The early days of June, month of Pride, overlap with John’s birthday on the 3rd. He would have been 71 this year, making him one year younger than me until my August birthday reestablished the difference at two years.
I love this Christmas photo of the two of us in front of our Farmington, New Mexico home. We always stood on tiptoe to seem taller than the other.
Looking at photos from the weekend’s Salt Lake City Pride parade and seeing celebratory photos of friends on facebook (thinking of you postpomogirl, Laurie and Kody, Jaime and Dixie, and so many others), I kept smiling, grateful for historical changes that have made this possible.
There is also an abiding sadness for me in this season, memories of the ravages of AIDS, the plague that took John’s life in 1991.
Reading The New Yorker last night, I came across Hilton Als’ review of the newly published book of Thom Gunn’s letters. I had read Mark Ford’s review of the same book in the The New York Review of Books, but something in Als’ review reminded me of something, a vague memory that made me wonder if I had, at some point, bought Gunn’s book The Man With Night Sweats. I looked on a shelf and near the bottom of a tall stack of maybe 50 books of poetry was Gunn’s penultimate book. I extracted it and opened the hardback, first US edition, 1992. It opened stiffly, not with age but with not having ever been read. I had bought it the year after John died, perhaps after reading a review, and, for some reason, had never read it.
I have read it now.
I will read it annually.
In the title poem the persona speaks of a body he could trust, about “The risk that made robust.” The risk was of AIDS and now his flesh is “reduced and wrecked”: “I have to change the bed,” he says, “But catch myself instead / Stopped upright where I am / Hugging my body to me / As if to shield it from / The pains that will go through me, / As if hands were enough / To hold an avalanche off.”
“In Time of Plague” opens with five searing lines: “My thoughts are crowded with death / and it draws so oddly on the sexual / that I am confused / confused to be attracted / by, in effect, my own annihilation.”
The lengthy “Lament” follows a dying friend into a hospital and the poet remembers: “You improvised upon your own delight. / I think back to the scented summer night / We talked between our sleeping bags, below / A molten field of stars five years ago: I was so tickled by your mind’s light touch / I couldn’t sleep, you made me laugh too much. . . .” “Meanwhile,” the poem continues, “Your lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained, / Did all your breathing now. Nothing remained / But death by drowning on an inland sea / Of your own fluids. . . .”
“Pneumocystis Pneumonia,” John’s death certificate read. “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.”
The book’s final poem, “A Blank,” opens out from the plague to possibility. The poet sees a man he he had slept with earlier holding the hand of a four-year-old. “‘I chose to do this with my life,'” the man had told him. “So this was his son!” The lines that follow affirm and broaden, surprise and celebrate:
“What I admired about his self-permission / Was that he turned from nothing he had done, / Or was, or had been, even while he transposed / The expectations he took out at dark / —Of Eros playing, features undisclosed — / Into another pitch, where he might work / With the same melody, and opted so / To educate, permit, guide, feed, keep warm, / And love a child to be adopted, though / The child was still a blank then on a form. / The blank was flesh now, running on its nerve, / This fair-topped organism dense with charm, / Its braided muscle grabbing what would serve, / His countering pull, his own devoted arm.”
Devotion in another pitch. The risks and pleasures of love.
John loved his nieces and nephews. This photo of him at work in Boise shows a turkey created out of vegetables, a smiling customer, and a beautifully smiling man.
[More, lots more about John and about me in my/our Immortal For Quite Some Time]