Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

New Selected Poems

Thom Gunn; Edited by Clive Wilmer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The Wound

The huge wound in my head began to heal

About the beginning of the seventh week.

Its valleys darkened, its villages became still:

For joy I did not move and dared not speak,

Not doctors would cure it, but time, its patient skill.

And constantly my mind returned to Troy.

After I sailed the seas I fought in turn

On both sides, sharing even Helen’s joy

Of place, and growing up – to see Troy burn –

As Neoptolemus, that stubborn boy.

I lay and rested as prescription said.

Manoeuvred with the Greeks, or sallied out

Each day with Hector. Finally my bed

Became Achilles’ tent, to which the lout

Thersites came reporting numbers dead.

I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:

My own commander was my enemy.

And while my belt hung up, sword in the sheath,

Thersites shambled in and breathlessly

Cackled about my friend Patroclus’ death.

I called for armour, rose, and did not reel.

But, when I thought, rage at his noble pain

Flew to my head, and turning I could feel

My wound break open wide. Over again

I had to let those storm-lit valleys heal.

Elvis Presley

Two minutes long it pitches through some bar:

Unreeling from a corner box, the sigh

Of this one, in his gangling finery

And crawling sideburns, wielding a guitar.

The limitations where he found success

Are ground on which he, panting, stretches out

In turn, promiscuously, by every note.

Our idiosyncrasy and our likeness.

We keep ourselves in touch with a mere dime:

Distorting hackneyed words in hackneyed songs

He turns revolt into a style, prolongs

The impulse to a habit of the time.

Whether he poses or is real, no cat

Bothers to say: the pose held is a stance,

Which, generation of the very chance

It wars on, may be posture for combat.

Carnal Knowledge

Even in bed I pose: desire may grow

More circumstantial and less circumspect

Each night, but an acute girl would suspect

That my self is not like my body, bare.

I wonder if you know, or, knowing, care?

You know I know you know I know you know.

I am not what I seem, believe me, so

For the magnanimous pagan I pretend

Substitute a forked creature as your friend.

When darkness lies without a roll or stir

Flaccid, you want a competent poseur.

I know you know I know you know I know.

Cackle you hen, and answer when I crow.

No need to grope: I’m still playing the same

Comical act inside the tragic game.

Yet things perhaps are simpler: could it be

A mere tear-jerker void of honesty?

You know I know you know I know you know.

Leave me. Within a minute I will stow

Your greedy mouth, but will not yet to grips.

‘There is a space between the breast and lips.’

Also a space between the thighs and head,

So great, we might as well not be in bed.

I know you know I know you know I know.

I hardly hoped for happy thoughts, although

In a most happy sleeping time I dreamt

We did not hold each other in contempt.

Then lifting from my lids night’s penny weights

I saw that lack of love contaminates.

You know I know you know I know you know.

Abandon me to stammering, and go;

If you have tears, prepare to cry elsewhere –

I know of no emotion we can share.

Your intellectual protests are a bore

And even now I pose, so now go, for

I know you know.


Shelley was drowned near here. Arms at his side

He fell submissive through the waves, and he

Was but a minor conquest of the sea:

The darkness that he met was nurse not bride.

Others make gestures with arms open wide,

Compressing in the minute before death

What great expense of muscle and of breath

They would have made if they had never died.

Byron was worth the sea’s pursuit. His touch

Was masterful to water, audience

To which he could react until an end.

Strong swimmers, fishermen, explorers: such

Dignify death by thriftless violence –

Squandering with so little left to spend.

Tamer and Hawk

I thought I was so tough,

But gentled at your hands,

Cannot be quick enough

To fly for you and show

That when I go I go

At your commands.

Even in flight above

I am no longer free:

You seeled me with your love,

I am blind to other birds –

The habit of your words

Has hooded me.

As formerly, I wheel

I hover and I twist,

But only want the feel,

In my possessive thought,

Of catcher and of caught

Upon your wrist.

You but half civilize,

Taming me in this way.

Through having only eyes

For you I fear to lose,

I lose to keep, and choose

Tamer as prey.

Incident on a Journey

One night I reached a cave: I slept, my head

Full of the air. There came about daybreak

A red-coat soldier to the mouth, who said

‘I am not living, in hell’s pains I ache,

But I regret nothing.

His forehead had a bloody wound whose streaming

The pallid staring face illuminated.

Whether his words were mine or his, in dreaming

I found they were my deepest thoughts translated.

I regret nothing:

‘Turn your closed eyes to see upon these walls

A mural scratched there by an earlier man,

And coloured with the blood of animals:

Showing humanity beyond its span,

Regretting nothing.

‘No plausible nostalgia, no brown shame

I had when treating with my enemies.

And always when a living impulse came

I acted, and my action made me wise.

And I regretted nothing.

‘I as possessor of unnatural strength

Was hunted, one day netted in a brawl;

A minute far beyond a minute’s length

Took from me passion, strength, and life, and all.

But I regretted nothing.

‘Their triumph left my body in the dust;

The dust and beer still clotting in my hair

When I rise lonely, will-less. Where I must

I go, and what I must I bear.

And I regret nothing.

‘My lust runs yet and is unsatisfied,

My hate throbs yet but I am feeble-limbed;

If as an animal I could have died

My death had scattered instinct to the wind,

Regrets as nothing.

Later I woke. I started to my feet.

The valley light, the mist already going.

I was alive and felt my body sweet,

Uncaked blood in all its channels flowing.

I would regret nothing.

On the Move

The blue jay scuffling in the bushes follows

Some hidden purpose, and the gust of birds

That spurts across the field, the wheeling swallows,

Has 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.

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:

Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boys,

Until the distance throws them forth, their hum

Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.

In goggles, donned impersonality,

In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,

They strap in doubt – by hiding it, robust –

And almost hear a meaning in their noise.

Exact conclusion of their hardiness

Has no shape yet, but from known whereabouts

They ride, direction where the tyres press.

They scare a flight of birds across the field:

Much that is natural, to the will must yield.

Men manufacture both machine and soul,

And use what they imperfectly control

To dare a future from the taken routes.

It is a part solution, after all.

One is not necessarily discord

On earth; or damned because, half animal,

One lacks direct instinct, because one wakes

Afloat on movement that divides and breaks.

One joins the movement in a valueless world,

Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,

One moves as well, always toward, toward.

A minute holds them, who have come to go:

The self-defined, astride the created will

They burst away; the towns they travel through

Are home for neither bird nor holiness,

For birds and saints complete their purposes.

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,

Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,

One is always nearer by not keeping still.

At the Back of the North Wind

All summer’s warmth was stored there in the hay;

Below, the troughs of water froze: the boy

Climbed nightly up the rungs behind the stalls

And planted deep between the clothes he heard

The kind wind bluster, but the last he knew

Was sharp and filled his head, the smell of hay.

Here wrapped within the cobbled mews he woke.

Passing from summer, climbing down through winter

He broke into an air that kept no season:

Denying change, for it was always there.

It nipped the memory numb, scalding away

The castle of winter and the smell of hay.

The ostlers knew, but did not tell him more

Than hay is what we turn to. Other smells,

Horses, leather, manure, fresh sweat, and sweet

Mortality, he found them on the North.

That was her sister, East, that shrilled all day

And swept the mews dead clean from wisps of hay.

Autumn Chapter in a Novel

Through woods, Mme Une Telle, a trifle ill

With idleness, but no less beautiful,

Walks with the young tutor, round their feet

Mob syllables slurred to a fine complaint,

Which in their time held off the natural heat.

The sun is distant, and they fill out space

Sweatless as watercolour under glass.

He kicks abruptly. But we may suppose

The leaves he scatters thus will settle back

In much the same position as they rose.

A tutor’s indignation works on air,

Altering nothing; action bustles where,

Towards the pool by which they lately stood,

The husband comes discussing with his bailiff

Poachers, the broken fences round the wood.

Pighead! The poacher is at large, and lingers,

A dead mouse gripped between his sensitive fingers:

Fences already keep the live game out:

See how your property twists her parasol,

Hesitates in the tender trap of doubt.

Here they repair, here daily handle lightly

The brief excitements that disturb them nightly;

Sap draws back inch by inch, and to the ground

The words they uttered rustle constantly:

Silent, they watch the growing, weightless mound.

They leave at last a chosen element,

Resume the motions of their discontent;

She takes her sewing up, and he again

Names to her son the deserts on the globe,

And leaves thrust violently upon the pane.

The Silver Age

Do not enquire from the centurion nodding

At the corner, with his head gentle over

The swelling breastplate, where true Rome is found.

Even of Livy there are volumes lost.

All he can do is guide you through the moonlight.

When he moves, mark how his eager striding,

To which we know the darkness is a river

Sullen with mud, is easy as on ground.

We know it is a river never crossed

By any but some few who hate the moonlight.

And when he speaks, mark how his ancient wording

Is hard with indignation of a lover.

‘I do not think our new Emperor likes the sound

Of turning squadrons or the last post.

Consorts with Christians, I think he lives in moonlight.’

Hurrying to show you his companions guarding,

He grips your arm like a cold strap of leather,

Then halts, earthpale, as he stares round and round.

What made this one fragment of a sunken coast

Remain, far out, to be beaten by the moonlight?

Copyright © 1954, 1957, 1961, 1965, 1967, 1971, 1976, 1982, 1992, 2000 by Thom Gunn

Selection, introduction, and notes copyright © 2017 by Clive Wilmer