Poetry and Cannibalism.

Thom Gunn’s Boss Cupid (2000) contains a disturbing sequence of poems about the serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. Reviews at the time of publication acknowledged Gunn’s daring imagination in this sequence. This was a poetry of bravado (even machismo, yet another example of Gunn’s fearless, masculine worship of Eros and power). Reading the sequence eight years later, they seem nonetheless disturbing. Why? Firstly, they link poetry and its relationship to beauty with acts of incredible ugliness. Secondly, they use an ironical strategy that is awkward. The strategy is in bad taste— unpalatable— phrases that suggest exactly what the sequence is about. Not just Eros and power, but the taste of civilisation, its consumption of sex.

Gunn was no stranger to Pound. He did, of course, edit an introductory volume on Pound for Faber, and the title of Gunn’s cannibal sequence, "Troubadour", plays with the Poundian world view of poetry. As Pound said, hermetically, punning in “Visiting Card”: AMOR is the energy that drives ROMA and ROMA/civilisation is AMOR/love in reverse: its reflection. “Troubadour”, Songs for Jeffrey Dahmer, are offered as songs to be sung by Dahmer, as if Dahmer himself was a troubadour from the middle ages. And Dahmer sings, not as Daniel, not as Cavalcanti, but as a mad Pierre Vidal, a symbol of perverted life (Vidal=vital), a poet-lover whose erotic desires changed him (so it is said) into a wolf. E fo del plus fols homes que mai fossen. “He was one of the maddest men that ever lived”.

The opening line of “Hitch Hiker” stands somewhere between modern pop song and Elizabethan song. “Oh do not leave me now,” is a line that opens a taut lyric wherein Dahmer reflects on the body of 19 year old Stephen Hicks; except, in Gunn’s poem, there are no specifics and the speaker addresses a generalised you. In the second poem of the sequence, “Iron Man”, the ironic direction is pursued fully. Animal-like, “in the kennel of...inaction,” Dahmer returns to adolescent masturbation fantasies and men who were “good enough to eat.” Proleptically, his sexual consumerism (of male images) looks forward in time to a point when he will eat the bodies of men…literally. The third poem, stylistically, returns to the first and draws close to what fascinates Gunn. The crawl-space in which Dahmer concealed his victims becomes a metaphor for the poetic space in which the poet-lover seeks to draw close to the “hidden centre” of the beloved. The final poems in the sequence, “A Borrowed Man” and “Final Song”, are acts of remembrance, a putting together of members/limbs such that memory holds the hunger of sex. They draw close to Dahmer’s view of cannibalism. By eating his sexual partners “They made [him] feel like they were a permanent part of [him]”. Dahmer’s grim museum of body parts transcends memory, however, for they are actual records, fetishes of Eros. The whole sequence reads like a perverse, cannibalistic Symposium, a banquet of erotic horrors seen as beautiful truths.

Gunn’s "Troubadour" presents the world through Dahmer’s mouth. It leaves a sickening taste in the reader’s imagination (and stomach). The ironical strategies within the poem avoid what cannot be avoided. The real victims. And rather more disturbingly, the racist desires that drove Dahmer. As his pornographic desire for sex became a lust for a certain kind of body type, his victims became young African American men who were socially and emotionally vulnerable to his predatory, controlling instincts. Gunn says nothing about these themes, preferring to make Dahmer a type for gay, male love at the extremes. Dahmer simply takes Gunn’s gnawing of armpits to a darker, sexual level.

In Otherhood (2003), Reginald Shepherd also creates a poem around Dahmer and sexual desire. But in Shepherd’s “Hygiene” nothing is avoided. The two approaches are very interesting. Gunn is known for his directness and yet the ironical under-cutting of “Troubadour” makes for a poem that is indirect, circling around core areas. Shepherd’s poetic method is elliptical, renowned for its orbiting of a felt core, its heart. But what he produces in “Hygiene” is a poem that has more honesty and insight than Gunn’s. Its directness comes from an honesty of direction/intent. Shepherd’s methodology owes something to Duncan’s open field composition, a charged network of ides, yet the final energy is original, pure Shepherd. Working from an image of Athene Hygeia, the goddess of wisdom and sanitation, Shepherd progresses to a dark image of Pilate-like cleansing, “Everyone in this town is still washing his hands/ of Jeffrey Dahmer”. The sanitation of memory contains a lie: it avoids a racial crime. Like Gunn, Shepherd picks up the deadly pick-up instincts of Dahmer: “Couldn’t you just eat him there?” But in “Hygiene”, there is no attempt to romanticize Dahmer. He represents the White male who stalks the Black male, how one part of society hunts another. In the lines “Every white man on my bus home looks/like him, what I’d want to be destroyed/by, want to be”, the poem recapitulates the terrible dynamic that Fanon outlined in Black Skin, White Mask; and in the inter-locking syntax, Shepherd intelligently captures the twisted relationship between captivation and captive.

Gunn’s “Troubadour” was originally conceived before Boss Cupid, was set to music by Jay Lyon in 1998. Shepherd’s “Hygiene” was anthologized in Real Things (1999). Written so close together, the two poems appear as intimate reflections by two poets on society and Eros. If Gunn started with Pound, Shepherd started with the protégé of Pound, Cummings. The epigram to “Hygiene” comes from Cummings’ “Buffalo Bill”: “how do you like your blue-eyed boy/Mister Death”. The suggestion is that Dahmer, the preferred White American boy, is as much a product of the American psyche as Buffalo Bill. Of the two reflections on dark Eros, I have to say that I find Shepherd’s more incisive and less forced…more able to confront and visualize the relationship between the individual and social psyche.


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