It is a time of trouble in California. Deaths from AIDS are everywhere. Nor is
the wider political scene much brighter. In Reagan’s America the poor queue
up for private charity. Thom Gunn writes to his brother from San Francisco to
invite him to come and share dinner, walks, talk, community. The tone - intimate,
conversational, relaxed, jokey, detached - darkens as Gunn turns to current
By then you will have noticed those
Who make up Reagan’s proletariat:
The hungry in their long lines that
Gangling around two sides of city block
Are fully formed by ten o'clock
For meals the good Franciscan fathers feed
Without demur to all who need.
You'll watch the jobless side by side with whores
Setting a home up out of doors.
And every day more crazies who debate
With phantom enemies on the street.
I did see one with bright belligerent eye
Gaze from a doorstep at the sky
And give the finger, with both hands, to God:
But understand, he was not odd
Among the circumstances.
Well, I think
After all that, we'll need a drink.
The struggles of the poor are seen from a relatively comfortable Horatian outside, and the middle-class punch-line about needing a drink moderates any undue saeva indignatio. The greater part of the poem depicts the two brothers enjoying middle-aged pleasures: observing the neighbors, taking a trip on the ferry, climbing the hills, and preparing their dinner, with some elision of the political. This, we may say, is “Horatian” sermo, from 1992.