| The Man with Night Sweats|
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, $15.00
The Rage of Understanding
Thom Gunn began writing in England just after World War II and came to this
country in the mid-50s. It was apparent from the beginning of his career that
he was very talented and it was more and more apparent as his career went on
that his talent was fostered by his ambition and his capacity for undefensive
self-criticism. Throughout his career his work has been steadily developing
along a trajectory towards the achievement in The Passages of Joy (1982) and,
ten years later, this new book, The Man with Night Sweats. In these books, and
most vividly in the latter, it becomes clear that he is a great poet.
His principal mentors and models, as far as I can see, were Auden, Yvor Winters,
and William Carlos Williams, and the most interesting transactions have been
with the latter two. From Winters he derived the association of strict conventional
iambic form with moral and cognitive rigor, and the continuing ambition to achieve
such rigor. But he resisted, while continuing to admire it, Winters's "Control
with the deliberate human will," his moral apriorism. He found another
model in the work of Williams, from whom he derived the association of free
verse form with "acts of exploration and incorporation," the capacity
to investigate reality, especially urban reality, with a generous -- more generous
than Winters -- acceptance of and pleasure in its diversity. The differences
between the outlook of the two poets is great, but they have things in common.
The 16th century iambic plain style which was a model for Winters, and through
Winters for Gunn, has in common with Williams's free verse the ambition of shedding
all those ornate distractions and superfluities of style which all three of
these poets see as interfering with the directest possible relation to the truth
I do not mean to disparage when I say that, for me, the work before The Passages
of Joy was uneven. There are very beautiful poems, for example "The Goddess,"
"Taylor Street," "Pierce Street," "Flooded Meadows,"
"The Messenger," "Sunlight," and many others. But in the
earlier books there is often something unresolved, and I think it is the demand
on himself on the one hand for exploration and incorporation of experience,
which can tend to diffusion, and sometimes does, and on the other for the authority
of moral intensity and focus -- not ever, to be sure in Winters's own way, but
cognate, and perhaps ultimately inspired by him. It is interesting to me that
the poems in Gunn's Selected Poems (1979), chosen by him, are the ones that
come closest to bringing these demands into resolution; and these poems are
often not the most obviously ambitious in his work. The trajectory is apparent
in his choices. In the last two books Gunn has reached the goal of satisfying
both kinds of demands on himself, and of doing so consistently and with great
confidence and power. And in The Man with Night Sweats especially, both kinds
of prosody, free verse and metrical iambic, share the function of serving these
demands with entire mutuality.
Among the other astonishing poems in this astonishing book there is this one,
"Yellow Pitcher Plant":
scroll of leaf
covered with small honeyed
warts by which the seely fly
is lured to sloping
pastures at the trumpet's lip
till grazing downhill
the fly finds the underbrush
of hairs casually pushed through
has closed behind --
a thicket of lances -- sharkteeth --
it stumbles on, falling
from chamber to chamber
within the green turret
making each loud
with the buzz of its grief
and finally slipping into
the oubliette itself
-- pool that digests protein --
to become mere
of a sated petal
an enzyme's cruelty
The masterful free verse lines take the fly step by step down the page through
lurid tropes drawn from the romance of human calamity, down to its terrible
fate, and the reader's eyes, following the story, step by step under the spell
of the tropes and of the versification, move down the page just as the fly moves
down into the flower, and so by means of the correspondence between the two,
the story and the physical experience of reading it, the poem vividly enforces
the correspondence between the fate of the fly and the fates we all of us come
to. We are natural creatures, as flies and other innocent grazers are. "Oh
alas!" is startled and horrified recognition that this is so. The progress
of this seely creature -- "seely" (perhaps derived from Barnabe Googe's
"Once Musing As I Sat") is `silly and simple' and also `simple and
innocent' -- calls forth a cry which is about the suffering all creatures share,
poor flies and cattle and also ourselves -- and most heartbreakingly the street
people in this book and the gay men dying of AIDS.
We are natural creatures, as flies and other innocent grazers are.
But "Oh alas!" is also knowingly histrionic and in a sense therefore
distanced, as said about a calamity happening only to a fly, and so is the Gothic
vocabulary of lures and chambers and oubliette, and this distancing acknowledges
our human difference from the fly. The man dying of AIDS, in the great poem
"Lament," in this book, is, like the fly, being taken stage by stage
to his death: "Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased./
Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down/ To the Emergency Room. That
frown, that frown:/ I'd never seen such rage in you before/ As when they wheeled
you through the swinging door." And yet he is unlike the fly, since his
rage knows about what is happening to him. Compared to the rage of his understanding,
the fly's grief is but "grief." And because the man knows what is
happening to him he is capable of giving us lessons in conduct: "You wrote
messages on a pad, amused/ At one time that you had your nurse confused/ Who,
seeing you reconciled after four years/ With your grey father, both of you in
tears,/ Asked if this was at last your `special friend'/ (The one you waited
for until the end)./ `She sings,' you wrote, `a Philippine folk song/ To wake
me in the morning . . . It is long/ And very pretty.' Grabbing at detail/ To
furnish this bare ledge toured by the gale,/ On which you lay, bed restful as
a knife,/ You tried, tried hard, to make of it a life/ Thick with the complicating
circumstance/ Your thoughts might fasten on." The fly has no capacity to
try to make of its situation "a life/ Thick with the complicating circumstance/
[Its] thoughts might fasten on."
And yet, if The Man with Night Sweats is in this way a Book of Conduct, it is
never moralistic in its teaching; it never teaches that virtuous conduct validates
or alleviates the creaturely suffering humans undergo. The dying man still goes
through that door as unreturningly as the fly falls from chamber to chamber
into the oubliette of the insectivorous plant.
Thom Gunn brings all his marvelous resources to bear on this subject. There
is the man in "Improvisation": ". . . he perches on the ungiving
sidewalk, shits/ behind bushes in the park, seldom weeps,/ sleeps bandaged against
the cold, curled/ on himself like a wild creature,/ his agility of mind wholly
employed/ with scrounging for cigarettes, drugs, drink/ or the price of Ding
Dongs, with dodging knife-fights,/ with ducking cops and lunatics. . . ."
The densely organized thick texture of the free verse lines is crowded with
all these miserable challenges to existence, and it celebrates the way man's
pitiful agility of mind tries to meet them. Seldom weeping man, wild creature.
And next to this poem there is another such picture, in a very different free
versification, of the man "Outside the Diner":
Off garbage outside the diner
he licks the different flavours
of greasy paper like a dog
and then unlike a dog
eats the paper too.
. . . . . . . . . .
there's the Detox Clinic, times are
he sleeps it off across the back seat
of an auto with four flat tyres,
blackened sole and heel
jammed against the side windows,
bearded face blinded by sleep
turned toward the light.
Another lies on the front seat.
A poor weed,
unwanted scraggle tufted
with unlovely yellow,
persists between paving stones
marginal to the grid
bearded face turned toward light.
It is hard to talk about the rightness of the little refrain, "Times are
. . . times are," but it is right, in its wanly tuneful tuneless pretense
of acceptance or resignation, juxtaposed to the powerful images of these wretched
flowerlike street men sleeping. And this poem speaks across to another, elsewhere
in the book, called "Nasturtium," in strict trimeter: "Born in
a sour waste lot/ You laboured up to light,/ Bunching what strength you'd got/
And running out of sight/ Through a knot-hole at last,/ To come forth into sun/
As if without a past,/ Done with it, re-begun." The human persistence in
survival is as natural as that of the flower, and, contrarily, the human persistence,
in the broken down car, is a far more difficult and impressive matter.
A poem in the book says of J.V. Cunningham that "He concentrated, as he
ought,/ On fitting language to his thought/ And getting all the rhymes correct,/
Thus exercising intellect/ In such a space, in such a fashion,/ He concentrated
into passion." This is Gunn's own standard, and over and over again the
standard is fully met. In "Lament," for example, it is met in the
way the rhythms of the heroic couplets, varying in stress and cadence as the
story is told, bring into play with one another the speech idioms of ordinary
conversation ("grabbing at detail," "You tried, tried hard")
and idioms of the heroic so appropriate to the situation ("this bare ledge
toured by the gale," "bed restful as a knife"). In another poem,
"Still Life," it is in how, among other things, the metronomic simplicity
of the iambics and of the rhyme scheme focus with excruciating intensity the
unwavering gaze of the poem as the terrible scene is confronted and told about:
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
(There is also the shocking wit of "as a life-long breather" and of
the parliamentary or debater's idiom of "as one opposed," used about
this speechless figure.)
The book is never moralistic in its teaching; it never teaches that virtuous
conduct validates or alleviates the creaturely suffering humans undergo.
And there are other kinds of experience in the poems, expressed across the broad
spectrum of Gunn's technical resources: a celebration, in mimetic free verse,
of a mockingbird's song; another, in metrical verse that looks at first to be
free and is not, of the grace of an otter swimming, its swimming free itself
and yet exactly metrical; another, in free verse of a different sort, of a kid
skateboarding. There are the wonderfully grave and dignified blank verse lines
of "Philemon and Baucis," celebrating a marriage, presumably homosexual,
though carefully generalized by being ungendered, for which "The gods were
grateful, and for comfort given/ Gave comfort multiplied a thousandfold./ Therefore
the couple leached into that soil/ The differences prolonged through their late
vigour/. . . / And found, with loves balancing equally,/ Full peace of mind."
(Notice how the achievement is enacted by the way "balancing equally"
almost unsettles the meter, and does not.) And there is "An Invitation,"
built to the model of Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper,"
and like that poem creating the image of a society of ideal values of civility
and concord while making us fully aware of everything which makes those values
so precarious. As in the Jonson the very regular rhymed couplets become themselves
a figure for the ordered life they celebrate. These poems are so beautiful and
so fully achieved that it harms them to call them a context for the others,
but the power and intensity of the others, the poems about AIDS and about street
people, causes one to do so.
This is a great book by a great poet.
Originally published in the June-August 1993
issue of Boston Review