Thom Gunn’s “A Blank” (note: .pdf file) is so recent a poem (from the book Night Sweats, 1992) that it’s hard to find a copy transcribed onto a website anywhere. Nevertheless, it has started to appear in anthologies, and I think it’s one of the finest poems of the late 20th century – with the caveat, of course, that I have only read a tiny percentage of late 20th-century poetry.
Backstory is important here. Night Sweats was written in the middle of the worst days of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco (its setting). “The year of griefs” is a year of sickness and dying, of the decimation of a hard-won community.
Several of the poets we’ve studied this semester were gay – undoubtedly Housman, Auden, and Bishop, who lived in various depths of the closet; possibly Hughes and Dickinson, though they were arguably lifelong celibates. Gunn was openly gay. “A Blank” is the first poem we’ve encountered that uses a gay community and a gay relationship as central to its theme.
The poem starts very generally, invoking the need for “one last grief.” But what follows is hardly about grief. It is about hope tinctured by grief: hope that, in the face of the abyss, can’t be extinguished.
Gunn’s poem, with great daring and beauty, imagines a gay man whose sexual relationships are passionate but casual: he and the speaker have been lovers, which, the speaker says rather unexpectedly, means that he “did not know him well.”
The speaker’s former lover has adopted a child. In itself, this is not remarkable. What intrigues the speaker is that the new father’s passion has poured itself into caring for this child.
Rarely has parental love been connected so closely to erotic love. The connection is almost taboo: it’s almost as if the word “love” is two different, incompatible words. But the man in the poem
The expectations he took out at dark
—Of Eros playing, features undisclosed—
Into another pitch
Such is parenthood. We often see parenting as proceeding from the bright side of our beings, with our eroticism as the dark side that must at best be endured, at worst deplored. But for Gunn in this poem, the wonder of life is that the same energy informs both the lover and the parent.