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Randall Mann, whose debut collection Complaint in the Garden earned raves and was winner of the Kenyon Review Prize in Poetry, has returned with Breakfast with Thom Gunn, a recent Lammy finalist.
Mann, like the iconic poet he references in his title piece, impresses with his subtle yet confident use of formal structures like sonnets, sestinas, and pantoums. Also like the late Thom Gunn, Mann brings gravitas and pathos to the sometimes mundane-seeming aspects gay life—late-night walks through the Castro, reminiscing about former lovers, and darker subjects like drug addiction, illness, and death.
Ever the aesthete, Mann also brings wry wit to this collection, as in “The Rape of Ganymede”: by focusing on Rembrandt’s snarky, infantilized painting of Zeus’s boy-toy, Mann is able to put some bite back into what’s otherwise become a toothless homoerotic trope for poets and painters alike.
“Song,” a rumination on nightlife in the Castro, is emblematic of Mann’s style. Its graceful use of slant rhyme and neat quatrains brings Emily Dickinson to mind, but only for a second. The locations—18th and Castro Steets, the Midnight Sun—locate the reader squarely into the here and now, as do the topics—crystal meth addiction, dishing, casual sex. The language is precise, clever, and unflinching:
These queens arrive, all prim,
and talk about antiques
and art, boring stuff.
But when they snort the best
crystal money can buy?
They beg to sit on my fist.
These poems are not for the faint of heart, even if their dark topics seem burnished by their careful formalism. “The Mortician in San Francisco,” for instance, imagines what the gay mortician assigned to prepare the body of Harvey Milk’s assassin, Dan White, might say. Writing a poem on this topic may seem like a feat in itself, but Mann sets himself the perverse challenge of fitting this soliloquy into a sestina, that most mathematical of old forms in which the same six end-words of each six-line stanza must be repeated, again and again, in a tangle of predetermined patterns, over the course of 36 lines. In the hands of a lesser poet, you get a hot mess or at best an acrobatic trick, but in the hands of a master craftsman like Mann, you end up with epiphany. Mann wisely stacks the deck in his favor by choosing six words that sound like a poem in themselves: queer, hands, White, Milk, years, shot.
When Mann wants a breather from dark topics and meticulous forms, he turns to everyday subjects like riding a San Francisco streetcar in the rain. But then he titles the poem “Ruin,” and on closer inspection, you realize that you’re reading a sonnet, in which all the lines are rhymes or off-rhymes of the words “rain” and “ruin”:
(My stop. I’ll brush against a dozen men
before I disembark into the rain
an older, rumpled man. If life is ruin,
then let it burn like Rome, like Dante’s rain.)
Mann’s poems may be dark, but they are also consistently impressive, and consistently lovely. The title poem, a tender and subtle eulogy combined with a real or imagined memory, brings together the themes of the collection; “Breakfast with Thom Gunn” serves up a convincing mix of sexuality, affection, urban life, death and literature, ending unsentimentally in the fifth stanza: “Our day together done, / I hug him in the cold. / And the train is gone.”
BREAKFAST WITH THOM GUNN
By Randall Mann
The University of Chicago Press
Paperback, $14.00, 65p