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Risk and Reward

The antimonies of Thom Gunn
The poet Thom Gunn poses before a series of prints of glass soda bottles.

Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life by Michael Nott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 720 pages. 2024.

Thom Gunn was the great rhapsode of risk. In a 1961 love letter to queer San Francisco, the poem’s speaker looks from afar at the drunken revelers and hungry cruisers in the darkened streets below: “By the recurrent lights I see / Endless potentiality, / The crowded, broken, and unfinished! / I would not have the risk diminished.” In other poems, Gunn “adore[s] / The risk that made robust, / A world of wonders in / Each challenge to the skin,” admires “the pull and risk / Of the Pacific’s touch,” and lauds those who “properly / test[ed] themselves against risk, / as a human must, and does.” Risk was as essential to Gunn’s writing as it was to his living. “You get so absorbed in the experience of writing the poem,” he observed in a 1996 letter, “and take the occasional risk you hope is worth it—no, that’s wrong, you take constant risks, every line is a risk.” To write poetry is to know that you might fail and take the gamble anyway.

And yet, even while he loved the vertiginous experience of risk, Gunn loved the equanimity of balance equally. Though he wrote about hot things—sex, drugs, ecstasy of all kinds—his style was one of controlled coolness. Celebrating his mentor, the poet-critic Yvor Winters, he writes, “You keep both Rule and Energy in view, / Much power in each, most in the balanced two.” Singing the praises of Philemon and Baucis, the elderly couple transformed by Hermes into “twined trunks / Supported by their wooden hug,” he describes how the two “kept their exchanges salty and abrasive, / And found, with loves balancing equally, / Full peace of mind.” Exalting a group of surfers whose “marbling bodies have become / Half wave, half men,” he observes how “they slice the face / In timed procession: / Balance is triumph in this place, / Triumph possession.”

In Gunn’s work, poetry arises from, and gives voice to, the dialectic between risk and balance; it aims to find a tensile order from within the danger it courts. That’s also a decent description of sex, and for Gunn the two were inseparable. In a notebook, he once declared that “a good poem is simultaneously a tentative and risky cruising.” Cruising, especially in Gunn’s lifetime, could be a hazardous proposition: you could be rejected, roughed up, or, during the AIDS crisis to which he bore harrowed witness, get sick and die. But cruising was also a tentative, which is to say careful and watchful, enterprise, its success dependent upon finding someone whose desire matched your own.

In one of Gunn’s strongest early poems, “Touch,” the speaker gets into bed with his lover on a frigid morning. It’s not a given that his presence will be welcomed; the speaker’s body retains “the patina of / self, the black frost / of outsideness.” And yet, slowly, the two bodies exhibit a reciprocity so perfect that the one can’t be told from the other: “I feel a is it / my own warmth surfacing or / the ferment of your whole / body that in darkness beneath / the cover is stealing / bit by bit to break / down that chill.” Who is warming and who being warmed? Who is touching and who being touched? When intimacy is successfully hazarded and achieved, such questions dissolve:

What I, now loosened,
sink into is an old
big place, it is
there already, for
you are already
there, and the cat
got there before you, yet
it is hard to locate.
What is more, the place is
not found but seeps
from our touch in
continuous creation, dark
enclosing cocoon round
ourselves alone, dark
wide realm where we
walk with everyone.

That “old / big place” is the lovers’ bed, but it’s also the poem, and this place is created through both physical and poetic touch: the tact with which Gunn creates his music and breaks his lines. Touch is required of both the lover and poet. It’s where risk and balance, sex and poetry, come together.  

Touch is also required of the biographer. Gunn knew this—and he knew that not all biographers possessed the required gift. In one letter, he complained that an “endless” biography of William Carlos Williams informed the reader “of every dentist appointment kept and every lamb chop eaten.” In another, he noted that a biographer of H.D. “obviously hates her subject (though [she’s] unaware of doing so).”

Lucky for him, Gunn’s own biographer, Michael Nott, has the gift. The virtues of Thom Gunn: A Cool Queer Life are many: a total command of Gunn’s life; a clear, though hardly idolatrous, affection for its subject; and a true critic’s touch. Nott manages to sculpt his voluminous material—the book checks in at over seven hundred pages—into a compelling life. He opens with the central experience, and loss, of Gunn’s life: his discovery, with his younger brother, of their mother’s dead body at their Hampstead home in 1944. She had gassed herself, leaving a note outside that read, “Don’t try to get in.” Gunn was fifteen; his brother was twelve. Nott ends with the poet’s own death in San Francisco in 2005. By then, Gunn had been using speed, in increasingly distressing quantities, for years. As Nott writes, “The pursuit of sex, through the pursuit of drugs, had become a closed loop.” The last fifty or so pages of A Cool Queer Life make for difficult reading: lots of meth snorted and tricks picked up, little poetry written. “I grow lazy in retirement,” he wrote after stopping teaching at Berkeley in 2000, “and am working on the development of the dirty old man into very dirty old man.”

Thom Gunn’s life was constituted in large part by improvisation and daring.

Despite these mournful bookends, Nott shows that Gunn’s life was constituted in large part by improvisation and daring: improvisation necessitated by suffering and a liberatory impulse grounded in a series of lasting commitments. Poetically, Gunn worked best within the constraints of meter and rhyme. Personally, he remained partners with his love, Mike Kitay, from 1953 until his own death—this though sex left the relationship in 1958, though Kitay had a series of monogamous relationships over the decades and Gunn was a dedicated cruiser.

Nott finds in his biographical subject a series of antimonies. Gunn embraced promiscuity yet saw his relationship with Kitay as the central fact of his life. He was born in England and spent most of his life in California, considering himself a “Midatlantic . . . let’s say half-San Franciscan half-English” poet and person. He wrote from life yet always at a temporal and tonal remove. “I hate the whole idea of confessional poetry,” he told his friend, the critic Tony Tanner, “it is the ultimate in egoism.” He valued stylization—“the pose held is a stance,” he asserted in an early poem about Elvis—and then, in the plague-haunted The Man with Night Sweats, published in 1992, he writes of the knowledge that lies beyond artifice: “Their deaths have left me less defined: / It was their pulsing presence made me clear.” In “Selves,” Gunn describes the “agile and tactful” sketch of a roadway made by Bill Schuessler, a young artist who slept with Gunn before entering into a relationship with Kitay. The three would live together for over thirty years with a rotating cast of lovers and friends in Haight-Ashbury. In Nott’s telling, Gunn’s life was, like the sketch, “a flexile sinewy unchecked / curving line,” “narrow[ing] into the distance where / it steals at last / right off the top of the paper.”

The future poet was born William Guinneach Gunn on August 29, 1929, in Gravesend, England. His mother, Charlotte, loved D. H. Lawrence and wanted to be a writer; she settled for being a journalist. His father, Bert, was a newspaperman and eventually served as editor of the Evening Standard. Charlotte doted upon her eldest son and got him reading Yeats and Walter de la Mare early. “He began to write poems and stories to please her,” Nott tells us. Charlotte and Bert divorced in 1939. After Charlotte separated from her second husband, Gunn slept in her bed. Following her suicide in 1944, the teenage Gunn started a diary. The first entry reads in part, “She died quickly and peacefully, they said, but what agonies of mind must she have passed through during the night. I hate to think of her sadness.” He didn’t write about her sadness, at least head-on, for years, though he often dreamed of her and though the watchful, distant tone of his poetry surely arose in part as a response to the loss. “Starting outside,” Gunn writes, “You save yourself some time while working in: / Thus by the seen the unseen is implied.” His inner wounds were revealed by how he observed the world around him.

Though born William, Gunn was known as Tom throughout his childhood. In 1949, he officially changed his name to Thom—an act of self-creation for a young man besotted with Sartre and Camus. Gunn was interested in role-playing from a young age; Nott reads this as “an act of self-preservation rooted in anxieties about his sexuality.” (Gunn knew he was attracted to men by his teenage years; he came out to friends in his early twenties.) He graduated in 1953 from Trinity College, where he met Kitay and studied with F. R. Leavis. Shortly thereafter, he published his first book, Fighting Terms, and left to study at Stanford. He would live in San Francisco for the rest of his life. There, he changed as a poet, moving from the compressed, motorcycle- and rebel-obsessed poems of The Sense of Movement (1957) to the looser, clearer verse of My Sad Captains (1961).

In the 1960s, Gunn began to take drugs—first acid, then speed—and to cruise more openly. From the mid-1970s on, his poetry was openly queer, finding excitement not just in bodies doing things to other bodies but in the interpretive and imaginative activity involved in erotic pursuit: “What am I doing to this man in the yellow jacket? / Reading him, pretending he is legible, / thinking I can master what is self-contained.” Gunn loved leather bars and frequented bathhouses. “My body insisted on restlessness / having been promised love,” he writes, and Nott shows how this restlessness could be utopian—cruising as “an entrance into all humanity,” as Gunn put it—but also destructive. (Of Gunn’s predilection for picking up homeless men, especially as he got older, the poet August Kleinzahler says, “I think he was very attracted—sexually attracted and maybe aesthetically attracted—to their desperation.”)

In a lovely essay, the poet Nate Klug describes how Gunn’s “late letters’ dron[e] on about sexual exploits” while his strongest poetry allows sex to take “on its fuller dimensions of confusion, power, and renewal.” In A Cool Queer Life, Nott gives us the droning—as one friend noted, “he could bring sex into any conversation, through any thread”—but also reminds us why we should care about the sex in the first place. Partly we care because it tells us something about the history of queer life in twentieth-century America: what the Slot on Folsom was like (“for those who kept their fingernails clipped short and carried a can of Crisco”); what happened at New York City’s “Bar” on Second Avenue and Fourth Street (Gunn picked up “a rather overpowering ex-speed freak there” who “had been Frank O’Hara’s last love.” It was also apparently where Cruising was filmed—a movie that Gunn found horrible, though “Al Pacino was cute in those days, and looked glamorous in leather”). But mainly we care because of what Gunn did with the sex, the art he made from it.

Besides his mother’s death, the central event of Gunn’s life was the AIDS crisis, and Nott writes about this period with sensitivity and grace. In 1987, four of Gunn’s close friends died in just over a month. “I keep having the image in my mind of a body being crushed by a mountain,” he wrote to a friend, “the crushing gradual, complete, and absolutely irreversible.” Gunn visited hospitals, cared for his loved ones, and, eventually, wrote poems in their memory.

To live when and how Gunn did was to see love and death, desire and annihilation, come into contact with each other.

The Man with Night Sweats was the best work he ever did. Part of what makes it so moving is the delicacy with which Gunn tries to comprehend, to seize, hold, and make lasting that which can never be comprehended. The first stanza of “The Missing” begins in the present tense: “Now as I watch the progress of the plague, / The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin, / And drop away. Bared, is my shape less vague / —Sharply exposed and with a sculpted skin?” Everything is orderly here: the language simple, mostly monosyllabic; the lines in iambic pentameter; the rhyme scheme clean. Form seeks to contain the uncontainable, to master a loss that will otherwise undo the speaker. But such attempts, in this poem and in the collection more generally, fail. Starting in the present, the speaker moves into the past, to a time when the refusal of containment was precisely the point of intimacy: “Contact of friend led to another friend, / Supple entwinement through the living mass / Which for all that I knew might have no end, / Image of an unlimited embrace.” Contact once meant loving touch, the possibility of community, the overflowing of self into self. In a time of plague, it means something else.

Or, rather, the poem refuses to decide between these meanings. With contact comes love; with contact comes death. And, as the collection shows, to love the dying is to make contact again: “to change the bed” when it’s soiled; to be there while “lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained, / Did all your breathing now.” Gunn’s description of friends who “fall sick, grow thin, / And drop away” channels Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” where the speaker describes how “youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” Keats was thinking about his own brother, Tom, who died of consumption in 1818. Keats nursed Tom on his deathbed; this loving contact may have led to his own, eventually fatal case of tuberculosis. In that same poem, Keats declares that “many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death.” Gunn’s “In Time of Plague,” also from The Man with Night Sweats, echoes this link between love and death:

My thoughts are crowded with death
and it draws so oddly on the sexual
that I am confused
confused to be attracted
by, in effect, my own annihilation.

To live when and how Gunn did was to see love and death, desire and annihilation, come into contact with each other. In Gunn’s early poems, touch warmed the chill away. In his late poems, touch met the chill knowing full well that warmth wasn’t coming back. As Michael Nott’s superb biography shows, out of the risks and balances of touch Gunn made a life. Out of this life, he made poems of lasting power.