It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.
I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.
(from The Man with Night Sweats, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1992)
Thursday, Aug 23, Venus Envy is hosting Reading Out Proud, a very special evening of readings. Host Caro Moffatt will join the AIDS Committee of Ottawa’s Nicholas Little, spoken word performer Sean Zio, DJ Caitlyn Pascal and others reading from books that helped them when they were coming out (8pm, free. 320 Lisgar St). I can’t go, since I’m launching my first solo chapbook Heteroskeptical at the Factory Reading Series that night (7:30pm, Ottawa Art Gallery) but it promises to be a fantastic evening.
I can’t really say that Thom Gunn’s “The Hug” helped me when I was coming out. I came across The Man with Night Sweats when I was in my final years of university. First published circa 1992, the book is about gay men, gay love and aging in the face of AIDS. It was Gunn’s own coming out in a way, since early Gunn was very veiled. Here his muscle-y, direct voice resonates with a kind of heaviness: what he is saying is, finally, at long last, not a secret. He was 63 when The Man with Night Sweats was first published.
There was a lot of mileage between my coming out at 15 and finding Night Sweats when I was 22 (such a young age, the poem chides the reader). By the time I was, whatever, 22, I would have considered myself a fully formed homo. But I don’t think that’s really true—coming out starts when you tell people you’re gay. The process of becoming comfortable with your lusty impulses? That takes longer.
So maybe “The Hug” did, in some small way, help me come out. When we see our stories—here two men in a sleepy embrace (“My shoulder-blades against your chest”) —we find peace in ourselves. No. More than peace. Pride. Gunn shows us the intimacy that can be shared between men “The whole strength of your body set,/Or braced, to mine,/And locking me to you,” the intimacy being echoed in the poem’s quietly-enjambed end rhymes.
It was a wonderful discovery, “The Hug”, when I found it, telling me part of a story I was familiar with (sleeping with fellas) and a part of the cultural history of being a gay man of which, at the time, I very little about (the AIDS crisis).
When I was a teen, it was another poem about intimacy that I clung to. Of all the overtly gay poetry I found in the Hamilton Public Library, it wasn’t Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Edna St Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Ginsberg or Carl Philips that got to me the most. Nor was it Canadians whose work I was beginning to discover—Sky Gilbert, David Trinidad, John Barton, RM Vaughan—but a rather stolid Brit: WH Auden.
Lay your sleeping head, my love
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's sensual ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of sweetness show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness see you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
(from The English Auden, Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, Faber and Faber, 1988)
In this poem, I found a microcosm of everything I would come to feel about my sexual relationships. It was a kernel that opened slowly, over the course of a decade, revealing truth after truth about both author and reader.
Secular love, love that isn’t invested with a lot of bunk about “destiny” and “the One” can sometimes be hard to find in lit of a certain age. Here the “faithless” embrace of stanza one ends with an existential prayer: “Let the living creature lie,/Mortal, guilty, but to me/The entirely beautiful.” (Later in life Auden became religious, but his early work shines with precisely this acceptance of the human condition, sans God.)
The second stanza warns against mythological, capital-R Romantic love, (“Grave the vision Venus sends/Of supernatural sympathy,/Universal love and hope”) and the third stanza gives up on monogamy and life-long attachment altogether. “Lay your sleeping head, my love” tells me everything I need to know about love—and also what silly societal rules are hogwash: “Certainty, fidelity/…pass/Like vibrations of a bell.”
What is the vision Auden gives us of (gay) love here? It’s human, it’s impermanent—but it’s sure as heck worth it. Auden’s poem is just as riveting if, in your own life, you’re looking out over a sea of one-night stands or if you’re entangled in something longer term, with all the stresses and faultlines that entails. Perhaps it doesn’t read so well if you’re the till-death-do-us-part marrying type in search of The One: but those types already have enough literature that re-enforces their world view.
It’s comforting—especially for non-traditional lovers of all types. “Lay your sleeping head, my love” reminds us that intimacy is not off-limits—as is sometimes suggested—to us bar sluts, polyamorists, serial monogamists, people in open relationships, confirmed bachelors… and the anonymous lover in us all. Whatever the sexual arrangement, “from this night,” says Auden, “Not a whisper, not a thought,/Not a kiss nor look be lost.”
And, “find the mortal world enough.”