Bound Together: Two short book reviews

Bound Together: Two short book reviews June 11, 2020

linked by the lives of the authors.

Dunstan Thompson, Here at Last Is Love: Selected Poems. I first found out about this Catholic, gay, celibate poet from Dana Gioia’s essay on his life and work. I’ve had to admit that I am not a person who easily grasps poetry, so I picked this up basically because he’s One Of Us and you have to show the flag, no? But then I read it and discovered how much I love this guy’s writing.

You can roughly divide the poems into two camps. The earlier ones (to overgeneralize) are tormented, writhing under a percussive hangover iambic. They’re often sexual in a decadent, obscured, miserable way; when they’re sexy it’s the sexiness of violent self-loathing:

This tall horseman, my young man of Mars,
Scatters the gold dust from his hair, and takes
Me to pieces like a gun.

Mirrors, betrayals, killer kings fooled by their favorites; a longing for friendship, a longing “Not always to beware the outstretched hand,” but a collapse into ravished and ravishing lust.

This stuff made a big splash, partly for its talent and partly for its shock value. Thompson wrote as an American serviceman hymning his liaisons with other soldiers. He imagined “the enemy,” too, as mourner and lover, as lost and alone and in need of grace.

Then Thompson met Philip Trower, with whom he’d build a life. At first they were your basic gay couple. Then Thompson returned to the practice of his childhood Catholic faith–and Trower agreed to live celibately with him, to continue their partnership. Trower soon became Catholic himself and they led what by all accounts seems to have been several happy decades together, loving God and one another. But even before the return to the Church, Thompson’s poetry had shifted.

Under the influence of domestic happiness, peacetime, perhaps the slow stretch of the hand again toward the fire of faith, his poetry calmed down. He began to experiment with different meters, and turned away from the scarlet confessional-curtain tone of the early poems. The new work wasn’t nearly as popular, and Thompson fell into obscurity. To be honest, I expected that I too would prefer the lush miserablism of the early stuff (I love the Smiths…).

But no! The “Catholic poems” (man, all his poems are Catholic poems) are great. They can be playful, as in the very 1960s-feeling poem about “the saints with the lollipop eyes,”

The fleas in their hair
Likewise at prayer.

The themes are well-wrought and unexpected: poverty is one theme, God as lover of the poor. In these poems you become most truly yourself by renouncing self-will: His Magdalen finds that “This was never happiness, the slow/Effacement of God’s image in her soul.” “The daily going up in smoke of self” brings joy. Holiness is being truly oneself. Heaven is friendship, happiness, and home. There’s a lovely poem about sculptors’ models which is also, I think, about the trajectory I perhaps project onto, perhaps discern within Thompson’s own life–you learn how you look in the eyes of God by seeing how you look in the eyes of a man who loves you.

I loved this book, truly. The early poems are wrack and the later ones refuge, and both states of life are portrayed with such deep emotion. First longing and then trust. In the words Thompson gives to a desert abbot:

This ordered life is not for everyone.
Never, to their surprise, for those who run
Away from love.

As it happens a wonderful reader also sent me Tillotson, Philip Trower’s own novel which is dedicated to Thompson. Tillotson is a weird book! It’s a scathing novel about social climbers and would-be intellectuals in the fictitious Mediterranean country of Doria, shortly after World War II. Elite social life in the town of Tortola revolves around Tillotson, a brilliant or possibly just overpraised art critic. Everybody’s constantly talking about what Tillotson might think, when Tillotson will come, whom Tillotson will invite to his parties. You can maybe already guess that Tillotson at no point will show his face, existing merely to expose the hopes, delusions, and pretensions of those around him.

It’s hard to write a novel in which people misunderstand themselves and one another as consistently as they do in real life, and so I do admire Tillotson for being such a tangle of missed cues and wrong inferences. It’s a little too explicit in laying out exactly how each character is fooling himself or herself, and it’s difficult to feel anything for such self-absorbed characters; the whole book has a sardonic chill which makes it hard to love.

Where Trower shines is in the metaphors. The book is studded with them like sultanas in a bread pudding: “The British government had given her an M.B.E. for living in a cellar and sending secret messages by wireless during the German occupation, and also–as though she were a housemaid needing a reference–a piece of paper to tell her how brave she had been.” “Her voice was thick and her eyes went blank a second time. Her faculties were like doors banging in the wind, doors which were opened and shut not by the owner of the house, but by some overriding and capricious force.” Fireflies move through a garden like the cigarettes of party guests; “empty glasses stood in twos and threes like ghosts of the conversations they had occasioned.”

And then at the very end this sardonic social novel swerves. A misbegotten murder strikes the wrong victim, and the final paragraphs are a gentle, even hopeful meditation on death and what might come after. And in an odd way you do see how these two wildly different books might be written by two people who found one another and held fast.

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