Now I will shut you in a box With massive sides and a lid that locks. Only by that I can be sure That you are still mine and mine secure . . .
Not all of Boss Cupid is so grim. There are also poems about Gunn’s long relationship with Kitay; a tribute to his great friend and fellow poet, the late Robert Duncan; and a poem to Cupid, inspired, Gunn says, by the glimpse of an anonymous motorcyclist during a visit to Los Angeles. In Gunn’s early work, love was depicted in terms usually reserved for warring parties in the Middle East: Compromise is possible, peace never. But in “To Cupid,” Gunn seems finally to make peace for real.
The poem begins with a vision of Boss Cupid as a glamorous motorcyclist out of a Cocteau movie — a kind of capo di capi of the love racket, sending out his servants on their various erotic assignations: “. . . scripts of confinement,/Scripts of displacement, scripts of delay, and scripts/Of more delay.” Gunn then examines the “script of confinement” at the heart of Stendhal’s great 19th-century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma, in which the hero, Fabrizio, willingly returns to jail so that he can look through his cell window at the jailer’s daughter he fell in love with when he was locked up there:
Of course they could not touch. In later life They touched, they did touch, but in darkness only.
Finally, the poem looks at a “script of delay” in a more naturalistic, autobiographical mode. Falling asleep one night, Gunn hears the sounds of eating and laughter coming from the apartment of his neighbors, a man and woman married earlier that day. It’s nice to think that, some evening as we go about our business, following our various erotic scripts, there might be a drowsy poet within earshot in whom we could inspire lines as beautiful as these:
When I switched off my light I was dog-tired But for some minutes held off sleep: I heard The pleasant sound of voices from next door Through windows open to the clement darkness. A dinner for the couple one floor up, Married today. I hardly had the time Before falling away, to relish it, The sociable human hum, easy and quiet As the first raindrops in the yard, on bushes, Heard similarly from bed. Chatting, the sounds Of friendliness and feeding often broken By laughter. It’s consoling, Mr. Love, That such conviviality is also One more obedience to your behest, The wedding bed held off by the wedding feast.
Good will within delay within good will. And Cupid, devious master of our bodies, You were the source then of my better rest.
I asked Gunn about “To Cupid’s” opening lines: “You make desire seem easy. So it is:/Your service perfect freedom to enjoy/Fresh limitations.” What did he mean by them exactly?
“Love is usually with us an obsession, for good or bad,” he replied. “It’s still what we want, still what we have in mind, but we often screw it up because of our obsessions, [which are] curiously mixed with what Freud would call perversions. I don’t mean perversions in the ordinary sense, but obstructions to itself. And at the end I’m saying how wonderful that the wedding feast should be not only a prelude to the wedding bed, but a postponement of it. D.H. Lawrence always [criticized] ‘sex in the head,’ or sex in the brain, but that’s part of its beauty! That’s part of what makes sex so exciting for human beings, that we think about it, and look forward to it, and maybe in some ways even deliberately postpone it. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Do you feel that there’s an overarching theme to your work?”
“People say I write a lot about sex. I write about aspects of desire, which is always interesting. It’s not for nothing that I admire Stendhal and Baudelaire so much, because it’s their preoccupation too. But it’s not my only subject. I have a lot of subjects. I think I have a novelistic interest in people, though I’m not that hot on narrative and things like that. But that’s another way of looking at my work. A lot of it is about people.”
Gunn publishes a book of poems, on average, every eight years or so. At age 71, there’s always the possibility that Boss Cupidwill be his last. The book feels so fresh, so utterly up-to-date, it’s hard to believe this could be the case, but Gunn himself appears to think that it’s quite possible.
“I haven’t written anything in the last two years,” he tells me, sitting in his chair, the bookcase of living poets on one side of him, the dead poets on the other. “One reason is that, when I finish a book, I always have such a sense of completion that I find it difficult to start writing again. The longest it ever went on was for two and a half years. That was after Jack Straw’s Castle. Even after my first book, I couldn’t write for six months. But maybe I have nothing left to write about. I don’t know.