There’s only one naked lady left, going to ruin out there in the fog amid the dahlias and lavender, its pink trumpet flowers wilted and in tatters. There used to be a couple of dozen of them blooming in the yard every August. Not much else was out there in the yard doing much of anything so the ladies made quite a spectacle of themselves, like Rockettes in a dusty frontier town. The neighbour on the third floor got a horticultural bee in his bonnet about seven years ago and dug the girls up, except the one. Of course, they weren’t symmetrically arranged and, like some outlandish pink crepe accessory, didn’t really go with anything else. But I hated to lose them. Like Paris, they looked their best in grey light.
Thom Gunn brought over a sackful of the bulbs (amaryllis belladonna) I don’t recall how many years ago, ten or twelve perhaps. He was always doing things like that. He liked gardening and wanted me to partake more fully of its pleasures. After his teaching obligations of the spring term at Berkeley ended every year, he would apply himself to his own small garden, sheltered and south-east facing. He seemed to enjoy organising and cultivating his little patch of wild. And in this, as in most things, his approach was methodical, reasoned and fastidious, even fussy.
Auden writes somewhere that it’s good for a poet to have hobbies like gardening and cooking. This advice struck me as sound and I commend it to young writers. Thom, who was often compared to Auden on account of being queer, famous and an English expatriate poet living in America, met Auden at least once. They didn’t particularly get along. Thom wasn’t at all catty about other poets (well, rarely), but at this late stage in his career Auden in public had become Auden. Thom remembered him going on at some length about martinis, what constituted a good one and where the best were to be found. This subject would have been of little or no interest to Thom then.
Thom admired Auden, at least his early poetry, which was a large influence on his own early work. Once, over lunch, he told the story of how Auden had come out here to San Francisco in 1954 and given a series of readings, the proceeds of which were handed over to the fledgling San Francisco Poetry Center in order to establish a reading series (a recent phenomenon popularised by Dylan Thomas) and archive. Auden stayed with Ruth Witt-Diamant, the Poetry Center’s founding director, and, in return for his considerable largesse, asked only that he be delivered to gay bars where he might meet young Jewish American males with blond hair.
Thom Gunn arrived in the Bay Area that same year, following a young American Jewish male with blond hair, Mike Kitay, whom he had met and fallen in love with at Cambridge. Mike had been posted to San Antonio, Texas to do his service in the US Air Force. Thom took a steamship from England, stayed with Mike’s family in New Jersey (who took him to Radio City Music Hall where he probably saw the Rockettes), then moved on to California and took up studies with Yvor Winters at Stanford, an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. He got a great deal from his time with Winters and wrote about it at length in what may be his finest essay, ‘On a Drying Hill: Yvor Winters’.
He wore glasses and smoked a pipe, and both of these adjuncts served to mask a face that was not in any case volatile. Pleased or displeased, he was most of the time thoughtfully of the same expression; his shabby suit, too, always had the same unpressed demeanor. Almost any photograph taken of him in his last two decades shows accurately what he looked like. It was his voice that was remarkable, though I don’t think I noticed it until I started taking his classes. He never played tricks with it, and in fact he habitually used a measured tone in conversation, but it was a voice which an actor would have envied, as you noticed as soon as he started to read poetry aloud. It was deep but capable of great variety in its modulation. It has always struck me that the argument of his essay on the audible reading of poetry is a little weakened by the fact that he could read poetry in what from anybody else would have been a monotone but from him was a controlled resonance, suggesting large emotions barely held in reserve.
Later on, after a not entirely comfortable year in San Antonio with Mike, teaching at the (then) very small Trinity College, Thom settled with him in the Bay Area. They remained together, with variations on the theme, for fifty years.
Thom liked to cook, as Auden also recommends, although almost certainly not on account of that recommendation. He wasn’t a greatly gifted cook (he was, after all an Englishman, and an Englishman of a particular generation), but he was more than passable: his pasta dishes were quite good, and he had a turkey recipe that involved cheesecloth, resulting in an uncommonly moist bird. As with his gardening, he was fastidious, methodical and quietly determined, and a bit fussy: sober, spectacles resting on the tip of his nose, recipe book open at the appropriate page, stirring grimly away, eyes on the clock. I enjoyed many meals at his home. I remember one of my very first dinners there. Thom had asked me beforehand if there was anything I didn’t eat. I responded as I always do: eggs, eel and liver. Thom served me liver and bacon. He wasn’t making a point, just absent-minded. Cooking chores were rotated according to a predetermined schedule among the members of his household. Given certain lifestyle-related exigencies this schedule was rather flexible, although negligence was registered and not without disfavour or recrimination.
Although we were good friends for 23 years, our friendship reached its apotheosis over the last few years of Thom’s life, after his retirement from teaching, in our martini matinées. The word matinée has an old-fashioned, low meaning as an ‘afternoon tryst’, but our martini matinées were only that: martinis at both ends of an afternoon movie. Don’t get me wrong, Thom could be irrepressibly affectionate, especially after a couple of drinks. The first time he had me over to his place he sat awfully close to me on his sofa in his tight jeans, sleeveless singlet and revolting tattoos, plying me with pot and wine. It was a bit of a worry for a moment or two. But I was, finally, not his type. And though he was a remarkably handsome sweetheart of a guy, not to mention a Faber poet, he sure as hell wasn’t mine.
So all of that got sorted out from the get-go, and Thom was wonderfully kind to the women in my life, one after the other, and all of them adored him. He was a bit like a dream uncle: rather depraved, but endlessly decent, fun, generous, protective, encouraging, and abusive, cruel even, when he felt it warranted. But this was reserved almost exclusively for literary matters, when I’d written something he disapproved of. My writing has had no greater or more steadfast champion, but if he detected mannerism, slackness, want of real subject-matter or its honest treatment, he let me have it with both barrels, sometimes firing below the belt. I didn’t like it at the time, but it was a gift, really.
About me personally he seldom took issue. If I said something judgmental about someone he’d give me a look. I was once walking down the street in Berkeley with another poet, quite famous, a truly reprehensible shit. He doesn’t care for me either. We’ve just had a rather uncomfortable cup of coffee together, probably at Thom’s suggestion, and this signature creep and I begin talking about Thom, a friend of both of ours, and the tenor of the conversation changes because we both love and revere Thom, and the creep starts telling a story the point of which is that Thom is the least judgmental person he’s ever known. And I agree, not least because Thom puts up with this asshole. But it’s true.
The only time Thom took issue with my extra-literary behaviour was when I was having an illicit affair. His objection had nothing to do with sexual infidelity and the institution of marriage – how could it? – but he believed that over the course of such relationships one becomes accustomed to lying, and the habit of lying is detrimental to one’s poetry.
Thom liked sex a great deal, sex and literature. He was consumed by both and consumed both in heroic proportions. He did his reading, and writing, in the mornings and he prowled at night in the bars south of Market Street, an area that was known in the old days as South of the Slot, a bleak area of warehouses, small industry and manufacturing. Nowadays the area is referred to in the tourist guides as SoMa and is a good deal more upscale and trendy. Had Thom lived another few years and got a book together, I think he intended to call it ‘South of the Slot’.
I know more about Thom’s literary enthusiasms than the other, but I know a little about the other. He spoke with unreserved and equal enthusiasm about both. I recall one afternoon when we were off on a reading tour together in Maryland and found ourselves in a mostly empty, rather genteel and expensive seafood restaurant out on the highway. The only other customers were a very elderly married couple, carefully attired in old people sporty formal, dourly and silently attending to their food. The two, clearly regulars, were an older version of the farm couple straight out of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, transposed to the mid-Atlantic region. Thom, not at all charmed by the restaurant, and oblivious to the elderly couple, after a couple of drinks launched into an extended graphic reprise of some pederastic debacle circa 1970. I was more than a little anxious that the oldsters might overhear his vivid rendering of events and drop dead from coronaries. But their closeness, my discomfort and the emptiness of the dining-room, not to mention the disappointing crab cakes and the prospect of a $20 cab fare back to the hotel, served only to encourage Thom’s volubility, and the wine his volume.
I usually met with him for lunch at a pleasant restaurant on Cole Street, a three or four block walk for both of us. The martini matinées became an extension of these lunches. Apart from gossip, politics, what was doing in our lives, assorted mundanities, we mostly discussed what we were reading. Our lunches were by no means regular, and during the terms Thom was teaching, almost non-existent. He tended to be cranky and inaccessible then. As with so much else, he was diligent and demanding of himself while lecturing. I often had a day job for seasons on end or was out of town for months at a time. After Thom’s retirement we got together on a more regular basis, say once every two or three weeks.
The quality and acuity of his observations would startle me from time to time. If you know someone for a long time you develop a sense of the way their minds work, their particular funds of knowledge, their intellectual propensities and so forth. But Thom crossed me up any number of times. ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ I’d think to myself. He wasn’t at all a show-off. So many intellectuals, particularly university intellectuals, indulge in pissing contests over how much they’ve read, quoting at length by heart and so on. No wonder they have no friends off-campus. Thom could more than hold his own if sucked into one or another of these contests but it wasn’t his sport. Apart from the bores and creeps, it was this brinksmanship, along with what Thom used to call, referring to London literary society, ‘the worst sort of village gossip’, that put him off literary gatherings. It was a strong dislike we shared, among many other likes and dislikes.
Thom was vain of his good looks and sexual conquests but not of his poetry and learning. He knew the value of the former and was not falsely modest, a trait he once told me he actively disliked in others.
Englishman that he was, however much he warred with the notion, Thom loved no authors more than Shakespeare and Dickens, and revisited both on pretty nearly an annual basis, usually over the summer when he had the most time. He liked picking up younger men and doing methamphetamine with them, and enjoyed bringing off a splendid poem of his own devising best of all – as you do if you’re in that line of work – but he loved rereading Dickens and Shakespeare in his garden, always finding new bits to marvel over. Not that he didn’t stray to the Continent, also like the Englishman he was. He was mad for Stendhal, especially The Charterhouse of Parma, also Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Baudelaire’s Tableaux parisiens meant quite as much to him as Donne or Marvell or Keats, all of whom meant a great deal. And at least one summer and fall were devoted to learning Italian, or just enough Italian, to get profitably through Dante in the original with the help of a crib. He wasn’t big on poetry in translation.
I was a prime beneficiary of Thom’s perspicacity over the years, but so were thousands of students at Berkeley over his forty years or so of teaching there. I tried to get him to allow me to sit in on his class on ‘The History of the English Lyric’ one semester, but he said it would make him uncomfortable. My loss. I can’t tell you how many books and authors he put me onto over the years. I could write a book . . . Actually, I did, or we did: an anthology of 100 American poems. It was bravely commissioned by a trade publisher. (What in the world could they have been thinking?) Thom initially was chary of the project, worried that our friendship would suffer and that we would have to sift through the work of this and that celebrated no-talent in order to find a tolerable selection. But I impressed on him that we could put in or leave out whoever we bloody well liked. That reassured him and we set to it in a leisurely fashion over many, many months. It went quite smoothly, really. We freely vetoed one another’s choices, me with theatrical disgust, Thom with chilly contempt. We included a number of people who made our skin crawl, but Thom was more disciplined and fair-minded in this regard than me; besides which, that wasn’t what it was about.
The publisher was horrified when he saw the list. ‘Where’s Sylvia Plath? We haven’t even heard of half these people!’ The usual suspects, or most of them, were on board – Stevens, Eliot, Crane, Pound, Williams, there was even a poem of Lowell’s – but not with their standard anthology pieces. About 80 per cent of Thom’s choices either had Eros in the title or were directly concerned with the troublesome deity. Nearly half the poets in the collection were women, but most of those who were included you’ve probably never heard of. It was all terribly shocking.
Thom was a great reader of novels. He disdained short fiction and didn’t read much non-fiction, unless it was Edward Gibbon or Darwin. I am nearly opposite in my tastes, but we did share our enthusiasms. Thom, for instance, thought Philip Roth was the cat’s miaow. I didn’t. ‘Try The Counterlife,’ Thom said. Which I did, and it dazzled me.
Another time Thom said to me, ‘I’ve been reading Isaac Babel for the first time. He’s very important to you, isn’t he? Well, of course he is, he’d have to be.’ I gave Thom a copy of Charles Nicholl’s The Fruit Palace, which he loved, likewise Trainspotting. Almost anything scatological had great appeal. He also enjoyed the Richard Yates books I shared with him. When I was ill at one point I read through all of Derek Raymond, whom I recommend to anyone with a stubborn bacterial infection. ‘Oh, yes,’ Thom said, ‘he’s wonderful, isn’t he.’ Sometimes we came on an author separately that sent us both head over heels. I don’t recall who got there first, or how, but at one point we were both roaring through the novels of James Buchan and when we sat down to lunch together could barely contain our enthusiasm, like a couple of teenage girls gushing about a cute new boy at school.
During our final lunch, the Thursday before the Sunday he died, we discussed the anthology (‘They’ll never do it,’ Thom said) and J.R. Ackerley, the last among the scores of writers I’d never have found had it not been for Thom. ‘His writing is close in style to Isherwood’s,’ I said to Thom. ‘Who was influenced by whom?’
‘Oh, Ackerley by Isherwood, certainly,’ he said. ‘Ackerley didn’t do most of his good writing until later in life, long after he’d been a friend of Isherwood’s and an admirer of his writing.’
After lunch I dropped Thom off at the cheese shop where he always got his pesto and grated pecorino. He was nothing if not regular in his habits: the tea shop on Haight Street, the Alpha Market for plonk and cuts of meat, the Hole in the Wall for sex.
There wasn’t much going on in April in the way of movies so we were strapped, at least so far as our martini matinée routine. I was headed off for a few weeks. We agreed that surely there would be something worth seeing on my return. Our partings, even if for extended periods of time, were never occasions for much physical display. I don’t think that Thom really liked being touched very much unless sexually. Shaking hands seemed to confuse and mildly upset him. I’m not terribly comfortable kissing other males. I think what it came to over the years was, on my part, a rather martial tug and squeeze of his shoulder, followed by a partial hug. That seemed to go down OK, and it went down OK that last time. I don’t believe either of us thought it would be the last time.
What I remember, and will remember, most vividly about our friendship was travelling around town with Thom on public transport. Neither of us had cars. We were more often than not heading to a movie and the prospect and the adventure of getting to the cinema seemed to put Thom in high spirits. To travel with Thom was to participate in an erotic mapping of San Francisco out of the bus window. I was reminded of the early Renaissance maps in which significant sites like the cathedral or castle are wildly out of proportion, or the Mappa Mundi in which Jerusalem, say, is placed at the centre of the world and given space equivalent to its spiritual or political importance, not its actual physical size and geographical situation.
For Thom, the city seemed to exist as a complex of erotic sites, assignations, stews. Heterosexual males, in my experience, are without exception tedious and irritating, not to mention unreliable, on this subject. But Thom, on passing a bar or apartment or street corner (in one memorable instance a phone booth in a rather toney part of town) seemed cheerful and nostalgic in equal measure, and almost always had an amusing or interesting anecdote. If one or two sites or parts of the city defied scale on Thom’s map in the way the cathedral and castle did in old maps, they would probably be the Stud and the Hole in the Wall, and his Jerusalem would be South of the Slot.
I don’t recall when our martini matinées began, exactly. We would have been early for a movie and found ourselves a bar. I am not ordinarily an afternoon drinker, but when I drink I prefer spirits, and like many other drinkers in middle age I have, for the most part, moved from brown-coloured spirits to the less punitive clear. My ordinary drink out these days is a Ketel One martini, up with a twist, very dry.
Thom was a wine drinker, and enjoyed a couple of glasses of plonk over lunch. But he seemed to enjoy doing as I did when we were together at a bar, as well as liking the knowledgable sound of my order. So he too had a martini, the same as mine. Martinis, as Auden would attest, pack a wallop. Thom banged back his martini, checked his watch, and seeing we had all of five minutes left till showtime, ordered a second round.
He tended to be exuberant under the influence of alcohol and quite uninhibited. Even when sober he had an enormous laugh, one that would often turn heads in public places. One time we caught a matinée of Sexy Beast and after the movie, and after a couple of post-movie martinis that had become over time part of the ritual, we got caught up in a ‘you fucking cunt’ jag. This continued beyond the movie theatre and bar (the very unprepossessing Hockey Tavern), to the bus and then, having to change buses, at the bus stop on Masonic and Geary where we horrified some perfectly nice old Chinese people, then on the next bus, filled with people returning home from work and students from high school. ‘You fucking cunt.’ ‘Who’s a fucking cunt, you fucking cunt,’ and so forth. The spectacle would have been obnoxious enough if the dickheads involved were 14-year-olds, but in this case one of them was 72 and regarded as one of the most important poets in the English language, and the other dickhead, though a good deal younger, was not at all young.
Thom’s mother killed herself when he was a boy. Any child would be terribly affected by this, I realise, but I think they were especially close. After his mother’s death reading and books became his world, even as an adult he tended to view the world and people through the filter of literature. It’s evident in the poetry. Thom’s mother had a good friend named Thérèse. Although his aunts took him in after the suicide and looked after him, he sometimes stayed with Thérèse, who had a son his age. I forget exactly what Thom told me about her – sophisticated, arty, Jewish, somehow involved with the theatre, a good friend of Peggy Ashcroft. What Thom especially liked about Thérèse was that she treated him as an adult and confided in him, more so than in her own son. I remember in the last year or two of his life Thom talking about a great snow in the winter of 1947, a snow such as London had never seen. It had been an unusually cold winter, a legendary winter. Thom was staying at Thérèse’s, it was a weekend or holiday morning, perhaps even Christmas. When he awoke the city was covered in white, an amazing spectacle, everything come to a halt, nothing but white. I could tell by Thom’s expression while recounting the episode that he was, at that particular moment, having pulled back the curtains on that particular morning so many years before, perfectly happy.
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