And so I am half way through my busy couple of book weeks and an update is much needed! If you read my previous post you will know I was about to head into poetry group, in which we would be looking at ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ by Thom Gunn. I was worried that I wouldn’t have much time to read this collection before the evening itself but when I picked it up I found that it simply demanded I made time, the nature of some of the poems stopped me in my tracks and left me so emotionally moved it would have felt wrong to then put it to one side and immediately go on to some trivial task.
Born and raised in England, Gunn knew he was gay from his teenage years. As his career went on he never directly addressed this in his poetry, skirting around it in some of his collections. He moved to America and watched as AIDS caused a decade of pain and terror amongst gay men, especially in San Francisco. Several of his close colleagues in the poetry world found out that Gunn himself was gay and turned against him, especially as he began to change his style and openly discuss topics that many simply did not find acceptable. Gunn commented after he had written ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ that he had actually produced this collection to prove a point to an old acquaintance who had dismissed him upon learning he was gay, this book was to prove that you could still write good poetry AND be homosexual. And, wow, is this good poetry. I loved this collection, one poem in particular stopped me in my tracks – ‘Lament’. The poem looks at the final days of a friend in a hospital ward, his body ravaged by the disease. Gunn talks of what it is to live in this muted world where that tiny cordoned off room becomes your universe, gentle voices trying to offer reassurances while gently dabbing cracked lips with a damp sponge. The real power in the poem for me is after his friend has passed and he emerges back outside, the way he describes colour and noise and life suddenly surrounding him, as if it had somehow been on pause during those few days:
Outdoors next day, I was dizzy from a sense
Of being ejected with some violence
From vigil in a white and distant spot
Where I was numb, into this garden plot
Too warm, too close, and not enough like pain.
I was delivered into time again
This book stuck me as a very physical one, Gunn talks about the body beautifully, when it is strong and well and then also in its decline. Amongst these raw and heartfelt poems there is some light. Gunn even slips in three poems he has written for children left a giant smile of my face, a reminder that even in the darkest of times we smile.
I think it is safe to say that everybody in the poetry group enjoyed and took something from this book. We actually found ourselves discussing the fact that Gunn uses rhyme pretty much throughout ‘The Man With Night Sweats’. I had really enjoyed this and had got into his lyrical style easily, I found it helped with the flow of the poems for me. I had not even considered that this may be a problem for some in the group but quite a few found this distracting, in that they could almost hear the rhythm of the poem more than the words themselves. Another point highlighted in the group is that he is a poet you really need to pay attention to when reading. Myself and one other had completely misread one of the collection because we had almost glanced over one of the lines instead of taking it in fully. When this line was pointed out to us we instantly understood the poem and what Gunn was saying to us! That will teach me for trying to rush my poetry!
I would happily recommend ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ to all looking to be deeply moved, although I would give it with a warning, if you are struggling with the loss of somebody or are currently feeling low on emotional strength it may hit some tender spots. I very nearly ended up crying in a cafe at one of the poems as it reminded me very much of the last few days we had with a much loved family member.
Always truthful and tender, this is a beautiful testament to those no longer with us, and I think it timely at the moment talking about this book to remember as so many are after recent events – love always wins.
The Man With Night Sweats by Thom Gunn £9.99 (Faber & Faber)