Chris Jones

The Invitation

A taxi – Chinatown to Haight –
compels my Polish guide to state
as we crisscross the grid of streets
‘Your Chinese worker never sleeps.’
He asks what’s pushed me out this way,
this wet September on the bay,
an Englishman with scripts and notes,
a quill of post-its scrawled with quotes:
I’m here, I say, to meet Thom Gunn,
poet, expat, citizen.

Thom shows me round his airy home
of lacquered timbers banked with tomes,
a spruce, clean-cut civility
like light that shelves in from the sea.
He’s easy, bear-like, big with charm,
blue jeans, black panther on his arm,
an earring glints; he talks and flirts
though when I err he smoothes his shirt,
in no uncertain terms explains
he never trekked to Fascist Spain.

I ask him stuff he’s heard before
because I’m thrown, unversed, in awe,
and Thom has ample grace to chart
rehearsed accounts around his art.
The private man has stepped outside
to read, swill beer, go hitch a ride,
and left this version of himself
that’s learned, playful, lacking stealth.
I ask him things he doesn’t know:
‘I wrote that forty years ago!’

When Mike returns with bags and books
he greets me with a wary look:
another lettered boy who’s come
to worship at the feet of Gunn.
I guess my motives are a given
except I keep some knowledge hidden –
asked to quiz, not explicate,
what need have I to say I’m straight?
I stop the tape – on little reels
this roughed out, done and dusted deal.

Unfazed by what or who I am,
Thom walks me down to catch the tram,
a kindly host until the end
– ‘Hey, August!’ greets a writer friend –
he shows me how to sort the fare:
‘A dollar gets you anywhere’.
He’s bigger now he shakes my hand,
grows larger, gains, from where I stand:
I watch him turn and saunter home,
a streetwise dude from some old poem.

Chris Jones has lived in Sheffield since 1990. He was awarded an Eric Gregory Award for his poetry in 1996. From 1997 to 1999 he worked as a writer-in-residence at Nottingham Prison. He was the Literature Officer for Leicestershire for five years and then spent some time as a freelance writer and poetry festival organiser. He currently teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. His poem ‘Sentences’ was nominated for the Forward Prize Best Single Poem Prize 2011. His publications include a collection, The Safe House (Shoestring Press, 2007), Cells, a sequence of haiku by Chris Jones and watercolours by Paul Evans (Longbarrow Press) and a pamphlet, Miniatures (Longbarrow Press, 2007).

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