I can’t think of a better example of how shoe-leather reporting can contribute to criticism than Tom Sleigh’s essay on how sex and drugs combined for Thom Gunn.
I remember the last time I visited Thom at his house on Cole Street. We talked for a long time about how the Haight had changed and was changing ever more rapidly into a well-to-do neighborhood, and about how he himself was changing, taking long naps, ﬁnding it difficult to write. And later, when we walked to get lunch, he told me little spicy stories about people whom he knew that certain houses or shops reminded him of, back in the day, before the neighborhood had gone upscale. He was dressed in a black sweatshirt that sported an image of Bluto (Popeye’s rival in the Popeye comic strip and cartoons), black motorcycle boots, black jeans, and an earring that gave him an air of piratical suavity and grace. He spoke about how the last time he’d been to a sex club, everybody had been speeding their brains out, and how it hadn’t been much fun. But he said it in such a way that you knew that this was all part of the adventure, part of his lifelong romance with experience that would end a few months later with him pronounced dead, according to the autopsy report, from “acute polysubstance abuse.” Whatever you make of his death, Thom was a true servant of eros. And in keeping with that devotion, his New Jerusalem was an open one in its generous conviction that the ecstatic could become a communal property, open to anyone, an apocalyptic city of carnal fulfillment and desire, in which his work will forever be one of the cornerstones.
My only criticism with Sleigh is that he picks out the wrong poem to prove that Gunn could be fanatically beautiful on the sweet embraces that follow his apparently enviously wild orgies. The Bed beats out The Hug by miles.