“Death is so plain!” Remembering Thom Gunn on the anniversary of his death.

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tim120I’ve been thinking about San Francisco poet Thom Gunn in the last few days, for reasons I won’t get into. But perhaps a subliminal one is worth mentioning: he died on this day, twelve years ago. I was, to my best knowledge, the last person to interview him at his flat in the City, in a Q&A published in The Georgia Review – not online, alas. 

He was apparently on L.A. poet’s Tim Steele’s mind, too. Both poets are alums of Stanford’s English Department and its Creative Writing Program. Gunn studied with the legendary Yvor Winters while at Stanford; Tim was a Jones Lecturer. 

Tim remembers one of Thom Gunn’s many fine poems on this sad anniversary:

gunn3Thom Gunn died on April 25, 2004. A wonderful elegist, he also wrote with memorable affection about domestic animals, and these gifts come together in “Her Pet.” As he indicates in a video clip (below), he composed the poem when, during the AIDS crisis, he was reading Michael Levey’s “High Renaissance” and came across a reproduction of Germain Pilon’s sarcophagus for Valentine Balbiani (1518-1572) that resonated with own experiences of seeing friends die in the epidemic.

The Balbiani sarcophagus is an example what Erwin Panofsky calls “the double-decker tomb.” On the top of the tomb, Pilon depicts the reclining figure of Valentine as she was in life. Below, on the side of the tomb, he renders her as she was after she died.

Contracts concerning the sarcophagus survive, and they call not only for this double depiction of Valentine, but also for her being accompanied by “a little dog of marble, made as naturally as possible.” Dogs often appear on tombs, but generally at the feet of the deceased and chiefly as symbols of fidelity. In this case, however, the dog was an effigy of a real companion of the subject, and according to contemporary accounts, it died of sorrow three days after its mistress did.

gunn2Writing about the sarcophagus, Gunn imitates its appearance by devising a double sonnet. The first sonnet—the upper one—describes the portion of the tomb that shows Valentine alive. The second sonnet describes the side-relief of her in death. Below is the text of “Her Pet,” along with the two images of the tomb reproduced in Levey’s book. The video clip of Gunn’s reading of the poem is from a 1994 appearance at the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles.

“Her Pet”

I walk the floor, read, watch a cop-show, drink,
Hear buses heave uphill through drizzling fog,
Then turn back to the pictured book to think
Of Valentine Balbiani and her dog:
She is reclining, reading, on her tomb;
But pounced, it tries to intercept her look,
Its front paws on her lap, as in this room
The cat attempts to nose beneath my book. …

[Well, copyright laws forbid us to do more. Listen to the rest below…]

Postscript on 4/26 from Tim Steele: “I well remember your Georgia Review interview with Thom. It brought many characteristic flashes of his insight. I also recall his comparing, in his conversation with you, Yvor Winters’s influence on him to his mother’s influence on him. (This appeared in your Stanford Magazine piece on Thom, I believe.) That’s an incredibly revealing and touching comment. People often think of Winters as a formidable father figure, and he may have been that for Thom to some extent. But Thom also saw Winters as a nurturing, supportive, literature-loving figure, just as his mother had been.”


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