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This report is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

Gentleness Projected: Thom Gunn and Positives M.C. Caseley
In Thom Gunn’s bibliography, Positives is an obscure anomaly. This collaborative book, originally published by Faber in 1966, uses the atmospheric black and white photographs of Ander Gunn, Thom’s younger brother, and sets small anecdotal, untitled poems alongside them. ‘I was never very sure whether what I was writing opposite the photographs were poems or captions’ Gunn later claimed in his 1979 essay ‘My Life Up to Now’, but either way they work beautifully, either as commenting on the photographs or near-poems encapsulating a London which now seems gone forever.

The book’s 75 pages roughly cover an arc from birth to death, with each full-page photograph accompanied by a few lines from Gunn. To me, the two most powerful sections are the portraits of teenagers and the final pages, covering old age. The half-dozen portraits of adolescence give us a couple of quiffed Merseybeat guitarists, a parka-clad mod astride a scooter, a motorcyclist and a beehived girl alighting from the dodgems. For Gunn enthusiasts, the guitarist photos remind us that this is the poet of ‘Elvis Presley’:

It is a lament, and then
it is not. For the clear voice
has discovered, under the opaque
level, the bubbling source
of both joy and lamentation…
                                      (Positives, p. 30)

The struggle between formal control and deep feeling is once again dramatised here in a way that recalls the way in which the dynamic sexuality of revolt is subsumed into a mere function of style in the more famous poem.


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