Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
James Rother

A Minoring of Major and Some Top Gunn

coverConfigurations: New & Selected Poems, 1958-1998 by Clarence Major. Copper Canyon Press, 1998. 324 pp. $17.00 (paper)


coverBoss Cupid by Thom Gunn. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000. 113 pp. $22.00

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Click here to recive news and leave comments for CPR.     Clarence Major, who in his first volume of poems Swallow the Lake (1970) showed he could be an artisan of the colorful as well as an artist of color, seems now, on the evidence of his new collection, Configurations: New and Selected Poems, 1958-1998, to have opted for more amicable hues of color-consciousness than stood out heretofore. Also present (which was not there before) is a penchant for the sort of atelier abstractionism associated with the poets loosely associated with Conjunctions, a journal of new writing edited by Bradford Morrow of Bard College. Not that anger born of hair-trigger racialism need be upfront and personal in every work by every African-American writer as proof of his or her authenticity, but when it’s there and then suddenly not there one can’t help wondering what might have prompted its disappearance or obvious racheting back.
     One such example of retrenchment in Configurations involves a poem titled “Isolate.” Composed sometime around 1970, it was one of three pieces by Major selected by Paul Hoover for inclusion in his anthology Postmodern American Poetry (1994)—a collection some might say was tilted toward Conjunctions-approved poets—and for some reason failed to make the final cut in New and Selected Poems. Whether this in any way reflects Major’s shift from an open collar to a decidedly buttoned down persona in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is anybody’s guess. But what cannot be denied is that “Isolate” bristles with an energy and vitality that ersatz runes like “On the Nature of Perspective” and “Looking at Images Reflected in the Showcase Plate Glass”—both dated 1998—all too plainly lack. The case is best made by citing the earlier poem in its entirety.

She knew more about me than let us say.
Most difficult, the American, she said.
Said a requiem is quite heavy, very dull and
These violet people in gentle expenditures!
                      impossible to translate one:
Mass, and the day of masses.
Yet how was it to be ease for her, feeling
nothing of my spirit, knowing less of her own.

She knew only the visits to the tombs in me.
This pilgrimage she bled into her principles.
Higher, deeper, than my closed eye.
Sees difficulty more in her “church” blood
                     than in her cycle.& she started

on the birthcontrol pills again.
Some terrible romance of the flesh wedges us.
Here she was everything to me, after the crude
Cramming of Nothing: but now
I want isolation. I told her what.
She said, then isolate motherfucker.

Not only is the idiom here instantly recognizable as living speech, but there’s not the slightest trace of histrionics drummed up to mask an underbite of realization. In too many of Major’s poems—the newer ones particularly—so much time is spent loading arguments relating to how art interpenetrates and transmutes anything it rubs up against that any artfulness the poem might in its own right lay claim to is left to reproduce itself, as if by magic, through self-referencing problematics suggestive of classroom demonstrations requiring slides. Shunted back and forth between whipsawing Creeleyisms of 30 years ago—

When I was born I saw
death devour the birth
of something, perhaps
the first thing so deep
now it’s hard to say,
fruit perhaps, peaches
on my mother’s table                 

               “Saving Just the Real” (1968)

—and slamdunk dialectics in the service of no real problematic to speak of, the reader is left to his own devices in the absence of substance provided by the poet.
   Note, for instance, how in “Stillness and Vertigo” the muchness of the mazy scenario, melted and thawed out of Nothing, can only at last resolve itself into ado:

I enter.
What is that chanting?
among vestments
and melons
bowls and brine kegs
and crossbars of silver,
gilded bronze, velvet-
where dancing is done
in trick mirrors
where one’s self
runs the risk of being lost
in the fibrous tissues
and fantasies of another,
you enter. . . .

Such pseudo-erotic hokeyness (for which the objective correlative was probably provided for all time by Stanley Kubrick in the much talked about scene from Eyes Wide Shut) advances not a single piece on anyone’s board; nor in the denouement is any help in the offing (truly, no pun intended):

My entrance meets
yours on the turning floor.
We touch in the mirror,
crazed with fear
of the loss of balance,
like two sacrificial victims
waiting to be beheaded
and left to dry
in ceremonial sunlight,
as a concoction,
like wormwood.

     But not all goes awry in Configurations. There are moments when the Major of old pokes through the duck blind and gets off a shot that separates the live ones from the decoys in a wing-flapping thrice. “The Swine Who’s Eclipsed Me” (1989) is not only graced with a great title but it has a genuinely pressing moral crux to parse, namely the difficulty of getting the evil twin (to whom we are joined at the ego) in a tight enough hold as to be able to wrestle ourselves to the ground with his blessing. And “Round Midnight” (1984) outruns the parallax of jazzy referentiality by burrowing under surrealist commonplaces to the nightmare solo we all at one time or another, in one place or another, hang choruses on:

You know my story.
They want to make me liable
to punishment for this picture.

So my spirit is closed.
I’m a delicate engraving
with semitones, curled at the edges,
nearly worthless,
in mysterious trouble. . . .  

This has a hint of menace about it that insinuates itself under the skin with a kind of limpidity that borders on the opalescent. Its threatening offhandedness tantalizes us into imagining a “You” who is both all-knowing but also benignly complicit in the poet’s offstage-originating discombobulation:

I redate all my efforts.
Reconsider a cluster
of old houses nearby,
but not the church behind it.
You know why. . . .

     Again, there is much in this New and Selected Poems that charms the spirit and keeps hope alive that Major might yet resume trailblazing when he has put buttoned-down theme parks behind him once and for all. There is too much enterprise in memories of his walking naked in such volumes as The Syncopated Cakewalk and Inside Diameter (especially its title poem) for his readers to hope for any less.
     Thom Gunn’s new book of poems Boss Cupid, on the other hand, continues to flesh out—and quite impressively—a body of work that has now exceeded the normative career highwater mark of a Collected Poems (1994) by two more volumes, Shelf Life and the present collection, which, without lowering its Queer Nation butch-rating so much as a notch, shows its author developing sensitivities beyond the closed circle—so dominant in his poetry throughout much of the last decade—of AIDS quilts and nostalgia for lost erotic New Jerusalems. In a sense Boss Cupid is about sorting through dust samples left by the now pulverized sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Its chief focus is not on what is salvageable of that hole-in-time’s imploded glory, but on what might prove recyclable by and through poetry of that Babel of images set loose by the very Dionysian forces (stretching in musico-poetical terms from Stravinsky’s Baba the Turk of The Rake’s Progress to Pete Townshend & Co.’s Baba O’Reilly) which also unleashed that French-Canadian flight attendant-out-of-hell who singlehandedly blighted bathhouse bacchanalia before it had even barely begun.
     Gunn’s carefully modulated responses to this catastrophe run from the subtly elegiac to the quietly confrontational; from a refusal to surrender hard won gay rites to the affirmation—stoically asserted—that though much ground may have been lost, it is no less sacred to the gods for that, not to mention the fact that sex once liberated cannot be deliberated. Nor should there be any talk of going gently into anyone’s good night when there is still the coming of so many nights to be anticipated by the bold and the brave.
     Not that “Invictus” or its ”bloody and unbowed” rhetoric is invoked anywhere in Boss Cupid.  The collection opens with a deeply moving tribute to “Duncan,” a poet stricken and made silent by illness and age, and closes with an equally arresting spate of poems on the subject of David, who, as psalmist and king, experienced the tribulations of chosenness and perfidy, and by embracing both in the person of Bathsheba, came to know that it is only the desire that burns through to the bone that is capable of reconstituting itself as wisdom blessed by God.

A common sequence I observed:
Love leading to duplicity.
Displeasing to the lord I served,
Also, eventually, to me.

Yet from such commonness and greed
A wiser king than I was grown,
For in our very draining need
The seed of Solomon was sown.                (“Bathsheba”)

     Yet, between Duncan and David are to be found poems—and extremities—whose occasion and disposition some readers are sure to find alienating and hard to swallow. Awash as we are in generosity of spirit, a good number of us are still unable to negotiate the distance between homosexuality as a fact of life and being able to sit still when those facts and that life are shoved, even somewhat politely, in our faces. Or, more shockingly perhaps, when the facts of that life are brought into contact with particular sorts of crime whose enormities seem inseparable from the news-drenched world of homophobia whose inverted substance they mirror.
     An example of this sort of thing may be seen in the sequence of five poems titled “Troubadour: songs for Jeffrey Dahmer,” whose intent seems neither to humanize nor to dehumanize a notorious serial killer, but rather to admit (implying perhaps that more of us should) that “I thought you were gone, / But you are here and will remain with me.” Gunn then goes on to link, in a highly complex fashion, Dahmer’s cannibalistic hoarding of body parts to an obsessive desire—not unlike the submission to mana—to own in its entirety each desideratum of flesh whose attractions possess him:

            The strain, the strain returns
Of my desire to own the elusive one
I have not even possessed. Though you recoil
At my first touch, your flesh yields when it learns
That love must be ensnared while on the run,
          For later it will spoil.

Now, the open pursuit of male sexual apparatus butt tends not, as was suggested earlier, to be something around which the average straight reader can easily wrap his mind. The straight reader being what he or she is—and the gay lifestyle being what it is, an arcanum whose mysteries are only scannable by heterosexuals—if at all—through a shot glass darkly—much of what Gunn writes about, and in writing about it, extols, keeps the non-gay reader at a respectable, if respectful, degree of removal. Furthermore (and to make this particular cheese more binding), Gunn’s well cruised corner of that lifestyle is one of conspicuously pumped up preoccupations. The unignorable buff of Gunn’s own proprietary slice of the San Francisco Bay area—which is to say one limitless and ubiquitous Castro Street, where abs ripple unconscionably and pecs bulge uncontrollably—is capable of dissolving—instantly, and in ways he is at pains to show us can take one’s breath away—into the most fleshly and irreconcilable of paradoxes: How can one’s cool be kept when one inhabits a world where almost everything falling within the purview of one’s desire is younger than oneself, mind-bogglingly available, and hot?
     For if truth be told, the AIDS epidemic has done little over the years to alter the penchant, long rampant among gays, for precisely those dangerous behaviors which fell upon them like a shower of gold in less anxious times. From the mid-‘90s on, knowledgeable insiders within the gay community like Edmund White were confirming what many already knew, namely that no matter how old the liberated bathhouse had gotten to be, age had neither withered, nor custom staled, its infinite variety or insatiable appeal on both coasts and most places in between. The trajectory of the poet’s own thematics during this period reflects the same tropism away from quilts and “the Great Dejection” toward a status quo ante of the sort Gunn alludes to in “Aubade”:

Kinder than you will own,
pleasing yourself you say
through pleasing me

till a desolating
change of light
steals into the room
rosyfingered orderly
thinning out
our packed intensities
of night . . .

The Homeric epithet “rosyfingered” surprises, even though the poem’s being about dawn gives it ample justification for being there, juxtaposed, without benefit of punctuation, to orderly, a term out of keeping, as rosyfingered is not, with the packed intensities of night with which such heroic delicacies of style are both sympatico and complicit.
     Citing this (or any number of similar passages to be discovered at large in Boss Cupid) can’t help but reanimate memories of Auden and his tribe at their witty and rhyming best. That such memories also invite the suspicion—nagging unto industrial strength coercion—that absent Auden and his tribe’s efforts at keeping civility and artfulness the cost of poetry here and abroad, American verse today would amount to little more than Williams’s and Zukofsky’s squandered remains (a boneyard considered home by countless free-versifying clones for whom the stringing of word-chimes with femurs and tibia, as it were, fulfills the poet’s obligations to his or her art)—goes, as one wishes much of the product of the above-mentioned stringers could also have gone, without a whole lot of saying.
     But none of this need affect the way anyone reads Gunn’s verse, for all the debt his verse might owe to the practicing aesthetic underlying the best work of Auden, Spender, Wilbur and Larkin. (If three of these four poets are English born, then so be it; Gunn, too, is a British transplant to these shores.) It’s hard to miss the seemingly effortless interlacing of rhyme word and metaphoric hinge that keeps a Gunn poem like, say, Saturday Night,” on an even keel as it monkeys, almost arrogantly, with the reader’s moral compass:

I prowl the labyrinthine corridors
    And have a sense of being underground
As in a mine. . .dim light, the many floors,
    The bays, the heat, the tape’s explosive sound.
People still entering, though it is 3 a.m.,
    Stripping at lockers and, with a towel tied round,
Stepping out hot for love or strategem,
    Pausing at thresholds (wonder never ends),
Peering at others, as others peer at them
     Like people in shelters searching for their friends
Among the group come newest from the street.
    And in each room a different sense attends:
Friends by the bedful, lounging on one sheet,
    Playing cards, smoking, while the drugs come on,
Or watching the foot-traffic on the beat,
    Ready for every fresh phenomenon. . . .

Neither the milieu nor its ambiance is particularly new: we’ve been living with such descriptions of orgiastic sex in gay bathhouses and porn theatres for quite some time now, garnered mostly from the sort of no-punches-pulled accounts of writers like John Rechy, whose novels Numbers and The Sexual Outlaw diagram the addictive element in full-bore gay promiscuity.
     But with a few details altered we could conceivably be hanging in Walt Whitman’s world, looking over his shoulder perhaps, as he checks out the wagon drivers and dockhands in search of an available body electric with which to share the “packed intensities / of night.” What makes Gunn’s hold on this world his and uniquely so are the ways—so marvelously distinguished that the reader cannot help but admire them, regardless of the proclivities he brings to the process—in which a discerning connoisseur’s gourmetrie is kept from degenerating into a 70-year-old troll’s leering gourmandaise. The poem “Office Hours” is particularly revealing in this regard, opening with a characteristic admissive spurt—

these big handsome
sweaty boys
with their goatees
and skateboards . . .

and easing, in defiance of the picayune, into the singular jargon of this poet’s days and ways:

we sit close
but sexuality
is grandly deflected
because the ground
on which we meet
is Bunting’s flexible
unrepetitive line
or Wyatt’s careful
sidestepping of danger . . .

And so the poem unfolds, its sly (and playfully condescending) references to the literary figures of Basil Bunting and Sir Thomas Wyatt snipping delicately, but not tearing, the membrane that separates proximity to getting off from merely getting off on proximity, until attractor and attracted can each relax, having come together not through flirting with one another, but through cruising the poet they can both “flirt with together.” There’s humor in the notion that in those imagined corners where immobilizing trumpets blow, the triple tonguings of narcissism can make even the certain rejection of an elderly queer by a ballsy young straight the stuff of art and therefore meat for the heterodox maw of Gunn’s poesy.
     No question, then, but that a sizeable chunk of Gunn’s poetry consigns itself to the exotic bin where few but the curious and the ambidextrous will care to browse for long. His manner of writing may indicate that he is for everyone sharing his world, but only a multiculturalist asleep in his boots could fail to see that his world is just not for everyone. It is in its way as stranded in its exceptionality as elaborate scuba gear in the middle of Death Valley: all up to the minute but keeping its timeliness in place for another place. Perhaps Boss Cupid is best read as a travel book, superbly crafted and spun as a rotogravure of the gay life’s Kodak momentousness, without any of the weekend supplement’s sentimentality or lugubriousness. Its implied message might be summarized as “Go there; you might be surprised. Better yet, surprise yourself with a visit: after a while you might not know if you’re coming or going. Cupid is boss.”

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2001 Contemporary Poetry Review