Following Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement in the Margins
Dominic Nah’s experimental treatise and commentary on Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement seeks to introduce unfamiliar readers to Gunn’s poetry in a single journey of reading that crosses Singapore. From motorcycle gangs to personified cities, saints and beggars to Peeping Toms, follow Dominic’s journey in his first reading of Gunn’s “poetics of movement” as he travels to his evening training session, in a bid to uncover “some hidden purpose” latent in the margins of this slim, pale turquoise volume of poetry.
Opening the slim, pale turquoise volume of Thom Gunn’s The Sense of Movement with its distinctive Faber and Faber typeset cover, the instinctive feeling is that reading this poetry collection would be a quick read, a fast turnover, short enough for me to finish in my commute between Sengkang and U-Town in NUS to drop by a breakdance practice session. Inside the folded flap of the cover, I am greeted enthusiastically by Edwin Muir of New Statesman, who claims that Gunn “states afresh and with great force questions which have troubled poets and thinkers in all ages”. I am intrigued, and at the title page, I begin toying with the concept of ‘movement’ in my mind, turning it over: Movement from where? Movement towards…? Movement for what?
“Man, you gotta Go.”
This sub-title of the first poem “On the Move” catches my attention. I arm myself with my uniball signo 0.37mm, board the bus and settle myself upstairs on the back row of the double-decker bus. I raise my knees against the empty seat before me, and meet the first image Gunn conjures. The first phrase I scribble alongside the following opening stanza reveals itself as ‘movement in the margins’:
“The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows
Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds
That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,
Have nested in the trees and undergrowth.
Seeking their instinct, or their poise, or both,
One moves with an uncertain violence
Under the dust thrown by a baffled sense
Or the dull thunder of approximate words.”
I try approximating meaning to these images. I remember blue jays from To Kill A Mockingbird, and I remember them being somewhat disposable there because according to Atticus Finch, you could shoot as many of them as you wanted, so presumably they were rather ordinary. But the marginal space of the “bushes” and the “uncertain violence” of “scuffling” in them stuck with me. Not only is this a poetics of tentative movement, it is also one that Gunn literally and figuratively keeps down-to-earth. He begins close to the ground, in the bushes where blue jays wrestle and fields that swallows glide over, only for these natural spaces to reveal themselves as fringe sites to human activity, as Gunn later shifts the focus to an almost filmic scene of a motorcycle gang coasting, emerging into view:
“On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
Exact conclusion of their hardiness
Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts
They ride, direction where the tires press.
They scare a flight of birds across the field:
Much that is natural, to the will must yield.”
Gunn captures a sense of their restless movement in medias res, at once embracing (“gleaming jackets trophied with the dust”) and disrupting (“scare a flight of birds across the field”) the natural environment they are cruising through, emphasized by the closing rhyming couplet of ‘field/yield’, subordinating nature to the will of man. But this confident movement is marked primarily by its transience, the only certainty of their identity emerging from their nomadic roaming.
Moving along, the motorcycle gang of the opening poem will later find an echo in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of his Death”, where a solitary motorcyclist imagines a scene where this time instead, his “human will / cannot submit to nature” as he rides into a marsh, and gets caught in a sinking quagmire from which he cannot escape, only to “[accelerate] the waiting sleep”. What begins as a sense of invulnerability, of exalting and revelling in the freedom of movement that opens the collection, later detours into a disturbing encounter with death, suggesting that riding their chosen vehicle of freedom and movement necessitates an acute awareness and readiness for one’s mortality. However, Gunn does not allow this morbid vision to sink into despair, for the persona here appears to exceed the imagined moment beyond his control “where death and life in one combine, / Through the dark earth that is not mine” as he assimilates into the continuing cycle of life:
Cell after cell the plants convert
My special richness in the dirt:
All that they get, they get by chance.
And multiply in ignorance.”
Nature here, for this persona, seems to continue in a seamless movement of exchange and transfer, its hidden purpose one that ensures that cycles of life intersect and feed into each other, its apparent chaotic randomness working to circumvent any poetic significance attached to it about any transcendent meanings of life.
At this juncture, I alight into the bus interchange, its sliding doors welcome me into the air-conditioned space of the shopping mall. I walk through the weekend crowd, hordes of families, friends and individuals all on the way to somewhere. Riding down the escalator into the train station, I open to Gunn’s poem titled “In Praise of Cities” and first stanza indicates a shift in register in the collection:
Indifferent to the indifference that conceived her,
Grown buxom in disorder now, she accepts
– Like dirt, strangers, or moss upon her churches –
Your tribute to the wharf of circumstance,
Rejected sidestreet, formal monument …
And, irresistible, the thoroughfare.
Here, the consciousness of the city is personified, and I am struck by the idea that firstly, a city could have its/her own consciousness, and secondly, it almost follows that her inhabitants may take that for granted, “[growing] buxom in disorder now”, while the city’s consciousness merely accepts whatever happens in her spaces. How fascinating then, to consider the city as a space that is at once everywhere, and also always at the margins of her inhabitants’ consciousness?
Only at dawn
You might escape, she sleeps then for an hour:
Watch where she hardly breathes, spread out and cool,
Her pavements desolate in the dim dry air.
Gunn writes of a daily tedium, a quiet breathlessness seeking respite, an uncomplaining, benign maternal presence of the all-encompassing city, calling to mind a parent who worries and watches over the children through the night and into the morning until they all leave for school, whereupon some rest can finally be sought. In this poem, Gunn seems to have in mind an amalgamation of the major cities he once lived and lives in, from the London that “wanders lewdly, whispering her given name, / Charing Cross Road”, to the “Forty-Second Street” of San Francisco, both whom appear at once “familiar and inexplicable”.
I am on the train now, standing with my back against the glass panel next to the reserved seat. “St Martin and the Beggar” comes up now, the relative simplicity of Gunn’s metre and rhythm almost reading like a nursery rhyme, loosely following the style of the plot-driven ballad with alternating rhymes that build a sense of emotional urgency, but here Gunn departs slightly from the form of the ballad with its generally stricter ABAB rhyme scheme, keeping only one set of alternating rhymes. The poem follows the well-known story of St. Martin of Tours who generously cut his cloak in two, giving half of it to a beggar who approached him while he was riding in the cold winter. Where this poem keeps faithful to the original story of St Martin and the beggar, what was most noteworthy was the somewhat bathetic ending to the poem.
In both the original story and the poem, the beggar reappears at an inn where St Martin is resting, ostensibly well-kept and completely transformed from his beggar form. He lauds St Martin in omniscient fashion, claiming to know “never since that moment / Did you regret the loss”. But this commendation the poem ends almost abruptly with the latter’s second disappearance the moment St Martin generously
extends an offer for food to him:
St Martin stretched his hand out
To offer from his plate,
But the beggar vanished, thinking food
Like cloaks is needless weight.
Pondering on the matter
St Martin bent and ate.
Despite the anti-climactic end, or precisely because of it, I enjoyed how St Martin’s generous treatment of the beggar was not overstated or celebrated. Gunn’s choice to vocalize praise of St Martin in dialogue through the beggar’s character allows for the narration of St Martin’s penultimate simple act of contemplation to appear even more charming in its absence of moral exultation, as he responds simply by continuing to eat. Here, Gunn returns the spiritual, noble ideal of generosity and selflessness to the material plane of realism with the final image of masticating, consuming food, as if casting these ideals to the margins and returning the oft-overlooked primacy of lived experience to the centre of focus. I look around the train carriage, but there was no coincidental scene of an elderly looking person needing a seat occupied by an ignorant, able-bodied young person snoozing away in a reserved seat. I imagine that would have made reading this poem presently rather apt.
Several poems later, including an absorbing one on the figure of Merlin musing in a cave, I alight on the outskirts of U-Town, walk through the Yale-NUS campus, reading the last couple of poems of the collection. This time, in the poem “The Corridor”, there is a sense of watchfulness, surveillance and enclosure that follows a voyeur peering through a keyhole in an empty hotel corridor, one especially brought about by the enclosing rhyme scheme of ABBA in the quatrain stanzas. But as this male persona kneels and “[squints] through the keyhole, and within / Surveyed and act of love”, later “[moving] himself to get a better look”, a surprising turn of events occur. Now the watcher becomes the watched, the margins of movement shift and blur, exemplified by the break in the ABBA rhyme scheme of the quatrains hitherto:
And then it was he noticed in the glass
Two strange eyes in a fascinated face
That watched him like a picture in a book.
The instant drove simplicity away –
The scene was altered, it depended on
His kneeling, when he rose they were clean gone
The couple in the keyhole; this would stay.
This brings to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of “The Look” in his mighty 1943 ontological treatise “Being and Nothingness”, where Sartre contends with the problem of how to define an Other as a subject without resorting to objectifying the Other when looking at them. What the persona seems to experience here is exactly the phenomenon of “The Look”, where precisely in the moment of the Other looking directly at him looking at them, he experiences a fissure, a disruption of the self, a moment that Sartre identifies as “Shame”, a shudder of violent recognition that another person has begun to size you up, with some hidden purpose and judgement unbeknownst to you. It is perhaps this moment of interrupted voyeurism that exemplifies Gunn’s apprehension of the arbitrary shifts and movements of both margins and marginal figures. In that split second through the keyhole the dynamics of power and surveillance are quietly, violently shaken:
For if the watcher of the watcher shown
There in the distant glass, should be watched too,
Who can be master, free of others; who
Can look around and say he is alone?
Moreover, who can know that what he sees
Is not distorted, that he is not seen
Distorted by a pierglass, curved and lean?
Those curious eyes, through him, were linked to these –
As I wander through the corridors of U-Town towards the dance studio slightly paranoid if people are looking at me, I am amazed by the last poem of the collection “Vox Humana”, which suggests for me how perhaps the ‘hidden purpose’ of movement will remain a scuffle for meaning, much like the blue jays in the bushes at the start of the collection. Throughout the collection, Gunn reaches for the definitive conclusions of these scuffles, looking for a triumph of language to anchor meaning in movements that wander through the margins and almost elude capture in language, at best alluded to. A quick Google search on my phone tells me that ‘vox humana’ is “an organ stop with a tone supposedly resembling the human voice”. And in this final poem of the collection, Gunn draws his poetics of movement together with a poetics of notation, translation and focalization, offering an expression to all that is marginal and seeking definition:
Being without quality
I appear to you at first
as an unkempt smudge, a blur,
an indefinite haze, mere-
ly pricking the eyes, almost
nothing. Yet you perceive me.
Aha, sooner or later
you will have to name me, and,
as you name, I shall focus,
I shall become more precise.
O Master (for you command
in naming me, you prefer)!
Or if you call me the blur
that in fact I am, you shall
yourself remain blurred, hanging
like smoke indoors. For you bring,
to what you define now, all
there is, ever, of future.
Standing outside the dance studio, ready for my own circuit of movement, I close the slim, pale turquoise volume. I pause on his final stanza, turning over in my mind the vague precision (or is it the ‘precise vagueness’?) of his call to mutual and reciprocal acknowledgement. A sense of possibility stirs within, some hidden purpose of movement whispers me along. I keep the volume in my bag, push open the studio doors and call to mind Gunn’s urging: Man, you gotta Go.
DOMINIC NAH is presently pursuing a Masters in World Literature at the University of Warwick. Currently, he is trying to experiment beyond the standard structure of the PEEL essay and this piece on Thom Gunn’s poetry is his modest attempt in exploring the parameters of what literary commentary in an essay can look like. So far, so good, he probably rewarded himself with roti prata after writing this.
Photo credit: Dominic Nah
Gunn, T. (1957) The Sense of Movement. London: Faber and Faber.
Sartre, J.-P. (2003) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel Estella Barnes. London: Routledge.