It doesn’t seem to have bothered him: Gunn the hedonist liked his free time, and several of his poems suggest that he enjoyed it to the full. “Another all-night party over,” he writes in one poem from the 1980s, when he was already well into middle age. “Another night of passages,/Stairs, and angelic messages”:
The drugs wear off, my friend and I Head for the sidewalks of the day. Fifth Street at 7 a.m. in May. So this is where the night-stream led: Pavements as empty as my head, Stone city under pale blue sky. . . .
I stretch, almost too tired to think, Cool as a hand freed from a glove That it began to feel part of, It had been on so long. We greet Two other guests on Market Street And hit the Balcony for a drink.
In the last decade, Gunn’s income has increased considerably, thanks to the $105,000 Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award he won in 1990, the $10,000 Forward Prize he won in Britain in 1992, the $10,000 Lenore Marshall/Nation Poetry Prize he won in 1993, and the $369,000 MacArthur “genius” fellowship he received in 1993. (Who says poetry doesn’t pay?) He owns the house (purchased with a $3,300 down payment in 1971) and is still together with Kitay, 45 years after they left England. In short, he’s the picture of domestic, geographic and economic stability. It’s a sign of how much the world has changed in those 45 years that Gunn — frequenter of leather bars, aficionado of orgies, poet of motorcycle gangs and LSD — can now be looked upon almost as an exemplary figure, a man who has led a good, adventurous, thoughtful life. Whereas the reputations of the two British poets of his generation who went on to become honored members of the Establishment — Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin — have been sullied by respective charges of misogyny and racism.
Gunn’s reputation in the U.S. really took off with the publication, in 1992, of The Man With Night Sweats, a book that included 17 poems about friends who had died of AIDS. They are reprinted at the very end of his Collected Poems, tucked away in a corner like a kind of graveyard. As he did when he wrote about LSD, Gunn wrote about AIDS almost exclusively in meter. Despite the heart-breaking subject matter, these are in many ways the most austere of his poems, written as if each word were chiseled in stone. (“Even when it has the power to make a reader weep, the writing itself is not dabbing righteously at its eyes,” wrote Robert Pinsky in the Nation.) Some time later, Gunn was asked to write a short poem that literally would be chiseled in stone — at the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. The moving result, reprinted in Boss Cupid, is “Epitaph”:
Walker within this circle, pause. Although they all died of one cause, Remember how their lives were dense With fine, compacted difference.
“Why did you choose to make that particular point?” I asked Gunn on my third and final visit. He was back in his jeans and motorcycle boots, only this time, somewhat incongruously, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “AT&T.”
“It’s one of the few things you can say in such a short poem,” he replied. “I, like many other people, lost an enormous number of friends and acquaintances, including very close friends. And they got cut down by the same thing, but they were all so wonderfully different in themselves.
“One of my worst times,” he continued, “was in August of 1987, when four close friends — they didn’t even know each other, in different cities — died within five weeks. And that was when I wrote a poem called ‘The Missing’. A lot of people I know who died of it were early ones, early deaths, and you know what that means: They were sexual explorers, and they were committed to having sex up the asshole.”
“Did you think you had it?”
“I assumed rather stoically that I probably had it, but I wasn’t going to worry about it until I actually got it. I never even got tested. And I’d had all sorts of risky sex, even sharing needles with people, which I had given up doing because I figured it was unhygienic.”
“Do you have any idea why you’ve been so lucky?”
“No. Nobody knows. There may be some people who have some kind of immunity for unknown reasons. Or maybe I’ve had safer sex than some people, however that’s defined. Certainly since AIDS has been around, I’ve been very insistent on safe sex with whoever I was having sex with, because I suppose people might be dishonest about their status.”
You make desire seem easy. So it is: Your service perfect freedom to enjoy Fresh limitations. I’ve watched you in person Wait for the light and relish the delay Revving the engine up before you spurt Out of the intersection. (from “To Cupid”)
As its title suggests, love and sex are to the fore in Boss Cupid, Gunn’s 10th volume of poetry, published this summer. Its most disturbing poems are five â “songs” for Jeffrey Dahmer, gruesome and gruesomely persuasive studies in addictive and predatory sex in which Gunn displays a startling imaginative sympathy for a cannibal and murderer. As Gunn presents him, Dahmer was like all of us, only more so. (“Oh do not leave me now,” begins the first poem, entitled “Hitch-hiker.” “All that I ever wanted is compressed/In your sole body.”) But then, the dark side of sex has always been present in Gunn’s work. As far back as 1954, there’s a brief, 12-line poem (“La Prisonnière”) that reads like an early draft for one of the songs to Dahmer: