Thom Gunn and the Largest Gathering of the Decade

Alan Sinfield

  • The Man with Night Sweats by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 88 pp, £5.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 571 16257 6

‘If he were a dog he’d have been put down five years ago’ – so the Daily Sport on Freddie Mercury. The virulence of the hostility towards gay men that the Aids pandemic has released, it occurs to me, is directly proportionate to the idea, which was getting into general circulation in Britain around 1980, that gays were doing better with the sex-and-love questions. We seemed to have learnt a few tricks that straights had yet to develop. Gay men had organised genial ways of meeting for casual sex, and also loving couples that might manage, even, to evade gendered roles. They knew how to see other men without falling out with their partners; how to go to bed with friends; how to remain on close terms with former lovers; how to handle age and class differences. They were at ease experimenting with kinky games; they were getting the fun back into sex. For the right-wing bigot, therefore, the Aids pandemic was a godsend. It countermanded, precisely, that alleged gay advantage. It had all been a fantasy, ‘the family’ should set the limits of human experience. Gays, Section 28 says, have only pretended families.

The largest gathering of the decade in San Francisco, where Thom Gunn lives, and in many cities, is made up of people with, or who have died of, Aids. The phrase occurs in ‘Courtesies of the Interregnum’, where Gunn tells how a friend, who once had hosted weekly gatherings, is now pleased to report that he is able to eat hot food at all. The friend becomes aware that his preoccupation with his illness is excluding the poet – not a person with Aids – who is still his guest:

He is, confronted by a guest so fit,
Almost concerned lest I feel out of it,
Excluded from the invitation list
To the largest gathering of the decade, missed
From membership as if the club were full.

The civil intimacy of their relationship reasserts itself, making the poet a fit guest after all. Through ‘such informal courtesy’ the host, an athlete, achieves a triumph – ‘with not physical but social strength’. In the face of Aids, gay community is more, not less, necessary and rewarding.

Civility does not always win out in these poems. ‘Lament’, a narrative of the last days of another friend, I find as painful after many readings as it was at first. Nevertheless, in the face of Aids, because of it, Gunn reasserts that civil intimacy is best generated in sexual encounters and the relationships that they produce. There are affectionate, delighted and respectful poems here for recent as well as past lovers. Then again, ‘The Hug’ finds the poet and his partner of thirty years and more in bed together after a party.

It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
          Or braced, to mine,
    And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
    Become familial.

(Yes, familial.) The range of emotional experience included in that hug is vast, and yet the tension and support, body to body, remains consistent. ‘It was not sex,’ but neither (to pick up an echo from John Donne) was it a mixing of souls.

In ‘The Missing’, Gunn writes of his friends as ‘an involved increasing family’ (another family) of gay lovers:

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[*] See Gay Times, August 1989, and Critical Survey, 2, 1990. There is a recent volume of new British male gay poetry: Take any train, edited by Peter Daniels (Oscars Press, 64 pp., £4.95, September 1990, 1 872668 00 3).