I first read The Discovery of the Pacific by Thom Gunn when I was 18. Almost 16 years later, it remains my favourite piece of writing, in any genre. It has been a constant for me, all my adult life. It was there, throughout my troubled twenties, when nothing was quite right: a decade out of tune. It was there, when I realised I was autistic and then when I received my diagnosis.
One of my small thrills in life is returning to favourite poetry, fiction and film, to see how my response has changed. Throughout my undiagnosed years, depression set in; I stumbled through life, barely coping and desperately concealing it. Through the intense noisy static of life, I read avidly, attempting to find anything that would help me understand what I was dealing with. I came to cling to certain truths – and I think what I found in Gunn’s words was hope – a sense that life was so much more, so much richer, than the everyday routines, rules and expectations which I was battling so hard to understand.
With his opening stanza, Gunn invites the reader to join his travellers on their journey of discovery, an offer which never fails to thrill me for it is an opportunity to quietly observe such loving intimacy, lightly yet firmly created by Gunn’s brilliant touch.
Thrust immediately into the journey, our skin imagines the heat of the engine, it feels the grains of dirt. Nature is the vast star of this star; the travellers are but specks in a vast landscape, being pulled toward the Pacific. We watch the sun set. Each time, I puzzle over Gunn’s peculiar and powerful a choice of the verb fall to describe the setting of the sun - the earth’s regular orbit. Fall suggests a lack of control which in my mind has always ricocheted off the sunset and instead cast light upon the travellers themselves: in embarking on this journey what is it that they are losing control of? Put differently, what new freedoms will they find beyond the everyday limits?
As a confused teen, the promise that poetry knew life was powerfully overwhelming too was the most reassuring spiritual balm. These travellers were rejecting daily convention – and that was ok. This challenged the very essence of all I was striving to do and be at that point: to fit in. Was it any wonder I too wanted to lean against a car bonnet, inhaling freedom? That it took me years to come close to that feeling was undoubtedly made a little easier by the existence of this poem. Using subtle, cleverly crafted alliteration, Gunn links together the first and second stanza, creating a sense of flow: it is in the cooling car that they continue their journey from Kansas to California. This second stanza offers the hope which has comforted me many times –
These words! Oh these words were the abundant proof that our routines and habits are arbitrary, a product of our environment and experiences… It was my poetic psychology, my rope to cling to! I understood in one dazzling stanza it was ok to question the whirlwind of social rules, habits and occasions surrounding me, it was probably ok to think lots of them were pointless. With a few short lines, Gunn wooed me and won.
Again, Gunn deploys alliterative clusters of sound to such strong effect: how deeply this resonated within my lonely heart. As a child who had grown up seeking nature, most at home on long walks, under the open sky and trees, I could conjure up that very resin-smell and the whisper of firs and in doing so a shiver of delight would shoot up my spine. Then the juxtaposition of soft human warmth, tucked within their sleeping bag, upon the broken/Tight knotted surfaces of the naked ground told me something about how hard, simple and brutal life is when all our luxuries and commodities are stripped away. It told me nature is truth and that is where I belong and feel happiest.
Across the final three stanzas the poem begins its gradual journey towards its tender conclusion. Gunn’s depiction of the intimacy between the couple is pared back yet sensual, the man’s lean quiet body (cups) hers/(keeping) her from …the extreme chill. This image always strikes me as the purest distillation of love: protection from a hostile environment, the sharing of heat to survive. The couple travel closer to the ocean, growing closer to nature – literally caked with road they remove their clothes, shedding their last material possessions. They stand chin-deep in the sway of the ocean – vulnerable and exposed – two stringy bodies face to face – the ocean, nature itself, pushes the couple together in a way that cannot be prevented. I have only ever interpreted this as sexual climax: And come, together, in the water’s motion/The full caught pause of their embrace. A simple, truthful moment, subtly crafted through the judicious use of punctuation.
Of course, this poem rewrote itself for me, gaining in beauty and strength, when I discovered that Thom Gunn was gay. I do not know if he felt obliged to mask his sexuality but the thought is a tantalising one. Is this journey to the Pacific about exploring and defining sexual identity? I have re-read those words so many times, altering the pronouns, touched by the poignancy of how a single letter can deny an entire identity. This poem has always encouraged me to strive for happiness, for the truth – and for fresh air and solitude when the complexities of life’s habits and occasions feel too much.
The Discovery of the Pacific
They lean against the cooling car, backs pressed
Upon the dusts of a brown continent,
And watch the sun, now Westward of their West,
Fall to the ocean. Where it led they went.
Kansas to California. Day by day
They travelled emptier of the things they knew.
They improvised new habits on the way,
But lost the occasions, and then lost them too.
One night, no-one and nowhere, she had woken
To resin-smell and to the firs' slight sound,
And through their sleeping-bag had felt the broken
Tight-knotted surfaces of the naked ground.
Only his lean quiet body cupping hers
Kept her from it, the extreme chill. By degrees
She fell asleep. Around them in the firs
The wind probed, tiding through forked estuaries.
And now their skin is caked with road, the grime
Merely reflecting sunlight as it fails.
They leave their clothes among the rocks they climb,
Blunt leaves of iceplant nuzzle at their soles.
Now they stand chin-deep in the sway of ocean,
Firm West, two stringy bodies face to face,
And come, together, in the water's motion,
The full caught pause of their embrace.