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This review is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

I am reminded, reading The Man with Night Sweats, of Thom Gunn's 1966 book, Positives. The concluding image in that sequence of poems and photographs, which cover in effect the ages of man, is of a derelict woman, clearly very old indeed, who looks out at the reader with glazed and fearful eyes. 'Let it come,' runs the poem,
it is
the terror of full repose,
and so no terror.


At least 19 of the 48 poems in this new collection are concerned with the terror and repose of death and, of those 19, 17 deal with men who have died of Aids. But it is not only death that reminds me of the old woman. Much of the book is peopled with what Gunn calls 'Reagan's proletariat' - the outcasts, 'crazies' and alcoholics who wander the streets of our modern cities and for whom Gunn seems to feel a deep sympathy.

He does so, I suppose, because for him they are so much the other side of a coin. He has always celebrated outsiders, identified with rootlessness, enjoyed the life of the streets; he has, moreover, isolated risk as the necessary spur to a vivid existence. These modern vagabonds, then, are admonitory figures - the most visible of losers in the game of risk. In his powerful meditation on the threat of Aids, 'In Time of Plague', Gunn depicts himself as just holding back from an analogous, if less visible, self-destruction. In doing so, he acknowledges the weird erotic attraction of a death brought on by sexual adventure. In the title-poem, an infected man sees his body as a shield:

I grew as I explored
The body I could trust
Even while I adored
The risk that made robust,

A world of wonders ...


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