Out of the Eater

Jeremy Noel-Tod

  • Boss Cupid by Thom Gunn
    Faber, 115 pp, £7.99, March 2000, ISBN 0 571 20298 5

Thom Gunn has an intelligent rock star’s ear for titles: Fighting Terms, My Sad Captains, Touch, Moly, Jack Straw’s Castle, The Man with Night Sweats. Punchy and enigmatic, they read like the back catalogue of a highbrow, low-life singer-songwriter. The career they mark has always had an air of rock rebellion about it, too: soon after publishing his debut collection (which appeared while he was still an undergraduate), Gunn moved to California and produced poems influenced by the emergent youth culture, hymning Elvis and black-leather ‘boys’ on motorbikes. By the early 1960s he was reported to be experimenting with syllabic verse and LSD. After the buttoned-up forms and conceits of his early work, Gunn seemed gradually to be learning to let it all hang out, and as the hippy pop of the 1960s gave way to the self-indulgent ‘progressive’ rock of the 1970s, he published a memorably terrible two-line tribute to Jefferson Airplane:

The music comes and goes on the wind,
Comes and goes on the brain.

With the 1980s came The Passages of Joy, containing more free verse than ever before and speaking openly, for the first time, about the poet’s homosexuality. It also contained some of his weakest material to date, but he made a comeback in the early 1990s with The Man with Night Sweats, a sombre, one-man-and-his-acoustic-guitar sort of book, written out of the Aids epidemic.

Boss Cupid, a decade later, with its bicep-tattoo title, is a book about survivals and sequels. The elegiac note persists, but the tone is lighter than in The Man with Night Sweats – the presiding sense is of a man who has come through. He also takes time to revisit earlier books. Boss Cupid’s epigraph, a quotation from Thomas Hardy – ‘Well, it’s a cool queer tale!’ – first caught Gunn’s eye in an essay written in 1972, where he cited it straight-faced; now it is reused to point up the modern connotations of ‘cool’ and ‘queer’. The second poem of the book, ‘The Antagonism’, is a surprising return to the bold historical colour of early poems such as ‘A Mirror for Poets’, with its talk of ‘Hacks in the Fleet and nobles in the Tower:/Shakespeare must keep the peace, and Jonson’s thumb/Be branded (for manslaughter).’ ‘The Antagonism’ paints a medieval scene of ‘cholera in the keep, or frost’s long ache/Afflicting every mortal nation/From lords to villagers in their fading dyes’, going on to consider the pagan ‘Green Men’ lurking in old churches and cathedrals:

         But carved on a high beam
Far in the vault from the official version
Gape gnarled unChristian heads out of
                        whom stream
   Long stems of contrary assertion,
Shaped leaf ridging their scalps in place of hair.
        Their origins lost to sight,
As they are too, cast out from light.
           They should despair.

This is finely done, the stanza form handled with confidence, the poem gaining resonance from its place in a collection dominated by poems about relationships within a marginalised community: the decorative Green Men become symbols of forbidden love, ‘boss’ Cupids in another sense, up in the rafters and ‘aloof’ to the Christ worshipped below. ‘Cupid is the Christ of the religion of love,’ Gunn observed in his essay on Fulke Greville.

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