Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 118 pp., $22
The book jacket is a clue: the painting of a youth, head shaved, sleek in his almost military denim and Doc Martens. But his suspenders and laces are a cheery shade of red, and around his mouth there's a certain gentleness, composure rather than bravado. He's more of an imp than a hardened thug.
After finishing Thom Gunn's latest collection of poems, you might realize that its cover model is, in fact, Boss Cupid. To dress the god of love in combat boots is a gesture typical for the poet: challenging, unfashionable, and a bit mischievous. In the late 1950s, when poetry came clad in tweed, the British-born Gunn sported James Dean leather and wrote meditations on bikers and Elvis Presley. He's lived 46 of his 72 years in San Francisco, cradle of half the country's literary radicals, but he's written mostly (though not always) in traditional rhyme and meter.
When talking about poetry, a great deal of confusion arises from the two senses of the word "formal." On the one hand, we have rhymed and metered verse; on the other, a contrast to casual or intimate. We think of the second kind of formality as a public performance, stepping up to the podium to assume the mantle of power.
Unlike, say, Frost, Gunn's formal attitude does not strike us with that heavy hand of authority. Boss Cupid opens with an elegy to the poet Robert Duncan, one of the last century's great and tireless experimenters. Now, poets often write about their forerunners to lend their voices a kind of genealogical credibility, to show how the torch has been passed, to write themselves into the myth. And the poem does, in fact, wind up with an anecdote of how the aging poet once stumbled down a flight of stairs, to be caught in "the strong arms of Thom Gunn."
But Gunn gently blows the myth apart. "He fell across the white steps there alone // I hadn't caught him, hadn't seen in time," he confesses. Gunn's assurance here, a perfect balance of modesty and confidence, is the kind of authority that doesn't need to wear a badge. When Gunn reaches for a myth, its occasion is always intimate and personal. If his poems are social, it is a society of friends and neighbors, lovers and ex-lovers. They make no claims on our attention, are neither strident nor ingratiating. They simply invite us to listen.
The mainstay of Gunn's poetry has always been the tough plain statement, a terseness that's much more than a frame for well-turned phrases. Duncan himself once praised the poet Marianne Moore for the intricately crafted knots of her stanzas. For her, they were not ornamental, but rather a "psychic necessity," protecting the self from too much feeling. That necessity will be familiar to readers of Gunn's previous collection, The Man With the Night Sweats (1993), much of which is addressed to friends dead or dying of AIDS. Especially in the first section, the poems of Boss Cupid have the same laconic grace, the sense of mourning contained by formality. In a quietly understated poem about a mother's suicide, the children play outside on the winter lawn, calling to be let in, "till they knew what it meant / Knew all there was to know." The butcher, whose son is missing in the war, "stood in his shop and found / No bottom to his sadness, / Nowhere for it to stop." We feel throughout the poet's firm resolve to go on, to tell the sadness down to the bottom. The poems are tough, but toughness has its own warmth, engaging us where cool detachment doesn't. They are, one could say, butch.
The book's second section, "Gossip," comes as a bit of a surprise. Gunn has written more casual, freer verse throughout his career, but none of it quite as funny as these often untitled, almost offhand vignettes. No one is spared his satirical barbs: bartenders and barflies, flirts and pickups, poseurs and down-and-outs, not even himself. The incisive lines are too many to quote, but here's a selection. Describing the craze in some gay circles for "chubby" men: "Eventually everyone / can hope for a turn / at being wanted." On holding office hours with his cute students: "We do not flirt with / one another / it is a poet / we flirt with / together." Musing over the wannabe boy writers who populate "Coffee on Cole": "You can tell they are serious / from their hiking boots," even if their misunderstood genius turns out nothing better than "a surreal account of / the way the muse / avoids returning your calls."
The comedy of "Gossip" is a way of easing the reader gently into the last third of the book, which contains some of his most unsettling poems to date. Gunn is one of the few poets willing to look with clear eyes at the overlap of desire and violence, to find the stirrings of love in the grimiest of street hustlers and the grimmest pulses of murder. But he's so polite, such a gentleman about it, that you don't realize what you're being hustled into. In the book's centerpiece, "A Wood Near Athens":
Love makes the shoots leap from the blunted branches,
Love makes the birds call, and maybe we are right.
Love then makes craning saplings crowd for light,
The weak being jostled off to shade and death.
Love makes the cuckoo heave its foster-siblings
Out of the nest, to spatter on the ground.
For love has gouged a temporary hollow
Out of its baby-back, to help it kill.
"But who did get it right?" the poet asks. Cupid may come as a skinhead -- or even a Jeffrey Dahmer (whose voracious desires are sung elsewhere in the "Troubadour" sequence). The poem jumps to a young man whose first sexual experience, at 13, is with his mother's boyfriend:
"Were you confused?" -- "No, it was great," he said,
"The best thing that had ever happened to me."
Abusive? Yes. Pathological? Possibly. But we're asked to postpone our conventional take on the situation, to admit a bemused wonder at the fearful symmetry of it all. Cupid is a boss, militant, demanding service; he's also the source of our "better rest," the impulse behind friendship and conviviality. Gunn leaves us with a double exposure, an image of two complementary ballets: one of "cadets and skinheads, city boys, young Spartans," the other "a thousand angels making festival," whose function is "to choreograph the universe / Meanwhile performing it."
Gunn is not, thankfully, one of poetry's respectable elder statesmen, but its tough old tomcat, still gadding about the roofs and alleys. If we believe him, in his darker moments, he's "no longer deadly, / no longer dashing, nothing but / a shabby old tabby." But Boss Cupid shows us otherwise. The self-portrait that emerges is the King David of the book's final poems -- taking off the chill of age with a young lovely, dancing naked and wildly before the Ark of the Covenant. "Taste, taste, good taste will starve your years away," the poet-as-David says. If Gunn himself dances lightly over the lines of what some might consider tasteful, it has kept his own voice fresh and vigorous. Maybe the best escape from the weariness of the self-conscious is, after all, to be shameless.
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