(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Boss Cupid is Thom Gunn’s fourteenth book of poetry, and it is one of his finest and fullest collections. The title announces the theme: All people are controlled throughout their erotic lives by “Boss Cupid.” However, the collection is more various than that. There are elegies, mythic poems, satires, poems using biblical characters, and jokes, in addition to the many that deal with love and the domination of all human beings by the god of love.

Gunn is a traditional poet, and many of these poems are written in regular meters and engaging rhymes. However, some are written in a well-fashioned free verse that maintains line integrity. Gunn has a light touch and a comic perspective; his witty style enlivens nearly all of the poems here. His conclusions are very powerful as they convincingly close nearly all of the poetic structures in the book.

The first poem in the book is a poem on the American poet Robert Duncan. “Duncan” portrays a life dedicated to writing from an early age. “When in his twenties a poetry’s full strength/ Burst into voice as an unstopping flood.” It is nothing less than “divine” inspiration being visited upon the young man, and he receives the power and immediately turns it into a torrent of words. He is described as riding the ferry between San Francisco and Berkeley, inscribing the poems that were “carrying him in a new mode.” The trips on the ferry become a metaphor for his poetic development: “Became the changing passage lived within/ While the pen wrote, and looked beyond conclusion.” The second section of the poem deals with an aged and ill Duncan: “Forty years later, and both kidneys gone;/ Every eight hours, home dialysis.” He is still circulating from place to place. He then is compared to H. D. in old age with a broken hip. The last stanza calls him a “posthumous poet”; he is “dead” because he can no longer write. Duncan is then seen in a simile as flying above his “feasting friends” and left “between open ends,/ Themselves the margins of unchanging night.” The poem is a perceptive and touching elegy to a fellow poet. The life is defined in terms of writing and when that ceases, all that is left are the “margins” of the final “night.” Gunn has written a number of fine elegies in his long career, and this is one of his best.

“A Mother’s Son” is a sardonic poem about Gunn’s conflicts with his mother. (The next poem is “My Mother’s Pride.”) First of all, she “dramatized herself,” especially in her pronouncements on social behavior: “You wouldn’t accept a present/ From a tradesman.” There is a countervoice of the son declaring his own and fuller way. Her claims to a meaningful life are a “ruthless wit” and “the smallest ears in London.” The poem ends with a one-sentence summation of the dual legacy she leaves to him: “I am made by her, and undone.” Her inescapable influence is reduced to the essentials; there is a beginning and a destructive ending.

“A Young Novelist” is a description of the novelist’s publishing triumph and nearly simultaneous loss. It begins by describing how “a whole life” led up to the publication of the novel. In the “same week,” “the wrestler with the smile/ Who pinned him to the mat of love for ever” dies. He is inconsolable, as all he has left is “ash in a plastic sack.” The last stanza brings the novelist back to his boyhood when he first saw the “virgin-green” leaves with “soft points.” He is stunned and “didn’t know, really, what to make of them.” The memory triggers the finality of his loss: “Then turning back to it found he no longer/ Knew what to make of the other thing, despair.” Gunn’s endings are very well crafted; here, he links a beautiful but puzzling discovery of just-blossoming nature to a similar mystifying experience with despair.

“Saturday Night” is a central poem in the book. It describes the halcyon days of the 1960’s in the San Francisco bathhouses. By 1975, “that time was gone.” Gunn describes the earlier time as a “Dionysian experiment/ To build a city never dared before” and a “paradisal state.” Now the “drug dealers” take over; the “beds crack, capsize.” The last two lines sum up a nightmare world that has replaced paradise: “At length the baths catch fire and then burn down,/ And blackened beams dam up the bays of ash.” The loss of that paradisal world is powerfully conveyed by the image of the “blackened beams” and “ashes” that point to the deaths caused by the AIDS epidemic.

The second section of the book is called “Gossip,” and it has some satiric and some moving poems. The first one is called “Famous Friends.” However, the poem begins with Gunn announcing that he “could never place him.” Gunn meets him in a bar in New York and...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)