Gunn’s lengthy and distinguished poetic career includes numerous volumes of poetry and essays, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship and a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader’s Digest Fellowship. His acclaimed last book, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), was marked by its wrenching, delicate AIDS elegies. The new collection strikes a tonal balance between an unsentimental awareness of death and a wry but often exuberant account of the everyday tyrannies of love. `Save the word / empathy, sweetheart, / for your freshman essays,` drawls one poem. `In the Post Office` begins by describing a sexual attraction to a stranger, but resolves into a meditation on a friend’s death. In the poem’s final lines, elegy and celebration merge. The poet becomes the `survivor, as I am indeed, / recording so that I may later read / Of what has happened, whether between sheets, / Or in post offices, or on the streets.` Perhaps the poems are at their best when they take their greatest risks, as in `Troubadour: Songs for Jeffery Dahmer` – in which a catalogue of horrors, including a severed head perched on a shelf `between headcheese and lard,` emerges bathetically from the desire to `find more tangible effects / Than what the memory collects.` Gunn’s inventive yet controlled formalism, a hallmark of his work, is reminiscent of Renaissance poets like Wyatt and Donne. His liberal use of classical and biblical allusion is never gratuitous, as the sexy, thoughtful cycle about King David that closes the book attests.
A lithe and lyrical volume by a master of contemporary poetry.