Pornography Disclaimer

This is a an imaginary diary of facts, confessions, or messages. This is a notebook of working but broken ideas, lines, images, notes on books I'm reading, writers I admire, and brief fantasies of language. Here unfiltered  all mannerings pseudo-private, publicized, ur-. Here I am art and unrevealed: poetic, political and pop. These are my moonlit rough beginnings and should not be taken literally, directly, truthfully, reliably, and none of it is legally binding. These lies are all choreographed, but only haphazardly. Beware.


LOVE, WOUNDS and CLOWNS OF WAR: Dunstan Thompson

Lately I've had some time to think about gay relationships and what they mean to me as an adult. How many of us have something like an extended family, a constellation of burning, sustaining friendships that carry us through sickness and happiness and the dark aches and sobrieties, and how often the myth of the "one", the idealized, if strange marriage that straight men and women seem to have a natural trajectory, a pole to which they are drawn to or repulsed by, a kind of moon that is a moon that eludes me. I feel more catholic than ever. Love, as Iris Murdoch philosophized, is the dream of something more than ourselves. Because we are compelled and we never find it. Human destiny, I find myself lost, like a character in Cocteau's White Book, or Reinaldo Arenas' Color of Summer, one of the many failed minstrels of longing and desire, one of the countless broken-hearted clowns on night parade, Picasso's sad version or Hernan Bas' sexy, heroine sheik hooker in the garden with a terrific and absurd belief in love. 

So it is I come to Pleiades Unsung Masters Series: Dunstan Thompson, On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master edited by D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer.  Dunstan, a young poet in the 1940's and a vet from WWII, published two collections of poetry: Poems (1943) and Lament for the Sleepwalker, The Phoenix in the Desert, a travel book, and one novel, The Dove with the Bough of Olive. According to his ex-lover, he continued to write prolifically, though he never published again. Prufer, in the introduction, writes that Dunstan is "a poet weirdly attuned to the war even as he made moments of it complex, even baroque, beauty and sensuality. Here was a soldier who finds in the war not mere futility or valor, but desire, sensuality, and a kind of horror that is both deeply personal and all-encompassing." 

I feel as though I come to Thompson's early sonnets through the lens of say, Yusef Komunyakaa's meditations on war which are both violent and lush, sensually stunning. Take these lines from “Songs of the Soldier”, for example:

Death is a soldier and afraid

Like you. If he could talk, he’d tell

The world how he was hurt. This sad

Faced, grave eyed, beautiful as steel


Young man, his sex a star, has pride

That sharp, unshadowed, surgeon’s light

By which heroes are turned inside

Out, their flamboyant guts put straight


Or lopped off. His dripping wounds bleed . . .


At the beginning of the poem he writes, “Death blows boys to ribbons.” We couldn’t ask for a better line to describe the eros of Thompson’s strategies. A blowjob is deathlike celebration. Blood and his disrobement. Flesh that is style, and a wound that is surprise.

Here is the first poem of the book:

This Loneliness for You is Like the Wound 


This loneliness for you is like the wound

That keeps the soldier patient in his bed,

Smiling to soothe the general on his round

Of visits to the somehow not yet dead; 

Who, after he has pinned a cross above

The bullet-bearing heart, when told that this

Is one who held the hill, bends down to give 

Folly a diffident embarrassed kiss.

But once that medaled moment passes, O,

Disaster, charging on the fever chart,

Wins the last battle, takes the heights, and he

Succumbs before his reinforcements start.

Yet now, when death is not a metaphor,

Who dares to say that love is like the war?


 The last 6 lines of this sonnet strike me for their contemporary echo of the AIDS epidemic. For me they have an eerie resonance not of the literal war, the Whitmanian attentions to the patient, but of a more recent consideration of men in love in a time of sickness. Mortality becomes a sobering charge for someone who realizes that the body fails, and its failure is an unpoetic reminder that we are alone.

There's something heightened here about the relationship between battle and health. Death is not a metaphor when it is death. This finality rips us from poetic reverie, the rivers of romantic idyllic intensities. Though Dunstan has his share of them in lines like, “Only the cold phantasmal rose burns out-of-doors. / Inside, the lamps are lit.” and “Too little time / Is left for love. When we come back, what welcome home / will he award our wounded eyes?” Some moments are wrought with beautiful melodrama and are arguably delicious and t00-heady, self-indulgent, as “That, lately lying altar for his ardor, / Uncandled, scandalizes him, afraid he / Has lost his lifetime in a moment’s murder: / He is the sinner who is saint instead”. But Thompson balances them with strikingly contemporary starkness: “the heart is worn / Out among whores and storefronts and the lack of you.” And “swear / Love to the dead. A war means this.”

Though the introduction makes an argument for the innovations of his poetry, one disappointment is that the folio of Thompson’s poetry is short, a mere 42 pages, and 20 pages of that is a late, previously unpublished long poem in sections, a meditation on the Biblical figure Mary Magdalen. Apparently, the reason his 2 collections have not been reprinted is a stipulation by Phillip Trower, Thompson's long-time lover and companion and literary executor, as per the poet's own wishes. The rest of the book is an involved collection of essays, both reflective and critical. Though I'm grateful for having all these voices in a single place, I wish I could get my hands on a xerox of a single collection. There's something sad to me that I can't get the poet in his own version of himself, even if he came to a point in his life where this version embarrassed him. Who can say who we are when we are unfathomable. I also lament the story of his born-again-Christian tendencies, the monastic celibacy he and his partner maintained through his later years when he wrote more “Christian” verse. I’d much rather read his accounts of growing old with someone, and what that must have been like after WWII, instead of his laborious account of a dead saint. I long for the version of himself that could have spoken more deeply to someone like Thom Gunn than Hart Crane.

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I've got one foot in the grave and the other's in my mouth.

Poetry Disclaimer

My work has been awarded the Katherine C. Turner Prize from the Academy of American Poets, a Swarthout Award, and has twice been nominated and shortlisted for the Pushcart Prize. My first book, A Book Called Rats, was selected for the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry (Eastern Washington University Press 2007). I'm curating editor for the online journal of poetry: PISTOLA and my poems and reviews most recently appear in Massachusetts Review, Beloit, Ploughshares and RAIN TAXI. I currently teach writing and literature at Santa Monica College in southern California.