Week 330: Jesus and his Mother, by Thom Gunn

This is a relatively early poem by Thom Gunn (1929-2004), first published in 1954. While it is very different in subject-matter from his later, American-based work, it shows the same discipline and command of form that characterised his poetry throughout his life. Despite the narrative, it does not strike me as primarily a religious poem: I see it as more about the estrangement that must almost inevitably grow between any child consumed with a sense of mission and uncomprehending parents who simply wish it to have a normal life of uncomplicated contentment.

Jesus and his Mother

My only son, more God’s than mine,
Stay in this garden ripe with pears.
The yielding of their substance wears
A modest and contented shine,
And when they weep with age, not brine
But lazy syrup are their tears.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

He seemed much like another man,
That silent foreigner who trod
Outside my door with lily rod:
How could I know what I began
Meeting the eyes more furious than
The eyes of Joseph, those of God?
I was my own and not my own.

And who are these twelve labouring men?
I do not understand your words:
I taught you speech, we named the birds
You marked their big migrations then
Like any child. So turn again
To silence from the place of crowds.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Why are you sullen when I speak?
Here are your tools, the saw and knife
And hammer on your bench. Your life
Is measured here in week and week
Planed as the furniture you make,
And I will teach you like a wife
To be my own and all my own.

Who like an arrogant wind blown
Where he may please, needs no content?
Yet I remember how you went
To speak with scholars in furred gown.
I hear an outcry in the town;
Who carries that dark instrument?
‘One all his own and not his own’.

Treading the green and nimble sward
I stare at a strange shadow thrown
Are you the boy I bore alone
No doctor near to cut the cord?
I cannot reach to call you Lord,
Answer me as my only son.
‘I am my own and not my own’.

Thom Gunn

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Week 27: Epitaph for Anton Schmidt, by Thom Gunn

Epitaph for Anton Schmidt

The Schmidts obeyed, and marched on Poland,
And there an Anton Schmidt, Feldwebel,
Performed uncommon things, not safe,
Nor glamorous, nor profitable.

Was the expression on his face
‘Reposeful and humane good nature’,
Or did he look like any Schmidt
Of slow and undisclosing feature?

I know he had unusual eyes
Whose powers no orders might determine,
Not to mistake the men he saw,
As others did, for gods or vermin.

For five months, till his execution,
Aware that action has its dangers,
He helped the Jews to get away,
– Another race at that, and strangers.

He never did mistake for bondage
The military job, the chances,
The limits; he did not submit
To the blackmail of his circumstance.

I see him in the Polish snow,
His muddy wrappings small protection,
Breathing the cold air of his freedom
And treading a distinct direction.

Thom Gunn

I don’t think this fine poem needs any comment from me.