The Gas-Poker

by Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn

Forty-eight years ago
Can it be forty-eight
Since then?-they forced the door
Which she had barricaded
With a full bureau's weight
Lest anyone find, as they did,
What she had blocked it for.

She had blocked the doorway so,
To kecp the children out.
In her red dressing-gown
She wrote notes, all night busy
Pushing the things about,
Thinking till she was dizzy,
Before she had lain down.

The children went to and fro
On the harsh winter lawn
Repeating their lament,
A burden, to each other
In the December dawn,
Elder and younger brother,
Till they knew what it meant.

Knew all there was to know.
Coming back off the grass
To the room of her release,
They who had been her treasures
Knew to turn off the gas,
Take the appropriate measures,
Telephone the police.

One image from the fow
Sticks in the stubborn mind:
A sort of backwards flute.
The poker that she held up
Brcathed from the holes aligned
Into her mouth till, filled up
By its music, she was mute.

About this Poem:

Gun wrote this poem after the suicide of his mother when he was only a fifteen-year-old child. It was in December, four days after Christmas, that Charlotte, his mother, barricaded herself in the kitchen and put a gas poker in her mouth. Her sons found her the next morning. The morning after that, Gunn wrote this in his diary:

She committed suicide by holding a gas-poker to her head, and covering it all with a tartan rug we had. She was lying on the sheepskin rug, dressed in her beautiful long red dressing-gown, and pillows were under her head. Her legs were apart, one shoe half off, and her legs were white and hard and cold, and the hairs seemed out of place growing on them. . . . Ander began to scream “Mother’s dead! She’s killed herself,” before I could even realize that she was. . . . There was a smell, but not a very great one, of gas. It haunted us for the whole day afterwards. I turned the gas off and Ander took the gas poker out of her hands. . . . We uncovered her face. How horrible it was! Ander said afterwards to me that the eyes were open, but I thought they were closed. . . . But oh! mother, from the time when I left you at eleven on Thursday night until four in the morning, what did you do? She died quickly and peacefully, they said, but what agonies of mind she must have passed through during the night. . . . I kissed her legs. —Then called the police.

The most crucial decision that Gunn made concerning The Gas-poker was to cast the poem in the third person. The second and third lines express his utter disbelicf that so much time has passed. Gunn talked revealingly about The Gas-poker in an interview with the critic James Campbell, who asked him: Your new book, Boss Cupid, contains some new poems about your mother. Is this the first time you've written about her? Gunn mentioned My Mother's Pride and continued:
The second poem about my mother is called The Gas-poker. She killed herself, and my brother and I found the body, which was not her fault because shed barred the doors... Obviously this was quite a traumatic experience; it would be in anybody's life. I wasn't able to write about it till just a few years ago. Finally I found the way to do it was really obvious: to withdraw the first-person, and to write about it in the third-person. Then it became casy, because it was no longer about myself. I don't like dramatizing myself.

In The Gas-poker reason asserts itself as a remarkably skillful lyric. The poem employs a short, punchy threc-beat, or trimeter, line of six or seven syllables each. This meter, has a brisk songlike quality that can be purposefully disconcerting in a grief-stricken poem. Gunn's lyric also consists of five seven-line stanzas. The septet has an odd extra punch, a piercing last line, which moves past the symmetry of an even-numbered stanza, and Gunn uses it to great effect. Look at the last lines.

Gunn believed that writing in form pressed a poet to go further and further in order to explore a subject. "The Gas-poker" is one such proof. The poem is partly tied together by the way that the first lines of cach stanza rhyme ("ago" / "so/ "fro"/ "know" / "low"). The rhyme scheme connects the second and fifth lines, the third and seventh ines, and the fourth and sixth lines of cach stanza. This enables the poet to make some unexpected connections, such as "lament" and "meant," "treasures" and "measures." Gunn said that he probably got some help from Thomas Hardy in writing this poem, especially in the em-
phasis on a few awkward rhymes, such as "barricaded" and "they did."

Last updated February 21, 2023