Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats makes space for vulnerability while discussing love, grief — and loss
(This piece was first published by Firstpost.com as part of my column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
Festive occasions can be filled with loneliness for people who feel disconnected from their families. It can be painful to see reminders about love and light popping up everywhere when all you are feeling inside is an overwhelming gloom. It’s not as though you are someone who enjoys wallowing in misery; you want to feel happy and excited and full of life, but you cannot get yourself to because something seems amiss. You wish this would be over. You hope they would understand. Alas! That is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The distance is more emotional than physical, and your attempts to bridge it have been largely unsuccessful because what you are up against is not a wall of pessimism but social structures that package even happiness in heteronormativity. As rainbow capitalism tries to sell fantasies of togetherness to queer folx, we begin to imagine that fulfilment will come only from mimicking heterosexuality. We look feverishly for romances and partnerships that centre — even deify — monogamy as the ideal template for intimacy. We feel sorry for ourselves, despite our best intentions, because we entertain the idea that to be unpartnered is to be unwanted.
It is a depressing place to be. I have been there, and I am sure many others have. I will keep switching pronouns in this essay as a way of affirming that our experiences are not ours alone; they melt into each other. I will not tell you that it gets better because I am sort of exhausted. Being the peddler of hope is a role I slip into very easily but I am trying to resist it this time and look closely at what I need to replenish my own heart. With all the violence going on in India, especially against Muslims, women and students showing up to protest against the discriminatory policies of this government, it seems like even joy is a luxury.
The way of gratitude is what I am going to choose, and this gratitude is for queer communities, chosen families and unconventional networks of solidarity that hold people when they feel broken and shattered just because they are missing the love they need to wake up confidently, look in the mirror, and smile to themselves. I am going to do this using an anthology of poetry called The Man with Night Sweats, written by a gay poet named Thom Gunn who was born in England in 1929 but lived in San Francisco for most of his life. It is often described as a book about the AIDS epidemic, which I think is quite reductive. The book is about friendship, love, death, loss, grief, memories, and so much more.
With my whole household, where they all excel:
Each cooks one night, and each cooks well.
And while food lasts, and after it is gone,
We’ll talk, without a TV on,
We’ll talk of all our luck and lack of luck,
Of the foul job in which you’re stuck,
Of friends, of the estranged and of the dead
Or living relatives instead,
Of what we’ve done and seen and thought and read,
Until we talk ourselves to bed.
The extract above is from a poem titled ‘An Invitation (from San Francisco to my brother)’, where the narrator describes a living arrangement among people who seem to fill a variety of roles in each other’s lives: as friends, family, lovers, and caregivers. It is not uncommon for queer folx to move away from their families of origin. They cannot bear the everyday humiliation of living with people who do not respect their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. They just need space to breathe, to take care of their mental health, to protect themselves from physical abuse and attempts to force them into conversion therapy. They want financial independence and a support system made up of people who see them as beautiful, desirable, and worthy of love.
So when you gnawed my armpits, I gnawed yours
And learned to associate you with that smell
As if your exuberance sprang from your pores.
I tried to lose my self in you as well.
To lose my self . . . I did the opposite,
I turned into the boy with iron teeth
Who planned to eat the whole world bit by bit,
My love not flesh but in the mind beneath.
This is from a poem titled ‘The Differences’, and I picked it mainly for cis-het people who are obsessively curious about how queer folx make love but lack the skill or courtesy to frame questions beyond “Are you into butt stuff?” or “Is it really sex if you are not banging each other?” or worse still, “Are you sure that this is all you want, and haven’t really met the right person?” This poem is sensuous in a quiet way. It speaks tenderly about the hunger of body, mind and spirit. Lovers are described here as “two trees, bough grazing bough”. There is no pandering to a vicarious heteronormative gaze. It is just a wonderful celebration of taste, smell and touch; of seeing, feeling and devouring each other. Go on, read some more from this poem.
But think back on that night in January,
When casually distinct we shared the most
And lay upon a bed of clarity
In luminous half-asleep where the will was lost.
We woke at times and as the night got colder
Exchanged a word, or pulled the clothes again
To cover up the other’s exposed shoulder,
Falling asleep to the small talk of the rain.
This book was first published in 1992 by Farrar Straus Giroux. A later edition, which I read from, came out in 2007 with an introduction by August Kleinzahler, an American poet who was a close friend to Gunn. Kleinzahler also edited a collection titled Selected Poems by Thom Gunn. I enjoyed the introduction because it taught me about aspects of Gunn’s life, and his literary influences, in ways that enhanced my appreciation of The Man with Night Sweats. “It was the poet’s custom, when writing on subjects that challenged his emotional equilibrium, to contain the material through meter and rhyme,” says Kleinzahler.
The poem ‘Lament’, for instance, is about Allan Noseworthy, another close friend of Gunn’s, and someone who was deeply connected to the household Gunn shared with several other gay men including “the great love of his youth and his lifelong companion” Mike Kitay. Noseworthy died of AIDS in 1986. At least two of the poems in The Man with Night Sweats are addressed to Kitay. One is titled ‘The Hug’, where the narrator recalls a time when he and the subject of the poem “were still twenty-two/ When our grand passion had not yet/ Become familial.” The other is titled ‘To a Friend in a Time of Trouble’; here the narrator speaks of “lacerations made by mind on mind.”
Gunn wrote The Man with Night Sweats in his 50s. Both he and Kitay survived the AIDS crisis, and lived together until Gunn died in 2004. “After the death of Allan Noseworthy came the deluge. Gunn, like many gay men of the era, lost not some but most of his friends. The dying was at its worst in the late eighties. Gunn would, at one point, lose four close friends in one month,” shares Kleinzahler. Imagine how devastating that must be at a time when the stigma around homosexuality was worse than it is today. AIDS was being referred to by the medical fraternity as a ‘gay disease’, and in Christian communities as God’s punishment for the sinful act of sodomy. The epidemic was about to rip apart the communities queer folx had created to thrive in a world that was extremely hostile. This is most evident in the following extract from Gunn’s poem ‘In Time of Plague’.
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.
Who are these two, these fiercely attractive men
who want me to stick their needle in my arm?
I love this collection of poetry by Thom Gunn. It might come across as an odd book to write about when despair is certainly not in short supply. Trust me, I have solid reasons. Reflecting on impermanence, sitting down with my fears, and learning how people navigate some of the most debilitating sorrows of their lives gives me strength. I feel prepared to face discomfort even as I feel exceedingly vulnerable. There is a part of me that wants to give up and disappear into nothingness, and a part of me that finds in poetry, in life, and in this body what Gunn calls “a place of recuperation”.