Readers of Thom Gunn’s previous volume, The Man with Night Sweats, may remember the opening poem, “The Hug.” It is written in iambic lines of varying lengths, each ending with a (usually) monosyllabic rhyme word, irregularly patterned: it is what you might call an irregular ode. Here are the opening lines:
It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who’d showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
Here comes a break, but there is a rhyme word—“snug”—which hasn’t yet been answered, and which leaves us with a subliminal desire for a resolution—the resolution which will be offered in the first line of the poem’s second half:
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we still were twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
This is beautifully composed, often in monosyllables, with the simplest of rhymes and only the easiest and most familiar variations in meter. As with much of Thom Gunn’s poetry, one feels the influence of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century form, although there is no hint of archaism. “The Hug,” the title, sounds like Donne or Herbert. But the hug in question is a sign between two men who have lived together since their early twenties, successfully, first as passionate sexual lovers, later on terms covered by the word “familial”—whatever that might mean precisely. “The Hug” was placed at the start of the collection, which culminated in several notable poems occasioned by the AIDS epidemic. Seen in this context, the poem expressed a sense of personal security in a time of mourning and loss.
We return to what I take to be the same relationship in the latest volume, in two fine poems, “Rapallo” and “In Trust.” The latter is written in a regular stanza composed of lines of two, three, four, and five iambic feet. It begins in a tone that sounds not unlike reproach:
You go from me
In June for months on end
To study equanimity
Among high trees alone;
I go out with a new boyfriend
And stay all summer in the city where
Home mostly on my own
I watch the sunflowers flare.
You travel East
To help your relatives.
The rainy season’s start, at least,
Brings you from banishment:
And from the hall a doorway gives
A glimpse of you, writing I don’t know what,
Through winter, with …