‘Each takes a turn, as one does, south of the Mar­ket’

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Michael Nott

Se­lected Po­ems, Thom Gunn, Faber and Faber, July 2017, pp.336, £18.99 (hard­cover) Pro­pri­etary, Ran­dall Mann, Persea, July 2017, pp.80, £12.99 (pa­per­back) Thom Gunn’s Se­lected Po­ems, in­tro­duced and edited by Clive Wilmer, sig­nif­i­cantly ex­pands the slim vol­ume of Gunn’s work se­lected by Au­gust Klein­zahler for Faber’s ‘poet-to-poet’ se­ries in 2007. (Klein­zahler’s edi­tion is still worth your money, I might add, for his mar­vel­lous in­tro­duc­tory es­say on Gunn and the plain style.) Wilmer’s choices in­clude some of Gunn’s longer and more am­bi­tious po­ems (‘Misan­thro­pos’, ‘Jack Straw’s Cas­tle’, ‘Tran­sients and Res­i­dents’) and of­fer more gen­er­ous se­lec­tions from the early vol­umes Fight­ing Terms and The Sense of Move­ment. His in­tro­duc­tion is the clos­est thing we have to a bi­og­ra­phy of Gunn, and his ac­com­pa­ny­ing notes draw in large part from pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished sources, in­clud­ing the repos­i­tory of Gunn’s pa­pers at UC Berke­ley, and his let­ters to Faber & Faber, Karl Miller, Tony Tan­ner, and Wilmer him­self. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing ma­te­rial pro­vides a wealth of new per­spec­tives on Gunn’s life and work.

Gunn re­mains some­thing of an un­known quan­tity for a Bri­tish au­di­ence, es­pe­cially when com­pared to those po­ets of a sim­i­lar gen­er­a­tion who stuck around in Eng­land. There is no bi­og­ra­phy, no col­lected let­ters, no ‘Gunn In­dus­try’. The fact you can do a fairly com­pre­hen­sive Gunn lit­er­a­ture survey in a few sen­tences tells its own story. Wilmer’s in­tro­duc­tion and notes are such that we be­gin to re­ceive the kinds of deep back­ground we have long en­joyed for Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin. The let­ters to Tan­ner are es­pe­cially rich, and fill out some of the ap­par­ent grey area around Gunn that has made him seem some­what iso­lated and out on his own in San Fran­cisco. Friend­ship, Gunn re­marks, ‘must be the great­est value in my life. … I write about love, I write about friend­ship. Un­like Proust, I think

that love and friend­ship are part of the same spec­trum. Proust says that they are ab­so­lutely in­com­pat­i­ble. I find that they are ab­so­lutely in­ter­twined’. Time to find out about the boys.

Tan­ner and Gunn met at UC Berke­ley in 1959-60, where Gunn was an as­so­ciate lec­turer and Tan­ner was do­ing grad­u­ate work. At first Gunn saw him­self in the role of men­tor to Tan­ner, six years his ju­nior, but their friend­ship de­vel­oped along a more equal foot­ing and Tan­ner be­came one of Gunn’s most trusted coun­sel­lors. Wilmer quotes a long let­ter from Gunn to Tan­ner (c.29 Nov 1960) about Gunn’s poem ‘In­no­cence’: ‘I’m try­ing to deal with a prob­lem I’ve never be­fore fully faced in a poem,’ Gunn writes, ‘the prob­lem of the con­se­quences of en­ergy (which I ad­mire) with­out moral sanc­tion.’ The poem de­scribes a young boy in the SS, ‘harden[ed] to an in­stru­ment’, his in­no­cence ‘child­like and clear’, who watches an en­emy sol­dier burn alive and ‘feel[s] dis­gusted only at the smell’. Gunn was much pre­oc­cu­pied with ideas of in­no­cence. A more pos­i­tive ac­count can be found in ‘Three’, a Lawren­tian poem based on his en­counter with a naked fam­ily on a beach at Lands End, SF. When Don­ald Hall asked Gunn for a ‘po­et­ics’ for a book in 1978, Gunn sent him an es­say called ‘A Pro­ce­dure’, an ac­count of the scene that in­spired ‘Three’ and his ex­pe­ri­ence writ­ing the poem. In the es­say, Gunn men­tions ‘a fa­mil­iar enough as­so­ci­a­tion of ideas, it’s true – trust, open­ness, ac­cep­tance, in­no­cence’, what he and his best friend and Cam­bridge com­pan­ion Tony White had called ‘the Val­ues’ back in the 1950s. In writ­ing the poem, Gunn re­marks, ‘I re­al­ized I had among other things found an em­bod­i­ment for my haunt­ing clus­ter of con­cepts’.

Bring­ing to­gether ex­tracts from Gunn’s lesser known prose, as well as from un­pub­lished let­ters, Wilmer’s edi­tion pro­vides an ex­cel­lent foun­da­tion for read­ers and schol­ars to en­gage anew with Gunn’s po­ems. But as much as th­ese in­sights and glosses will en­hance our un­der­stand­ing of Gunn’s life and work, his rep­u­ta­tion re­mains cu­ri­ously sus­pended be­tween his Bri­tish roots and Amer­i­can home. An­drew McMillan has re­marked that Gunn ‘is oddly for­got­ten, half-for­got­ten at least; too Amer­i­can in style for the English es­tab­lish­ment, too English and re­served for the Amer­i­can tra­di­tion.’ McMillan has done a lot for Gunn’s rep­u­ta­tion in the last few

years, speak­ing and writ­ing at length of Gunn’s pro­found in­flu­ence on his de­but col­lec­tion phys­i­cal.

But what of Amer­ica? Of con­tem­po­rary US po­ets, who may we count among Gunn’s spearhold­ers? In 2013, The Kansas City Star called San Fran­cisco-based poet Ran­dall Mann ‘an es­sen­tial heir to … Thom Gunn’. Born in Provo, Utah, Mann grew up in Ken­tucky and Florida be­fore mov­ing to San Fran­cisco in 1998. His pre­vi­ous col­lec­tions are Com­plaint in the Gar­den, for which he won the Kenyon Re­view Prize in Po­etry; Break­fast with Thom Gunn; and Straight Ra­zor. Like Gunn, Mann thrives on the de­mands of con­straint, the chal­lenge of need­ing to go deep into a sub­ject to find the rhyme, to main­tain the in­tegrity of the line, to ren­der an ex­pe­ri­ence with clar­ity, con­trol, and con­ci­sion. His work demon­strates a for­mal rigour not of­ten seen in con­tem­po­rary po­etry, even in his free verse which, as Mann re­minds us, is a for­mal choice.

In­ter­viewed for the web­site 48 Hills, Mann states that his new col­lec­tion, Pro­pri­etary (Persea, 2017), ‘is a book about gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and own­er­ship, that’s why I called it that. It in­volves the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of lan­guage and this fatu­ous idea of own­er­ship, of a house, of a re­la­tion­ship.’ We can trace the con­nec­tion(s) be­tween lan­guage and own­er­ship back to Mann’s ear­li­est po­ems. In the mar­vel­lous ‘Pan­toum’ from Com­plaint, Mann ex­plores the words used by ‘men who fall in love with men’ to de­scribe them­selves, in the ab­sence of ‘the per­fect word’. Its first stanza reads:

If there is a word in the lex­i­con of love, it will not de­clare it­self. The na­ture of words is to fail men who fall in love with men.

‘I think a lot in pan­toums,’ Mann re­marks, cit­ing Don­ald Jus­tice’s ‘Pan­toum of the Great De­pres­sion’ as the poem that taught him much about the form. Mann es­pe­cially ad­mires the way Jus­tice slows down his pan­toum with end-stopped lines (only two of its thirty-seven lines are run-ons), and drew from this both an el­e­gant grav­ity and a ruth­less­ness best seen in his

‘Septem­ber Ele­gies’, writ­ten in mem­ory of four bul­lied queer boys who killed them­selves. Twenty-seven of the twenty-eight lines are end-stopped. Come the end of ‘Pan­toum’, ‘The na­ture of words is to fail’ be­comes the fi­nal line, its run-on be­comes end-stopped. The im­pli­ca­tion, then, is not a fail­ure on the part of ‘men who fall in love with men’, but a fail­ure on the part of those who have tra­di­tion­ally had the power to cod­ify words: to slur, to re­press, to ex­clude. That lan­guage fails ‘men who fall in love with men’ re­flects a greater fail­ure of our hu­man ti­tle. The poem is a tri­umph of ‘men who fall in love with men’ to re­claim – to seek own­er­ship of – words that have not al­ways been theirs to use.

Go­ing back to the be­gin­ning of Mann’s work, David Baker writes of Com­plaint that ‘part of Mann’s project is to trace the col­li­sion of nat­u­ral and hu­man cul­tures that has char­ac­ter­ized his beloved South­east, and this con­ti­nent, for the past five hun­dred years.’ If Com­plaint takes Florida as back­drop, Break­fast takes San Fran­cisco, its leather bars and street­cars, for its ur­ban cen­tre. ‘My San Fran­cisco,’ Mann writes, ‘is, I hope, like Gunn’s, unashamedly sex­ual and slightly self-de­struc­tive, the frag­ile beauty of men and the cityscape a vi­tal part of the pathos of the po­etry.’ Straight Ra­zor, mean­while, looks to both present and past. We still see the lo­cales of SF – Larkin Street, Civic Cen­ter – yet Mann cen­tres on ‘a turn to­ward mem­ory, a mythol­o­gized child­hood, and the per­ils of queer ado­les­cence’. In ‘My Sub­di­vi­sion’:

my fear – Smear the Queer – and af­ter, a turn

through the boy’s locker room, the smug­gled towel, the smell of come, of child­hood, like dirt:

it was a myth, my kid­die pool a lit­tle Black Sea, a pool of in­verts; the smell of Pall Malls,

which made my heart hurt.

The faint echo of terza rima at­tests to Mann’s adroit­ness in ma­nip­u­lat­ing for­mal struc­tures and con­ven­tions for new ends. ‘I think the evo­lu­tion of my for­mal choices re­ally cen­tre around rhyme,’ Mann writes. ‘Over­all there’s more free verse in [ Pro­pri­etary], but I’m us­ing rhyme as the chief po­etic driver, lead­ing me from one im­age or through to an­other. I’ve found that as I’ve been writ­ing, I love rhyme more and more – I’m com­pletely ad­dicted to it, that won­der­ful way that rhyme can push a poem for­ward and also turn it back on it­self.’

In Pro­pri­etary, Mann apes the lan­guage of cor­po­rate biotech cul­ture to ex­plore the im­pact of such cul­ture on San Fran­cisco: how its lan­guage makes its mark on – cul­ti­vates an own­er­ship of – the city. The ti­tle poem and ‘Prox­im­ity’ rep­re­sent this grow­ing trend – from cor­po­rate baby-bab­ble such as ‘let me loop back with you’, ‘please cas­cade as ap­pro­pri­ate’, and ‘ Cal­en­dar is a verb’, to the re­al­i­sa­tion of this power dy­namic in the nam­ing of sites: the anony­mous, dystopian-sound­ing ‘Build­ing 5’ to what might pass as a street name: ‘Dou­ble Helix Way’. As with ‘Pan­toum’, there are acts of re­sis­tance: in ‘Pro­pri­etary’, the dough­nut fac­tory next door ‘won’t sell at any price’. ‘Once I fig­ured out how to write about it,’ Mann re­flects on his time at Ge­nen­tech, ‘how to leach a poem out of it all, it was time to let go and move on.’ Writ­ten largely be­tween 2011—2015, the ker­nel of Pro­pri­etary may, per­haps, be found in the fi­nal cou­plet of ‘Re­newal’: ‘The famine in our eyes, / The spawn of fran­chise’.

This ex­plo­ration of own­er­ship jos­tles with other kinds of own­er­ship, con­trol, and pos­ses­sion: of mem­o­ries, bod­ies, sex­u­al­ity, not to men­tion for­mal con­trol. Mann’s long­est poem, ‘Leo and Lance’, be­gins with a seven­teen-year-old Mann driv­ing to the porn shop to buy the tit­u­lar ‘80s clas­sic (‘I can measure / this ad­ven­ture / in in­cre­ments / of shame’). It was a time, Mann re­calls, when peo­ple ‘had to fig­ure out their sex­u­al­ity with­out ac­cess to very much in­for­ma­tion, and it was a fog.’ It was a time with­out in­ter­net, and the poem piv­ots on Mann’s use of the in­ter­net to dis­cover what hap­pened to Leo and Lance af­ter their porn ca­reers, and to tell their sto­ries. Mann cites David Trinidad’s ‘Ode to Dick Fisk’ as a model in terms of how, through in­ter­twin­ing au­to­bi­og­ra­phy and pornog­ra­phy, ‘many of

us could prob­a­bly tell the story of our sex­u­al­ity.’ At the end of the poem, Mann fo­cuses on a sur­pris­ing im­age from the film. ‘Be­fore / they for­mally meet,’ he writes,

they have a lit­tle snow­ball fight, brief, un­ex­pect­edly sweet –

like chil­dren in the street.

The in­no­cence con­trasts with the not-so-in­no­cent porn movie yet re­turns the poem to the kind with which it be­gins: Mann ‘head­ing to­ward … where the porn was’, as if in his seven­teen-year-old mind Orange Blos­som Trail held a monopoly on porn VHS. The child­ish snow­ball fight echoes the kind of in­no­cent play we see in Gunn’s ‘Three’, and those val­ues that so pre­oc­cu­pied Gunn – trust, open­ness, ac­cep­tance, in­no­cence – are ev­i­dent across Mann’s po­ems, cre­at­ing con­nec­tions to Gunn’s work be­yond acute for­mal con­trol and gay sub­ject mat­ter. Mann’s short es­say on Thom Gunn ( Kenyon Re­view, Sum­mer 2009) is re­quired read­ing. While ‘On the Move’ was the first Gunn poem Mann en­coun­tered, his favourite of Gunn’s books is The Pas­sages of Joy (Faber, 1982). Its cen­tral theme is friend­ship, and Pas­sages, writes Mann, is ‘a darkly hu­mane ren­der­ing of how gay men re­late, and fail to re­late, to each other in San Fran­cisco’. It is an ‘ev­ery­day chron­i­cle of the cu­ri­ous, for­mal, free po­etry that is San Fran­cisco, of the love and the fog and the drug-fucked nights.’ Like Pas­sages, Pro­pri­etary is a book full of other peo­ple: Mann is there – many of the po­ems are pretty au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal in foun­da­tion – but there are many ‘tran­sients and res­i­dents’, to bor­row a Gunn ti­tle, from the un­named tricks and lovers, to porn-stars Leo and Lance, to friends and con­fi­dants such as the po­ets Michael Hof­mann and Diann Blakely. Just as Gunn treats ‘the Val­ues’ from a va­ri­ety of per­spec­tives, Mann takes them on, pulls no punches, and asks what it means to be trust­ing, open, and ac­cept­ing in so fraught a mo­ment across the US and the world.

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