Lament

By Thom Gunn 1929–2004 Thom Gunn
Your dying was a difficult enterprise.
First, petty things took up your energies,
The small but clustering duties of the sick,   
Irritant as the cough’s dry rhetoric.
Those hours of waiting for pills, shot, X-ray   
Or test (while you read novels two a day)   
Already with a kind of clumsy stealth
Distanced you from the habits of your health.
    In hope still, courteous still, but tired and thin,   
You tried to stay the man that you had been,   
Treating each symptom as a mere mishap   
Without import. But then the spinal tap.
It brought a hard headache, and when night came   
I heard you wake up from the same bad dream   
Every half-hour with the same short cry
Of mild outrage, before immediately
Slipping into the nightmare once again
Empty of content but the drip of pain.
No respite followed: though the nightmare ceased,   
Your cough grew thick and rich, its strength increased.   
Four nights, and on the fifth we drove you down   
To the Emergency Room. That frown, that frown:   
I’d never seen such rage in you before
As when they wheeled you through the swinging door.   
For you knew, rightly, they conveyed you from   
Those normal pleasures of the sun’s kingdom   
The hedonistic body basks within
And takes for granted—summer on the skin,   
Sleep without break, the moderate taste of tea   
In a dry mouth. You had gone on from me
As if your body sought out martyrdom   
In the far Canada of a hospital room.   
Once there, you entered fully the distress   
And long pale rigours of the wilderness.   
A gust of morphine hid you. Back in sight
You breathed through a segmented tube, fat, white,   
Jammed down your throat so that you could not speak.
    How thin the distance made you. In your cheek   
One day, appeared the true shape of your bone   
No longer padded. Still your mind, alone,   
Explored this emptying intermediate   
State for what holds and rests were hidden in it.
    You wrote us messages on a pad, amused   
At one time that you had your nurse confused   
Who, seeing you reconciled after four years   
With your grey father, both of you in tears,   
Asked if this was at last your ‘special friend’
(The one you waited for until the end).   
‘She sings,’ you wrote, ‘a Philippine folk song   
To wake me in the morning ... It is long   
And very pretty.’ Grabbing at detail   
To furnish this bare ledge toured by the gale,   
On which you lay, bed restful as a knife,   
You tried, tried hard, to make of it a life   
Thick with the complicating circumstance
Your thoughts might fasten on. It had been chance   
Always till now that had filled up the moment   
With live specifics your hilarious comment   
Discovered as it went along; and fed,   
Laconic, quick, wherever it was led.   
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,   
Though I was tired and begged you to leave off.

Now you were tired, and yet not tired enough
—Still hungry for the great world you were losing   
Steadily in no season of your choosing—
And when at last the whole death was assured,   
Drugs having failed, and when you had endured   
Two weeks of an abominable constraint,   
You faced it equably, without complaint,   
Unwhimpering, but not at peace with it.   
You’d lived as if your time was infinite:   
You were not ready and not reconciled,   
Feeling as uncompleted as a child
Till you had shown the world what you could do   
In some ambitious role to be worked through,   
A role your need for it had half-defined,   
But never wholly, even in your mind.   
You lacked the necessary ruthlessness,   
The soaring meanness that pinpoints success.   
We loved that lack of self-love, and your smile,   
Rueful, at your own silliness.
                                              Meanwhile,
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, which it seemed could be   
Kindly forestalled by drugs. Both could and would:   
Nothing was said, everything understood,   
At least by us. Your own concerns were not   
Long-term, precisely, when they gave the shot
—You made local arrangements to the bed   
And pulled a pillow round beside your head.
    And so you slept, and died, your skin gone grey,   
Achieving your completeness, in a way.

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
—The variations that I live among
Where your long body too used to belong   
And where the still bush is minutely active.   
You never thought your body was attractive,   
Though others did, and yet you trusted it   
And must have loved its fickleness a bit
Since it was yours and gave you what it could,   
Till near the end it let you down for good,   
Its blood hospitable to those guests who   
Took over by betraying it into
The greatest of its inconsistencies
This difficult, tedious, painful enterprise.

Thom Gunn, “Lament” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by Thom Gunn. Used by permission of Noonday Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994)

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Poet Thom Gunn 1929–2004

POET’S REGION England

Subjects Death, Living, Health & Illness, Relationships, Nature, The Body

Occasions Funerals

Poetic Terms Elegy, Couplet

 Thom  Gunn

Biography

Thom Gunn was born in Kent, England to parents who were both journalists. Gunn’s early life was peripatetic; after his parents’ divorce, he traveled with his father to various assignments and attended a number of different schools. His mother committed suicide when Gunn was fifteen. In an interview with the Paris Review Gunn spoke about the effect of his mother’s death: “I was devastated for about four years. I very much retired . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Death, Living, Health & Illness, Relationships, Nature, The Body

POET’S REGION England

Poetic Terms Elegy, Couplet

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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