Thom Gunn

(29 August 1929 – 25 April 2004 / England)

Black Jackets


In the silence that prolongs the span
Rawly of music when the record ends,
The red-haired boy who drove a van
In weekday overalls but, like his friends,

Wore cycle boots and jacket here
To suit the Sunday hangout he was in,
Heard, as he stretched back from his beer,
Leather creak softly round his neck and chin.

Before him, on a coal-black sleeve
Remote exertion had lined, scratched, and burned
Insignia that could not revive
The heroic fall or climb where they were earned.

On the other drinkers bent together,
Concocting selves for their impervious kit,
He saw it as no more than leather
Which, taught across the shoulders grown to it,

Sent through the dimness of a bar
As sudden and anonymous hints of light
As those that shipping give, that are
Now flickers in the Bay, now lost in sight.

He stretched out like a cat, and rolled
The bitterish taste of beer upon his tongue,
And listened to a joke being told:
The present was the things he stayed among.

If it was only loss he wore,
He wore it to assert, with fierce devotion,
Complicity and nothing more.
He recollected his initiation,

And one especially of the rites.
For on his shoulders they had put tattoos:
The group's name on the left, The Knights,
And on the right the slogan Born to Lose.

Submitted: Saturday, November 12, 2005

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  • Bronze Star - 5,983 Points Frank Avon (12/3/2014 11:21:00 AM)

    One of the truly fine poems of the twentieth century. Its subject matter, its tone, and its vernacular language definitely reflect the culture of the modern age, yet its form is a masterful variation of the traditional quatrain with a strict rhyming scheme: ABAB. The image of light (flickers reflected from the black leather jeckets) is one of the most memorable of his era - classical, yet with a brand new context and interpretation, then developed with a metaphor comparing this light to lights reflected off the San Francisco Bay. This image is the perfect embodiment (TSE would say 'dobjective correlative') for the thematic statement that follows, its wording elegantly simple: 'The present was the things he stayed among.'

    Curiously, the last four rhyming words precisely embody the balance achieved in both the form and the content of the poem: rites / knights = classical traditions vs. tattoos / lose = modernistic irony. Two ironies - one direct and forceful, the other more subtle (again tradition vs. the modernistic) - tie the whole poem together. A motorcycle gang of the twentieth century choosing the ritual and the nomenclature of medieval chivalry AND tattoos which are designs meant to be permanent, to last forever, convey the message of impermanence, of the ravages of Time: 'Born to Lose.' (Report) Reply

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