The Missing

Now as I watch the progress of the plague,
The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin,
and drop away. Bared, is my shape less vague
—Sharply exposed and with a sculpted skin?

I do not like the statue’s chill contour,
Not nowadays. The warmth investing me
Led outward through mind, limb, feeling, and more
In an involved increasing family.

Contact of friend led to another friend
Supple entwinement through the living mass
Which for all that I knew might have no end,
Image of an unlimited embrace.

I do not just feel ease, though comfortable:
Aggressive as in some ideal of sport,
With ceaseless movement thrilling through the whole,
their push kept me as firm as their support.

But death—Their deaths have left me less defined:
It was their pulsing presence made me clear.
I borrowed from it, I was unconfined,
Who tonight balance unsupported here,

Eyes glaring from raw marble, in a pose
Languorously part-buried in the block,
Shins perfect and no calves, as if I froze
Between potential and a finished work.

—Abandoned incomplete, shape of a shape,
In which exact detail shows the more strange,
Trapped in unwholeness, I find no escape
Back to the play of constant give and change.

August 1987

from The Man with Night Sweats

About Author

Thom Gunn was born in Gravesend, Kent in 1929. After National Service and a short time living in Paris, he enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read English. He published his first book of poems, Fighting Terms, while he was still an undergraduate. In 1954 he moved to San Francisco and held a one-year Fellowship at Stanford University. He published over thirty books of poetry, including The Man with Night Sweats, which won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 1992, and Boss Cupid (2000). Thom Gunn died in 2004.

Editor's Notes

The Man with Night Sweats shows Thom Gunn writing at the height of his powers, equally in command of classical forms and of looser, more colloquial measures, and ready to address a wide range of themes, both intimate and social. The book ends with a set of poems about the deaths of friends from AIDS. With their unflinching directness, compassion and grace, they are among the most moving statements yet to have been provoked by the disease.