Sex, Drugs, and Thom Gunn
“That sex and drugs go together should be no surprise to anyone . . .”
Photo: Ross Hannan
A year before Thom Gunn died in 2004, he told me about going to visit a sex club—he wrote about such experiences, so I don’t think there’s any reason not to speak about them. Since I’m straight, he described it with all the precision of someone describing the more technical aspects of going rafting down the Colorado River—the club had two ﬂoors, one for gays, one for straights, and if you were gay you could pay a little more and descend among the straights, but if you were straight, you couldn’t ascend to be among the gays. There were little tents to go into when you’d found someone, and of course there was more. I like to check myself on stories told to me by friends, and when I went online to ﬁnd out more for this essay, I found a place in San Francisco called the Power Exchange that answered to some of what I remember him saying. But not all. There are different ﬂoors, but there’s a bottom ﬂoor with a dungeon and bondage room, for a total of three ﬂoors, not two. And there was no mention of tents, but rather theme playrooms: among others, an ancient Egyptian room, a boxing ring, and a series of cubicles that would seem to form a maze called Asshole Alley. There is different pricing, but not as straightforwardly gay/straight as I remember. And of course, it’s possible he was talking about a different club altogether. What I’m certain of is this: Regardless of the no drugs or alcohol policies, Thom talked about the drugs people were on: Viagra, obviously, but more to the point, speed (methamphetamine), PCP (AKA angel dust), and ecstasy, though it was Thom’s impression that more straights were into that.
* * *
That sex and drugs go together should be no surprise to anyone, and in Thom Gunn’s poems they become dual aspects of eros: on the one hand, drugs and sex can open us up to vistas of human freedoms and discoveries; and, on the other, they can lead to darker recognitions about the world and ourselves. Gunn’s poems explore both aspects in a way that is compassionate, nuanced, and wide-ranging in scope. So let’s start with Gunn’s attitude toward drugs. I had long known that he used them—for that matter, so had I, speed, heroin, marijuana, a lot of psychedelics—and drug use was one of the bonds of our friendship. I don’t mean that we did drugs together, for we weren’t friends in that way. But I mean the psychological predisposition behind our drug use, the kinds of assumptions we shared about what drugs could teach you, how they opened up avenues of self-knowledge and wide-ranging spiritual and social understandings that would ordinarily be closed to you. You always took drugs for pleasure, of course, but part of that pleasure was the possibilities they gave you to test what it meant to be a human being. You might say that Gunn disagreed with Samuel Johnson when Johnson said that you didn’t need to experience evil in order to shun it—though Gunn never thought of drugs as evil: rather, drugs were part of the pleasure of people who have a romance with experience and, for better and worse, take seriously the choices and obsessions that such a romance involves you in, willy-nilly.
In a Jefferson Airplane song that was something of a psychedelic anthem, Gracie Slick’s exhortatory, I’m-verging-on-ecstatic, sandpaper growl spoke to the feeling of transformative power that drugs held for a certain kind of user:
One pill makes you larger,
and one pill makes you small,
and the ones that Mother gives you
don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
when she’s ten feet tall.
These lyrics convey a disinterested, deeply curious fascination with the nuances of human personality as it’s illuminated by drugs. In Gunn’s poem “Listening to Jefferson Airplane,” the physical phenomenon of the music, as it “comes and goes on the wind,” is mirrored by its psychological effect as it “comes and goes on the brain.” In that sense, you could say that using drugs at a concert was a kind of laboratory to learn about human behavior and the workings of your own mind; hanging out with friends and the subtle and not-so-subtle transformations that you and they underwent was one of the things about drugs that Gunn most liked and that these lines, in both the song and his poem, point to.
And along with his attitude toward drugs, there was an ethos about erotic play that he wrote about in an essay, “My Life up to Now,” in which he discusses what his experiences in the sixties and early seventies had meant to him: a communitarian ethos of pleasure and of how pleasure and social equality were based on the freedom to give our sexual natures and desires full expression. As Gunn wrote of the Geysers, a hot-springs area in Sonoma County north of San Francisco:
Everyone walked around naked, swimming in the cool stream by day and at night staying in the hot baths until early in the morning. Heterosexual and homosexual orgies sometimes overlapped: there was an attitude of benevolence and understanding on all sides that could be extended, I thought, into the rest of the world. When I remember that small, changing society of holidays and weekends, I picture a great communal embrace. For what is the point of a holiday if we cannot carry it back into working days? There is no good reason why that hedonistic and communal love of the Geysers could not be extended to the working life of the towns. Unless it is that human beings contain in their emotions some homeostatic device by which they must defeat themselves just as they are learning their freedom.
This was before AIDS, of course—but I remember even after the Plague, as it came to be called, had claimed many of Gunn’s friends, he still insisted that he believed deeply in those values; and he once told me that he doubted he could really trust or be good friends with anybody who didn’t share them. Not that he didn’t have a profound understanding of the workings of the less savory aspects of sexual self-knowledge and becoming—and his image of a homeostatic device of the emotions displays a profound pessimism at the heart of his generous, radically visionary view of sexual pleasure as a revolutionary force. But a force also accompanied by depression, paranoia, self-suspicion, self-alienation, jealousy, and despair.
His poetic sequence “The Menace” deals with all these emotions, in which “in a theatre of reﬂection/I encounter again/the exemplary ﬁgure” who is “inducted by himself/into an army of fantasy” and is at once:
executioner angel of death
delivering doctor judge
As a form of paranoid projection, “the menace” “leaps from the night/fully armed, a djinn/of human stature” whose “hands hang heavy/gloved for obscure purpose,” and the lovers, in the course of the poem, give their bodies, too: “his arms/were our arms, his sperm ours./His terror became/our play.” In these lines, the menace goes from being a djinn to a threatening, heavy-gloved ﬁgure, to a composite ﬁgure of both their bodies, in which, during sexual play, they become one inside the body of love, their sperm and arms fusing into the act of making love, both love as sexual pleasure as well as the founding of a new identity. And so “the-one-who-wants-to-get-me” starts out as a paranoid projection and by poem’s end has metamorphosed into “a cheerful man in workclothes” who “stumbles off grinning/‘Bye babe gotta get to the job.’” The menace as a projection of the speaker’s paranoid consciousness becomes assimilated into the dailiness of domestic routine.
This transformation of terror into play and the consoling rhythms of domesticity suggest that however much our sexuality is tied in to our darker emotions, “the great communal embrace” of the Geysers has the power to remake the way we envision our desires as we project them onto others and experience their projections onto us. At the same time, the communality of the embrace stands apart from the “tea for two, you for me, me for you” trope of monogamous, exclusive, heterosexual love. In fact, as Gunn says, such an embrace brought back from holiday would change “the working life of the towns.” The subversiveness of the notion and the political implications of that subversion are wide sweeping. If the basis of democracy is the body and bodily pleasure, as the image of a communal embrace at least partly suggests, then why shouldn’t sexual hedonism become one of the central values of the democratic contract? And why shouldn’t drugs be one of the tools that help the body politic to achieve that contract’s fulﬁllment?
Certainly Gunn is speaking as poet and not prophet (orgies fueled by poppers in the Bank of America bank vault come to mind!), but the ideal of this embrace exists as an abiding conviction and underwrites all Gunn’s poetry. For the poet, “the passages of joy,” in Samuel Johnson’s phrase, are not only erogenous but civic as well. And lest this seem too utopian, not to say soft-headed, a conviction, I want to again stress that Gunn was all too aware, even at the height of his “belief in the possibilities of change,” that “we all continue to carry the same baggage: in my world, Christian does not shed his burden, only his attitude to it alters.” But as he also says, his life “insists on continuities.” And so even though the “great sweep of the acid years” has been denounced by conservatives and liberals alike for its embrace of drugs and hedonism, I deeply admire Gunn’s faithfulness to that vision: “everything that we glimpsed—the trust, the brotherhood, the repossession of innocence, the nakedness of spirit—is still a possibility and will continue to be so.”
At the same time, his need for domesticity is an inherent part of that vision, as suggested by how “the-one-who-wants-to-get-me,” in all its erotic thrill and chill, becomes the ordinary man whom Gunn sleeps next to, his body cupping “the ﬁne warm back,/broad ﬂeshed shoulder blades.” So just as Gunn puts a premium on sexual freedom, he evinces an equal need for domestic stability. And while Gunn speaks about the dangers of using a poet’s biography to narrow the meanings of his poems in a way that diminishes them, I think it’s instructive that his home life also reﬂected his communitarian spirit: he lived in a group house, with housemates, in which each in turn cooked dinner on assigned nights of the week. It was a remarkably stable arrangement and lasted from 1971, when Gunn bought the house on Cole Street in the Haight, until his death in 2004. During that time, Gunn had many lovers and sexual partners, but he also spent thirty-three years with the same housemates. Sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll—as Gunn says in his poem “Transients and Residents,” “I like loud music, bars, and boisterous men”—aren’t necessarily incompatible with personal loyalty, homebodiness, and domestic stability.
Of course, I’m betraying typical heterosexual, basically monogamous biases/hangups here: whoever said that domestic life and sexual freedom are opposed? Well, to take an extreme, let’s look at this quote from Pat Robertson, host of the Christian Right’s 700 Club. As he said in the Washington Post, August 23, 1993: “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” While this is inadvertently comic, and easy and obvious a target though Robertson is, it should be noted that his particular brand of paranoia, in its fear of same-sex eroticism as a destroyer of hubby’s happy home, is one that’s shared, in a much more tamped-down style, by a lot of straight men and women, particularly if children are involved. On the other hand, one wonders what Robertson would make of Family Day in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where gay couples wheel baby carriages down Commercial Street amid a generally party-hearty atmosphere, and where, as far as one can tell, no knife-wielding, capitalist-hating, depraved lesbos are slitting their babies’ soft little throats and dancing to old Black Sabbath tracks at a witches’ coven. But I bring up these issues not to debate the merits of monogamy, patriarchy, or black magic, whether practiced by gays or straights, but to stress the depth of Gunn’s social and poetic commitments: as Keats would say, Gunn proved them “on his pulses”; and in his life and in his work he shows how pleasure and eroticism and domestic stability were, for him, a seamless continuum.
This is no common perception. As a matter of fact, when you survey literary tropes associated with love poetry in English going all the way back to Thomas Wyatt, it turns out to be a highly original one, at least as far as literature is concerned. Wrack my brains as I might, I can’t come up with a single straight writer of the twentieth century or, for that matter, any century who develops this trope such that all three of these qualities seem mutually entailing. When I mentioned this to an extremely well-read, female straight friend, she, too, was unable to come up with a single name; and though she did suggest Rumi, we both agreed that he fudged the issue by making the beloved synonymous with God. Several other names, Edna St. Vincent Millay, late Yeats, were quickly dismissed. And after a moment or two of silence, my friend said, “Actually, it’s kind of sad.” Sad that eroticism and pleasure and domestic stability are seen as antithetical, at least as a poetic convention for straight writers. And so it’s no exaggeration to say that Gunn’s development of this trope of seamless connection among eroticism, pleasure, and domestic stability is one of the deep sources of his originality.
As regards Gunn’s originality, I think my friend also meant that it was sad because of the limited repertoire of roles that straight people feel are available to them, as well as the constraint on feeling that these roles impose on the conventions of heterosexual love poems. I don’t for a moment think Gunn is advocating that heteros expand the range of those roles—he never expressed any sentiment about other people’s sexual desires, except to say, quite sensibly, that everyone should do whatever turns them on. Which is simply to say, again, that Gunn’s vision, his “community of the carnal heart,” is the vision of a poet and not a social reformer: it isn’t a poet’s duty to preach, or to do anything at all but write the poems that come his or her way. But it’s one of the inadvertent pleasures in reading Gunn to discover in his imagination a passion to propose new forms of human relation, at least as far as the straight world is concerned, through the practice of his art. This is what I mean when I say that Gunn’s vision is socially radical in its implications. It isn’t just Pat Robertson and his fear of slinky witches dancing around in the latest from Victoria’s Secret: it’s the conﬂicted and conﬂicting ways gay and straight conceive of their sexual freedoms and constraints when you compare Gunn’s version of community through sexual connection, and the typical conventions that surround heterosexual passion as it gets expressed through love poetry in English for the past ﬁve hundred years.
Gunn writes very movingly of the vicissitudes of his particular kind of domesticity in “The Hug,” a poem addressed to his longtime partner, Mike Kitay. In the poem, their “grand passion” has grown so familial that when he wakes to ﬁnd his partner hugging him from behind, he says:
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 were still 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.
The dryness of the embrace marks the transition from sexual to domestic love, from the physical joy of sex to the physical joy of being held by someone with whom a life has been shared. Now, what heterosexual male poet would celebrate such a transition? Presumably, that poet would say how sexual attraction was attendant on the hug; or else the poet would lament the passing of such passion. But Gunn does neither—or if there is a touch of melancholy, it is balanced by an equal sense of triumph. To make the point even clearer, and to ground it in the differences between Gunn’s version of domestic love and the hetero “tea for two” version, allow me once again to resort to biography. Bill Schuessler—a friend whom Gunn and Kitay met in 1967, the Summer of Love—moved in with them in 1971. According to Schuessler, “It was the happiest time in my life, really. It was a wonderful time to be alive in San Francisco. But it was more than that: I was wildly in love with Mickey [Kitay]. And Thom became almost like a father ﬁgure to me because he was always looking out for me. Which was incredibly strange—or nice—given that Mickey was his lover. It sounds like incest, but we all got along together.” The sexual mores that govern how we act out our carnal fates are obviously beyond the bounds of this essay, but how many straight households, how many Elizabeth Barretts and Robert Brownings, could adjust to the addition of a third wheel, with or without a night out at the Power Exchange, with or without a handy supply of mood-inducing drugs?
* * *
I remember the last time I visited Thom at his house on Cole Street. We talked for a long time about how the Haight had changed and was changing ever more rapidly into a well-to-do neighborhood, and about how he himself was changing, taking long naps, ﬁnding it difficult to write. And later, when we walked to get lunch, he told me little spicy stories about people whom he knew that certain houses or shops reminded him of, back in the day, before the neighborhood had gone upscale. He was dressed in a black sweatshirt that sported an image of Bluto (Popeye’s rival in the Popeye comic strip and cartoons), black motorcycle boots, black jeans, and an earring that gave him an air of piratical suavity and grace. He spoke about how the last time he’d been to a sex club, everybody had been speeding their brains out, and how it hadn’t been much fun. But he said it in such a way that you knew that this was all part of the adventure, part of his lifelong romance with experience that would end a few months later with him pronounced dead, according to the autopsy report, from “acute polysubstance abuse.” Whatever you make of his death, Thom was a true servant of eros. And in keeping with that devotion, his New Jerusalem was an open one in its generous conviction that the ecstatic could become a communal property, open to anyone, an apocalyptic city of carnal fulfillment and desire, in which his work will forever be one of the cornerstones.
This piece is excerpted from a longer essay, which will appear in its entirety in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn, edited by Joshua Weiner, published by the University of Chicago Press this summer.
Tom Sleigh is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including The Chain (1996), Far Side of the Earth (2003), Space Walk (2007), and Station Zed (2015). Space Walk won the 2008 Kingsley Tufts Award and earned Sleigh considerable critical acclaim. Referring to this collection, poet Philip Levine noted, “Sleigh’s reviewers use words such as ‘adept,’ ‘elegant,’...