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We’re told not to judge a book by its cover, but just look at the pillow-lipped, sleepy-eyed poet gazing out from a soft-focus 1940s sepiatone on Dunstan Thompson: On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master and your hunch is bound to be right. What’s inside is just as out of the ordinary as it looks: quirky, rarefied, romantic, and unabashedly epicene.
For this first offering in Pleiades Press’s Unsung Masters Series, esteemed poet-editors D.A. Powell and Kevin Prufer have unearthed a rare gem, and in the process rescued Thompson from becoming a literary footnote. As they explain in their introduction—which gamely balances academic rigor with engaging narrative—information about Thompson was hard to come by. He had virtually dropped off the literary map by the 1950s, even though his World War II-era work was well-published alongside that of Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and others.
Powell and Prufer offer valuable insights into why Thompson remains elusive: the burning of literary bridges, a midlife conversion to Catholicism, and his own stipulation against posthumous republication of his first two collections of poetry—the poetry that was best-received and also most homoerotic.
Thankfully, the editors, by means of scholarly detective work and presumably a healthy dose of charm, have gained permission to publish a modest selection from those two volumes, as well as from his later narrative and poetic work. Their assiduous selections make a persuasive case for the inclusion of Thompson’s work among the best in mid-century gay poetry, as well as among the best of WWII-genre poetry (Thompson, in spite of his trust fund and apparent fragility, fought with the U.S. Army).
Thompson’s work compares well with contemporaries like Rupert Brook and Stephen Spender; and for a niche modern readership, which includes this reviewer, those comparisons alone make this book worth a look. For many others, though, Thompson’s adherence to form and meter and his frequent Classical allusions may at first glance seem old-fashioned or twee. However, his consistent musicality, his clever use of internal rhyme, slant rhyme, enjambment and campy, odd imagery transcend era and convention, making Emily Dickinson an even more apt comparison.
In “This Loneliness for You Is Like the Wound,” Thompson uses eyewitness war imagery to address his lover—ostensibly the girl at home, but more likely the boy on the next cot:
This loneliness for you is like the wound
That keeps the soldier patient in his bed,
Smiling to soothe the general on his round
Of visits to the somehow not yet dead …
The sonnet teems with clever loaded images like “bullet-bearing heart” and “fever chart,” concluding with the heroic couplet “Yet now, when death is not a metaphor, / Who dares to say that love is like the war?” In building a love sonnet around homosocial and homoerotic imagery and ending with an almost postmodern consideration of use of metaphor within the poem itself, Thompson blazed the trail for later New Formalists like Thom Gunn and Randall Mann, whose work is anything but twee.
Like many writers before him and since, Thompson frequently locates his poems in Classical or military settings to allow for an otherwise unconventional emphasis on masculine sexuality. “Tarquin,” for instance, is a vague-ish Roman title, but the poem reads as an au courant lament for a lost trick, or else as an ode to a newfound bad-boy: “The red-haired robber in the ravished bed,” “the sinner who is saint instead,” “bellboy beauty, this flamingo groom.”
Thompson’s work, overflowing with double entendres and winking metaphors, will no doubt provide poetry lovers with the same giddy, titillating awe that film buffs get from watching classic Film Noir (which similarly gained traction during the war years). It’s an awe that comes from seeing artistic work whose innovation, naughtiness, and depth not only survived, but were born of, the conventions and limitations that threatened to censor them.
Powell and Prufer capstone these tantalizing glimpses of Thompson’s oeuvre with wonderful essays by other poets and critics, including Edward Field—himself an early acquaintance of Thompson’s—and Dana Gioia. There is also a middle-of-the-book folio of images—a privilege most often reserved for Hollywood sirens and literary giants.
The schoolboy and soldier snapshots are a delight for the reader who’s already gotten a taste of Thompson’s elegant, ribald sensibility; the photo reproductions of pages from Thompson’s short-lived lit journal Vise Versa will give the reader a further taste of the kind of campy, envelope-pushing poems and reviews Thompson wrote—work that we hope will one day be republished in full, but, were it not for this new and valuable volume, might never have been known about at all.
On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
On the Life and Work of a Lost American Master
Edited by D. A. Powell and Kevin Prufer
9780964145412, Paperback, 190 pp