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  The Man with Night Sweats
Thom Gunn
Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, $15.00

The Rage of Understanding
David Ferry

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 of things.

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":

flowering stomach

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 --


oh alas!

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

chitinous exoskeleton,


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.

. . . . . . . . . .

Times are

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

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