Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Breakfast with Thom Gunn: A Review

I love being exposed to a new poet. I especially like it when that poet enjoys writing about similar topics as me, but does it in a completely different way. A few weeks ago, one of my fellow employees gave me a copy of Breakfast with Thom Gunn by Randall Mann and it was a fantastic reading experience.

Mann is a poet I was not familiar with at all, which allowed for a very pleasant surprise as I read his book all in one sitting. What I admire about Mann's work is how compressed and tight his poems are. Over the years, especially in the last two, I have gotten long-winded and have explored and pushed my personal length boundaries. Most of my poems now spill onto at least two pages and last spring I wrote a 13 page poem on Jeffrey Dahmer. I did study with David Kirby, so this really should come as no surprise. In Mann's book, the poems are short, but packed full of power and insight.

He tackles many of the issues I'm interested in addressing like sexuality, relationships, and gay politics. When opening the book, I was at first unsure if this was going to be my cup of tea. As most of you know, I am a huge fan of great titles and of letting your title really drive the poem. Mann, while a great poet, clearly goes for the more simple title. For example, the book includes poems titled "Song," "Pastoral," "Syntax," "Ode," "Ocean Beach," and "Monday." These are not exactly attention grabbing. This, coupled with the tight and short poems, made me assume this was going to be a slightly tame and quiet book.

I was wrong.

I realized just how wrong I was in the first poem ("Early Morning on Market Street") when I came across these lines: "And though desire // is a dirty word these days, what / else to call the idling car, its passenger door / pushed open; or the shirtless man-- / he must be mad, tweaked out on speed--." Right away, my expectations were changed, and I was intrigued.

These poems come in neat and tidy packages, but the content is anything but neat and tidy. It is a wonderful contrast. There is much exposed in these poems that is raw and real, yet beautiful. This is perfectly shown in "Monday." The poem is written in second person and is addressing the "you's" new boyfriend. It captures the excitement of a new relationship, but closes with these telling lines: "Look: wildflowers bloom in the streetcar tracks; / a syringe lies in the grass. It isn't / beautiful, of course, this life. It is." These lines seem to fit the overall book. Many of the images are not beautiful, but they are at the same time. It's all very contemporary.

Another stand out poem in the collection is called "The Mortician in San Francisco," which is in the voice of the mortician who prepared the body of Dan White for burial. For those who don't know, Dan White is who killed Harvey Milk. This poem embodies so much of what I love about poetry. It's a great topic and a wonderful perspective to take that truly gives new insight into a familiar story. It reminds me of Sharon Olds's poem "The Death of Marilyn Monroe," which is from the perspective of the ambulance men who carried out Monroe's body. I'm always drawn to these famous stories, but told from an unexpected angle. I also loved the poems "Ganymede on Polk Street" and "N."

As a whole, I greatly enjoyed this book. It does, in many ways, pay tribute to Thom Gunn, who I had not read much of until this past July. I actually wrote a blog post about him then. You can check it out here.

Randall Mann is another great gay poet to add to my bookshelf and one I will continue to look for and read in the years to come. I often learn the most from poets who write very differently from me, yet still hold many of the same ideas and values. I also included his photo here, because he's pretty sexy. I don't typically comment on the looks of poets and probably shouldn't, but it's my blog, so I'll do what I want.

I'm thankful to my co-worker, John, who introduced me to this book. Poetry is best spread by word of mouth, so go out and tell someone about a great poetry book you just read, or send them here and I'll tell them.

-Stephen (The Most Important Meal)

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