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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.

Thom Gunn was born in 1929 in Gravesend, a town in Kent. His father, the son of a Scottish merchant seaman, was a journalist who became quite successful, eventually editing a newspaper, the Daily Sketch. Gunn's parents were divorced when he was 8 or 9, and he was on fairly distant terms with his father after that, but even before the divorce he was closer to his mother. His given name, Thomson, was the name of his mother's family, and he identified with that side of his heritage. "My mother was one of seven children, all girls," Gunn has written, "and all of a very independent turn of mind." One of Thom's childhood memories is of his mother "wearing an orchid pinned by a brooch in the shape of a hammer and sickle. From this distance the combination sounds like a cliche of the '30s, but it wasn't: Other women wouldn't have done something so outrageous." He also recalls being lost at the age of about 4 in Kensington Gardens (by this time, the family had moved to London), and being asked by a policeman to describe his mother. "A proud woman," the little boy answered.

When Thom was 15, his mother committed suicide; he and his younger brother found the body. For most of his writing life, he could not directly address this fact. In his one published fragment of autobiography, the tragedy takes place between sentences, as it would in an E.M. Forster novel. Then, in 1992, Gunn published a poem called "The Gas-Poker," which begins:

" Forty-eight years ago --Can it be forty-eight Since then?--they forced the door Which she had barricaded With a full bureau's weight Lest anyone find, as they did, What she had blocked it for.

The two boys who are the poem's "they"--"Elder and younger brother"--go outside to walk and cry and try to understand what has happened to them. Then:

Coming back off the grass To the room of her release They who had been her treasures Knew to turn off the gas, Take the appropriate measures, Telephone the police.

Borrowing the strategy he used in the poems about LSD, Gunn has relied on rhyme and meter to organize an experience that would otherwise be incomprehensibly, uncontrollably painful. "Take appropriate measures": It's in the very impersonality of the phrase (echoing, as it does, the expressive "who had been her treasures") that the sense of personal loss comes through most strongly.

"The surprising thing about one's dead," Thom Gunn said to me many years ago, "is that your relationship with them can change over time. Even after they've been dead for years, you still find your feelings about them changing, or growing. And that makes them seem to alter, too."

I ask him recently if he still feels that way. "Yes," he says. "Yes. Exactly. The longer people are dead, the more your relationship with them changes."

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