Thom Gunn, Boss Cupid (London: Faber & Faber, 2000)
From its title onwards, this is a bizarre and rather lovely book. To my mind, it is Gunn’s best collection since the dreadfully underrated Moly (1971), but I wonder how many readers will agree. Certainly, there are individual poems here which rank with Gunn’s best. Among them I would include ‘The Gas Poker’, ‘In the Post Office’ and two short sequences, ‘Troubadour’ (about the gay American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer) and ‘Dancing David’ (about the biblical myth of King David).
But it is as a whole collection that Boss Cupid really triumphs. To read it for the first time, even if already familiar with some of the poems it contains, is to be led through an unpredictable sequence of changes of direction in topic, technique and tone whose initial effect was, for me, one of thrilling bewilderment. On subsequent reading, however, everything falls into place. What might have seemed perverse, or even out of control, at first, is suddenly entirely logical, precisely in keeping with the whole of the rest of the poet’s career.
We have seen such variety before. It has opened Gunn to adverse criticism in the past, often from readers who were uncomfortable with the insufficient loftiness of syllabic and free-verse poems from the middle period—usually poems about sex or drugs or rock’n’roll. Well, Boss Cupid contains poems from the loft and the cellar, as well as a playroom or two in between. This is some edifice.
Having reached the age of seventy, Gunn is availing himself of frequent opportunities for retrospection. The collection opens with a poem about Robert Duncan, in the 1940s when he was starting out as a poet and in 1988, the year of his death. Conveniently, while setting out a broad time-span, this piece immediately locates not only Duncan but, for the rest of his life, Gunn himself in San Francisco. Other poems then revisit Gunn’s own childhood in England; the Second World War; a sexual encounter in Central Park in 1961; the height of the gay liberationist bathhouse subculture in 1975 (‘that time is gone’); a G.I. seen briefly from the top of a bus in Richmond in 1943; Jeffrey Dahmer’s serial killings in the 1980s; a visit to Rapallo in the 1950s. In that order. The latest date mentioned is New Year’s Day, 1997.
Many of the poems, in one way or another, deal with the relationship between youth and old age. Gunn’s consistent interest in and liking for many aspects of popular culture is one of the factors which maintain his link with the young. So, of course, is sexual desire. He is forever being startled by the affectionate gifts (in both senses) of young men. We have seen boys like these before, ‘armored in hide that / adorns to hide / every fallibility, / cruelty or awkwardness / with the smooth look / of power’. But these days Gunn's poems are much more likely than they once were to observe moments in which the armour of masculinity is transfigured into sensitive skin by acts of kindness. When a homeless youth does him the unexpected honour of slipping his penis into Gunn's hand (‘a lovely gift to offer an old / stranger / without conditions’), Gunn is neither affronted nor particularly turned on. But he falls for the cuteness of this young man's unwitting corruption of the phrase dog-eat-dog: he says this is ‘a doggy-dog world’. All the cuter for the fact, as Gunn goes on to show us, that it is sometimes literally a man-eat-man world.
I suppose this is the most sexual of all Gunn's books, more so even than Jack Straw’s Castle or The Passages of Joy. Its epigraph is peculiar—‘Well, it’s a cool queer tale!’ from a Thomas Hardy story. The adjectives ‘cool’ and ‘queer’ acquire a distinctly un-Hardyesque tone when heard in Thom Gunn’s voice. Together they amount to a combination of chic, detachment, oddity and homosexuality. This is a blend which has fuelled Gunn’s work since the beginning of his career, but there is a new openness in the use of the word ‘queer’ to denote something more complex than the mere ‘lifestyle’ of being gay. It is an identification with marginality, but with margins (poverty, sexuality) which are—if anything is—universal.
The last collection, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), mesmerised the critics with its explicit attention to AIDS, which they seemed to find both exotic and reassuring. Virtually none of the reviewers showed any sign of knowing that anything else had ever been written about AIDS, or that gay culture had itself, for virtually a decade, become an enormous cultural festival of mourning. AIDS is present here, too, but as a calamity survived. For all that it has killed so many, it has left life intact. Place Gunn’s version of the catastrophe next to (say) that of Larry Kramer and you could imagine you were looking at a different epidemic. Gunn’s approach is wistfully temperate. He brandishes his own equilibrium with a slightly startled modesty which serves as a representative tribute to the dignity and maturity of the communities and subcultures which responded to AIDS when others chose not to.
In the poem ‘In the Post Office’ Gunn speaks of himself as a survivor. Living where he does when he did, there must have been times when he imagined survival was not on the cards. Gunn’s recent writing is pervaded with a discreet sense of relief that it is still possible for him to continue recording the lives and deaths of those who were less lucky than he.
The collection is all the stronger for the vulnerable triviality of some of the free verse in the central section, ‘Gossip’ (much of which was published as a chapbook called Frontiers of Gossip in 1998). These poems of bars, boys and the promise of uncomplicated pleasure (‘The democracy of it: / eventually everyone / can hope for a turn / at being wanted’) are sketchily efficient—not so much gossip in itself as the materials out of which gossip might be made. This section saves Boss Cupid from a formalist tendency that might otherwise have threatened to ossify. Gunn is always a very literary poet—not just in refinement of technique, but in his allusiveness--and he uses his apparently casual free verse to remind us that his main inspiration arises in what an earlier collection referred to as ‘the sniff of the real’.
His characteristic designation of sex as ‘play’ sits uneasily—and deliberately so—alongside the later sequence of poems spoken from the point of view of the serial killer, which are both beautiful and bleak. He no longer writes with the blustering virility of those early poems which hero-worshipped men like Alexander of Macedon and ridiculed Stephen Spender. The identification with Jeffrey Dahmer, here, is much quieter and more fully realised. Unlike the posturing nihilism of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, Gunn’s sympathy for Dahmer seems derived from a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God sense that the essential ingredients of the murderer are not uncommon or extreme. They can be counted among the raw materials of common humanity.
The serious attention Gunn pays to the perverse idealism of the sexual assassin then reflects back on the nonchalant banality of erotic poems from earlier in the book, as when ‘Classics’ ends with the lines: ‘I could have killed / for a chance to chew / on those jumbo tits’; or when, in ‘Coffee Shop’, two lovers are kissing ‘mouth to mouth, / Where mutually they start to feed’. Clichés like ‘good enough to eat’ are disturbingly transformed from dead metaphor into deadly intention. Sex has become—as it always was, anyway, before the discovery of antibiotics—a game that is, for some of its players at least, definitively unsafe. In its delineation of ‘The obsession in which we live’ and ‘The intellect as powerhouse of love’ (both phrases from a wonderful poem called ‘A Wood Near Athens’), Gunn’s imagination maps out a contingent universe in which the obsessiveness of intellect is reassuringly constant. This is most evident in the rational balance of the more obviously personal poems.
The dispassionate involvement of ‘The Gas Poker’, Gunn’s poem on his mother’s suicide, is achieved by the use of the third person to refer to himself and his brother and by a characteristically deft, informal, rhymed iambic trimeter. There have always been moments when his sang froid threatened to teeter over into cold-bloodedness. This is one of them. The effect is one over which Gunn is the complete master. It is not the control so much as the lightness of touch with which he exerts it that is so impressive. It is not the intensity of emotion so much as the diffident quietness with which he expresses it that is so moving. His obsessions, for all that they may not be the same as the reader’s, are delivered with that quiet authority we have come to expect from Thom Gunn, an authority to which it is hard not to submit.
[This review first appeared in PN Review 133 (May-June 2000), pp.67-68.]