Which tug he held against with a slight smile." And the referent for "wayward and eager" is a shadow, figured metonymically through the retroaction of the word "decision." It all circles back to the poem's title.

The future is blank.

The blank is hope.

I'll think of it crossing Haight.

I'll think of you.
  • Current Music
    Theologians - Wilco - A Ghost Is Born