Thom Gunn: A Memoir of Reading

Randall Mann

At seventeen, in Orlando, Florida, I found, in my Language Arts textbook, my first Thom Gunn poem, “On the Move.” (And lucky me, because I had something of a Keats hangover, which is to say that I was writing unromantic Romantic lyrics with titles like “Conversations with the Wind.”) Though I didn’t have the words for it then, I was stirred by, maybe, the sturdiness of Gunn’s diction and line, the “uncertain violence” of birds in the first stanza. (A gust of swallows “spurts across the field” like eco-porn.) And then, in the second stanza, comes Trouble:

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt—by hiding it, robust—
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

Um, hello! This is Brando meets back room; the gleaming bikers, out of control, ooze control. I admire the conflation of the birds and the bikers—of nature and not sure—their “movement in a valueless world,” and my suburban, not-quite-out, not-quite-poet, have-got-to-get-out-of-Orlando younger self might have been drawn toward this poem’s formal rebellion; its seductive, cautionary “part-solution” of the final line: “One is always nearer by not keeping still.” What I do know is that it was exactly the right poem at the right time.

Eventually I made my way out to San Francisco, and that’s where I really started reading Gunn, all of it, and in all the wrong order, first The Man with Night Sweats’ startling, stunned ache of elegy, and then The Passages of Joy, then back, all the way back to Fighting Terms, then Boss Cupid, and so on. I love The Passages of Joy best though, its everyday chronicle of the curious, formal, free poetry that is San Francisco, of the love and the fog and the drug-fucked nights. My copy, which I found on generally pre-gentrified, hooker-happy Polk Street, has this drawing of Gunn on the back, bulgy jeans and studded belt and leather band and tats and wife beater, and I thought, yeah, this is good; this is what I need. This is not tweed.

The book starts with “Elegy,” a scrupulously enjambed piece about friends who “keep leaving me”; it’s tempting to read this through the lens of AIDS, though it’s nothing to do with that, written before the scourge; still, I’ll admit that it’s hard not to imagine Gunn as a kind of seer when the penultimate stanza goes like this:

There will be no turn of the river
where we are all reunited
in a wonderful party
the picnic spread
all the lost found
as in hide and seek

What I like best about The Passages of Joy is that it’s a darkly humane rendering of how gay men relate, and fail to relate, to each other in San Francisco, the “open city,” as he says in the poem “Night Taxi,” “uncluttered as a map.” (As an aside, August Kleinzahler, in his lovely essay on Gunn, wrote, “To travel with Thom was to participate in an erotic mapping of San Francisco out of the bus window.” For me, this is what it’s like reading Gunn.) The Passages of Joy is lubricated yet queerly compassionate: in one poem, after a night out, the speaker ends his run in the sheets alone: “I calm down, / undress and slip / in between them and think / of household gods.” Even his drug dealer, in the poem “Crystal,” is made vulnerable and civilized,” he who “looks nobler every year”: “Inside the crowded night he feels complete.”

Or, one of my favorite Gunn poems, “San Francisco Streets.” This is a clear eyed, trimeter/dimeter allegory of a certain kind of social climb in San Francisco’s gay Castro district, variations of which I have seen—okay, participated in—in this gay ghetto. The boy discussed in “San Francisco Streets,” fresh from “Peach County,” who by degrees “rose / Like country cream— / Hustler to towel boy, / Bath house and steam,” has become a jewelry clerk, and “at last attained / To middle class. / (No one on Castro Street / Peddles his ass.)” Indeed. And yet, despite the boy’s prettiness and shopgirl status, when “Good looks and great physiques / Pass in procession,” the speaker thinks he catches something, a “half-veiled uncertainty,” in the boy’s expression. Gunn, in his assiduous, cool, tender construction, lets that seemingly offhand detail, “half-veiled uncertainty,” betray the queer currency of the piece, which is beauty and youth, not truth; which is the quick rise of the unlined, and then the incremental, pitiless decline. The poem ends with advice that takes on the air of menace, the last two lines of which I have thought, sometimes, I ought to have tattooed on my forearm:

Better remember what
Makes you secure.
Fuzz is still on the peach,
Peach on the stem.
Your looks looked after you.
Look after them.

Before I met Thom, I had two sightings of him in the city. The first was in this shady little pseudo-leather bar in the Castro (everything’s a bit pseudo in the Castro) called the Detour: he had on a leather jacket, and he was leaning against the chain-link fence (don’t ask) that was rigged up in the middle of the bar. The second was on the corner of Carl and Cole Streets in the Cole Valley: it was noonish on a Sunday, and he was dragged up in leather, head to toe, waiting on the N-Judah streetcar, off, maybe, to a Sunday bar crawl south of Market Street. When I think of Thom, more often I think not of the brief time I knew him but of these two images, the spidery lean of the handsome would-be trick in a bar, the unrepentant leather-in-broad-daylight wait. The possibility.

Thom would have turned 80 this year. He was a great talker, self-possessed yet humble, a genius with the grant to stamp it, rakish in the most winning ways. Oh, yeah, and he could write like hell, in particular about the complications and machinations of queer longing—in, say, the poem “Sweet Things,” one of my faves in The Passages of Joy, where two men run into each other on the street, and the names are half remembered, but not the lust. The speaker says: “When he shakes my hand I feel / a dry finger playfully bending inward / and touching my palm in secret.” And that finger bending inward, the palm touched in secret, the restraint and promise and things unsaid and stark control, say as much about Gunn’s aesthetics as about this proxy speaker. But then, there is no artificial line between the quotidian and the literary in Gunn, and his refusal to pedantically separate the two is one of the reasons why “Sweet Things,” why Gunn’s work, not only rewards my attention, but also moves me. And so, let me end with the end of the poem:

We know our charm.
We know delay makes pleasure great.
In our eyes, on our tongues,
we savour the approaching delight
of things we know yet are fresh always.
Sweet things. Sweet things.

—For Craig Arnold

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