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Thom Gunn's Sense of Movement : He Left England a Generation Ago to Seek a New Life in the Bay Area. Today His Austere Poems of Love and Death Have Put Him in the Forefront of American Poetry.

August 14, 1994|WENDY LESSER | Wendy Lesser is editor of the Threepenny Review. Her most recent book, "Pictures at an Execution," was published by Harvard University Press.

Gunn and Kitay's complicated history is reflected in their domestic arrangement, which includes other people who have entered their lives along the way--Gunn's family, or "household." And this communal group is in turn embedded within the larger community of San Francisco, which Gunn also considers his home. Gunn's two "obsessions," as he self-consciously calls them, are both connected to this feeling of living within the larger civic society. "I don't like people getting movies in their own homes, and I don't like people driving around in cars," he announces. "I think people should take public transportation and be with other people in movie theaters. Merely sitting near another person on a bus or in a movie theater is good for the sense of community."

Thom Gunn's household--where, as he says in one poem, "Each cooks one night, and each cooks well"--consists, at this point, of himself, Mike Kitay, Bob Bair, Bill Schuessler and Joseph Batiste. Another roommate, Jim Lay, died of AIDS on Christmas Day, 1986. "Four of my friends died in one month," Gunn says of the epidemic that stimulated him to write the central poems in "The Man With Night Sweats." He himself is HIV-negative, a fortuitously exempted bystander to the mass tragedy, as he suggests in the poem "Courtesies of the Interregnum":

" Excluded from the invitation list To the largest gathering of the decade, missed From membership as if the club were full. It is not that I am not eligible. . . ."

In the notes at the back of "Collected Poems," Thom Gunn lists the names of the dead friends referred to in his poems about AIDS. "For the record--for my record if for no one else's, because they were not famous people--I wish to name them here. . . ." He has always had strong feelings about names, about the specific, individual identity assigned to one person and no other. "Poor girl, poor girl, what was your name?" he asks in the last line of "The Victim," his poem about Sid Vicious' murder of his girlfriend, and in the notes he supplies the answer. The actual, historical record, the particulars of an individual personality, matter to Gunn, which is one reason his memorial poems have such power.

The same passion for specificity also explains another, very different aspect of Thom Gunn's character: his enormous congeniality as a gossip. He remembers every tidbit of information ever passed on to him, every remark ever made to him, and by whom, and he can retrieve it at exactly the pertinent moment in a conversation. "I'm the soul of indiscretion," he confides, and then listens eagerly to the next gossipy secret.

That is one side of Thom Gunn. The other side is just the opposite: a man who deeply believes in the virtues of impersonality. In an essay called "My Life up to Now," Gunn comments on the fact that he is very consciously "a rather derivative poet" and then goes on to say that "it has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot's lovely remark that art is the escape from personality."

The same idea informs his poem "Expression," which complains about "the poetry of my juniors," in which "Mother doesn't understand,/and they hate Daddy, the noted alcoholic." Tired of this confessional mode (the mode of much contemporary American poetry, from Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath onward), the poem's speaker goes to an art museum, where he seeks out a medieval Italian painting of the Virgin and Child. The poem ends:

" The sight quenches, like water after too much birthday cake. Solidly there, mother and child stare outward, two pairs of matching eyes void of expression.

ON THE ASSEMBLAGE-STYLE WALL of Thom Gunn's second-floor study, amid cutout pictures of River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, antique postcards of nude bodybuilders and assorted posters, clippings and visual paraphernalia, is a photograph that doesn't go with the rest. In it, a beautiful dark-haired woman holds a pretty blond baby, both of them staring outward at the camera. I have been in the study before, to pick up a book or admire the view out the back window, but I have never before noticed the photograph. Now, however, we are spending longer than usual here, because Thom Gunn is giving a tour of the house to Tony Kushner. (Kushner, in town to give a lecture following the great success of "Angels in America," told me that the person he most wanted to meet was Thom Gunn, so I arranged a lunch. In Kushner's view, "He is certainly one of the greatest poets in the English language. I find his work very scary and disturbing and sexy and beautiful.")

"Who's that?" I say, pointing at the photograph.

"That's my mother," says Thom. "With me, as a baby."

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