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Boss Cupid’s Poet 

The good life and hard times of Thom Gunn

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Page 6 of 8

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.

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“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:

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:

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