The Revelations of Thom Gunn’s Letters


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The Victorian house in San Francisco’s Upper Haight neighborhood where British-born poet Thom Gunn lived for more than thirty years and where he died in 2004, aged seventy-four, is also pretty than all the other houses on Cole Street. It was purchased in part with a Guggenheim grant that Gunn received in 1971, and he shared it with his longtime partner, theater artist Mike Kitay, and various of their respective lovers and friends. In his queer home, Gunn, who is best known for his profound 1992 collection “The Man with Night Sweats”, a series of meditations on the impact of AIDS on his community, established a discipline of care that was a source of stability and comfort to him during the seismic shifts in gay life that occurred during his years there. “Three or four times a week someone cooks for the whole house and the guests,” Gunn wrote to a friend shortly after moving in. “I’ve cooked for 12 times already. . . . So it’s working really well: it’s really, I realize, the way of life I’ve wanted for about 6 years.

The experience of Gunn’s poetry – which is by turns conversational, formal and metaphysical, and often all three at the same time – is deeply enriched by the life that we discover in “The Letters of Thom Gunn” (expertly co -edited by Michael Nott – who provides a heartfelt and knowledgeable introduction – and Gunn’s close friends, the poets August Kleinzahler and Clive Wilmer). Gunn’s letters are an introduction not only to literature (he taught a rigorous class at UC Berkeley on and off from 1958 to 1999) but also to the poet himself, who tended to hide in plain sight. of all. “I am the soul of indiscretion,” he once told his friend the editor and author Wendy Lesser, but he had an aversion to being seen, or, more accurately, to confessional writings that said too much too loudly. (In a 1982 poem, “Expression,” Gunn made funny sport of his exasperation: notorious alcoholic. / They write with a dark irony / of collapse, of mental institution, / and of attempted suicide… It’s very poetic poetry.”)

“The deepest feeling always manifests itself in silence; / Not in silence, but with restraint”: so wrote Marianne Moore in 1924, and these lines kept coming to mind when reading Gunn’s letters, where he reveals himself, intentionally or not, by not constantly revealing himself. . “You always credit me with lack of feeling because I often show no feeling,” he wrote to Kitay in 1963. not particularly to show it either. . . . I admire the understatement of sentiment more than anything.

Born in Gravesend, Kent, in 1929, William Guinneach Gunn – he added Thomson later – was the first child of Herbert and Charlotte Gunn. (A younger brother, Ander, with whom he was close all his life, was born in 1932.) His parents, both passionate about words, met in 1921, in the offices of the Kent messenger, where they were trainee journalists. Herbert became the northern editor of the curator Daily Express, while Charlotte stayed home and took care of the children. Gunn’s childhood, which he kept very happy, was traditional; he learned humility, gratitude and political awareness in equal measure. (The first letter in the collection, dated 1939, was written to Gunn’s father: “Thank you for the lovely toy theatre, we played with from early morning till sundown. . . . I go to a garden party to help ‘poor Spain’ on Saturday. Ander wants a gun to shoot little movies with, you get them at Selfridges if it’s not too spoiled.”

In one of his very rare autobiographical essays, “My Life Up to Now” (1979), Gunn wrote of Charlotte:

She was once seen at a party wearing an orchid pinned by a hammer and sickle brooch. From this distance, the jumpsuit looks like a 1930s cliché, but it wasn’t: other women wouldn’t have done something so outrageous. I see behind it a sassy, ​​witty proclamation that she wanted to get the best of both worlds, and at the same time I can see the half-sad self-criticism.

For middle-class English women of Charlotte’s generation (she was no Bloomsbury aristocrat), drawing attention to oneself simply wasn’t done. Charlotte was a voracious reader and inspired a love of the language in her eldest son. “The house was full of books,” Gunn wrote in “My Life So Far.” “From her I got the full implied idea, as far back as I can remember, of books not just as a commentary on life but as a part of her continuing activity.” In a 1999 interview with James Campbell, Gunn recalled how when he was eleven years old, during the Blitz, living at Bedales boarding school, he asked his mother what to get him for his birthday. “Why don’t you write me a novel?” she replied. He did, composing a chapter a day during the afternoon siesta at school.

We learn to make art by refracting and rearranging what we intuit about the emotional atmosphere in which we live: Gunn’s novel, which involved adultery and divorce and was titled “The Flirt “, was perhaps a reimagining of what he saw at home. Between 1936, when Charlotte and Herbert first separated, and 1944, when she died by her own hands, Charlotte had an affair with Herbert’s friend, Ronald (Joe) Hyde, returned to Herbert, separated again from him, divorced him, married Hyde, broke up with Hyde, reconciled, then separated again. It was in December, four days after Christmas, that Charlotte barricaded herself in the kitchen and put a gas poker in her mouth. Her sons found her the next morning. The next morning, Gunn wrote this in his diary:

She committed suicide by holding a gas-poker to her head and covering it with a tartan rug we had. She was lying on the sheepskin rug, wearing her beautiful long red dressing gown, and pillows were under her head. Her legs were spread apart, a shoe half down, and her legs were white, hard and cold, and the hair looked out of place. . . . Ander started shouting “Mom is dead!” She killed herself,” before I could even realize she was. . . . There was a smell, but not a strong one, of gas. It haunted us all day after. I turned off the gas and Ander took the gas poker from his hands. . . . We discovered his face. How awful! Ander told me afterwards that the eyes were open, but I thought they were closed. . . . But oh! Mother, from the moment I left you Thursday evening at eleven o’clock until four o’clock in the morning, what did you do? She died quickly and peacefully, they said, but what anguish of disturbs it must have passed during the night. . . . I kissed her legs. “Then I called the police.

The image of fifteen-year-old Gunn kissing his mother’s legs is like an upside-down Pietà: he is Jesus offering a caress to Mary. Mourning separates the body from itself. You can be in a room with the most terrible thing you could ever experience and not be there at all. Gunn’s angst here takes nothing away from his photographic powers of description. His diary entry is not included in the ‘Letters’ – it appears in the British edition of Gunn’s ‘Selected Poems’ – but it should have been. Marveling at the horror of this scene and Gunn’s control in the middle of it helps prepare you for what comes later: all the corpses he describes, examines and says goodbye to in “The man with night sweats”.

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