Thom Gunn, an English poet who has spent most of his life living in the United States, is a member of what has come to be called the "Movement". Members of the Movement "rejected what seemed to them the Romantic excesses of the New Apocalypse (whose most prominent member was Dylan Thomas), and. . .were equally dissatisfied with the modernist revolution led by [Ezra] Pound and [T.S.] Eliot" (Ellmann and O’Clair 1335). Gunn has criticized modernists for "strengthen[ing] the images [in their poetry] while...banishing [the] concepts" (Qtd. in Ellmann and O’Clair 1335). Members of the Movement "sought greater concreteness and a less high-flown diction for poetry" (Ellmann and O’Clair 1335).
Thom Gunn is known for writing poems that are not only concrete, but that can also be thought of as quite risky. Gunn has never been a cautious poet (Ellmann and O’Clair 1335), instead choosing to deal with subjects that are very "real," and in some cases very controversial. Gunn confronts the issue of alcoholism and its effects, not only on the alcoholics, but also on those who care about them, in his poem "Donahue’s Sister," which was published in 1982 as part of a book of poems entitled The Passages of Joy.
"Donahue’s Sister" begins with the two characters, a man and a woman (presumably Donahue and his sister), encountering each other at the head of the stairs. The first two lines read, "She comes level with him at / the head of the stairs," and indicate a sense of competition and tension between the two people. Immediately, it is apparent that there is a power struggle going on between the man and the woman. At this point, the reader has not been told the source of the competition between the characters, but there is a sense that the man has the "upper hand," so to speak. The woman is trying to show him that she can be his equal. Gunn never explicitly states which character has the most control, but he does not have to, as his subtle yet deliberate use of language makes it clear to his readers who he considers to be the stronger character at this point. Notice that "She comes level with him at / the head of the stairs" (1-2, emphasis added), and not the other way around. With her "slight, arrogant smile," (3) she is trying to take control.
Lines four and five reveal that the woman is "not all there" mentally, as she is "muttering" to herself. It seems unlikely that she could ever have the edge in this battle with the man. Finally, in the last line of the first stanza, Gunn lets the reader know the source of this tension and competition—alcoholism. The woman is described as having been "[d]runk for four days now" (6). It is now clear why her behavior, as it was explained in the previous three lines, is so strange. Drunks are well known for mumbling to themselves, and for overestimating their own strengths and abilities. Hence, the "arrogant smile" of the woman as she encounters the man.
The first line of the second stanza is...