Monday, 22 February 2010

Gunn's Moly

A little snippet of Thom Gunn talking about his poem from this site: 'It's a dramatic monologue and it's not spoken by myself. It's spoken by one of Odysseus's sailors in a time of -- well you might say of enormous stress because he's just been transformed into some animal, and he doesn't yet know what it is.' Here's the poem.
Nightmare of beasthood, snorting, how to wake.
I woke. What beasthood skin she made me take?

Leathery toad that ruts for days on end,
Or cringing dribbling dog, man’s servile friend,

Or cat that prettily pounces on its meat,
Tortures it hours, then does not care to eat:

Parrot, moth, shark, wolf, crocodile, ass, flea.
What germs, what jostling mobs there were in me.

These seem like bristles, and the hide is tough.
No claw or web here: each foot ends in hoof.

Into what bulk has method disappeared?
Like ham, streaked. I am gross—grey, gross, flap-eared.

The pale-lashed eyes my only human feature.
My teeth tear, tear. I am the snouted creature

That bites through anything, root, wire, or can.
If I was not afraid I’d eat a man.

Oh a man’s flesh already is in mine.
Hand and foot poised for risk. Buried in swine.

I root and root, you think that it is greed,
It is, but I seek out a plant I need.

Direct me gods, whose changes are all holy,
To where it flickers deep in grass, the moly:

Cool flesh of magic in each leaf and shoot,
From milky flower to the black forked root.

From this fat dungeon I could rise to skin
And human title, putting pig within.

I push my big grey wet snout through the green,
Dreaming the flower I have never seen.
Not spoken by Gunn's 'self'; and yet it seems to go out of its way to namecheck the underground slang of west coast toking ('skin') and gay sex 'dog'; 'ass'; 'root'; 'can'. If this isn't a poem about the strange, exciting bestial state of 'taking it in the can', I don't know what it's about. Or, on the top rather than bottom end, 'putting "pig" within, I push my big grey wet snout through' ... indeed.

My colleague Roy Booth showed this poem to a university applicant, asked him what he made of it. His reply: 'is it about moles?'

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