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Thom Gunn was a poet who often wrote of common hardships in every day life. Gunn’s writing style and choice of topics makes it obvious that he was writing in the middle to late twentieth century, and this is what draws people of today to his work. I believe that not only are people able to relate better to Gunn because of his topic selection but because of the time period the majority of his work is written in.
In the twentieth century, particularly since the 1950’s or so, we have witnessed as a society; the arrival of AIDS, an increasing amount of single parent families, an increase in drug and alcohol use among young people, controversy over homosexuality, and an increasing number of instances where we, as a country, have seen that money and power can get anyone off for any crime or wrong-doing. In “Donahue’s Sister”, Gunn writes from a point of view that more than half of our population can probably relate to because almost all of us know someone with a drinking problem or have one of our own. “Donahue’s Sister” shows the frustration of a brother as he explains the degree of severity that his sister’s drinking problem has reached. The poem puts us in Donahue’s body from the start so as if we are looking at her standing at the head of the stairs, drunk beyond recovery. Although there is surely room for different interpretations, I believe “Donahue’s Sister” is written by Gunn primarily to show the destruction that addiction can do to a person or a relationship.
In this paper, I will attempt to make Gunn’s voice heard according to how I interpret the poem, and by doing so I hope to show how relevant this poem was to the decade it was written in, the 1980’s. I also will explore some other possibilities of how this may have related to or affected Gunn directly. In other words, what factors may have been responsible for his writing this poem.
The beginning of the poem describes the sister standing eye to eye with Donahue at the head of the stairs. She is in her own drunken world, which is referred to as her “private world” throughout the poem. This depiction is very accurate of a drunk who believes that they have everything under control and that the world they are in is actually better for them than the sober world; reality.
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There is a blunt transition from the first stanza to the next showing how serious the situation is. The second stanza begins by telling us that Donahue is simply unable to get through to her because of her drinking problem. This stanza addresses the fact that the sister seems to be lost in her habit, that the real person inside of her is not even recognizable. “He’s unable to get through. She’s not there to get through to” (1342). Often times when a person is an alcoholic he/she is not very tolerant of conversation about his/her addiction during a moment of sobriety. In this stanza, we learn that the sister will believe that the entire story of her behavior is over-exaggerated entirely. Gunn addresses the bad habit of human beings using the act of apology so lightly and without any real sentiment behind it. “She will apologize as if all too humanly she has caused him a minute inconvenience” (1343). The word “humanly” is used derogatorily here to show that many people believe it is simply human to make mistakes, and therefore they do not take responsibility for their actions. By reading further on in the poem, I believe that Gunn is subtly telling people that we need to be more responsible by taking care of ourselves and by owning up to our bad habits and imperfections.
The third stanza addresses again how an alcoholic can become transformed into an entirely different person and that more often than not, that is the person that becomes most familiar to everyone. Gunn refers to her as a “zombie” as he ponders which person it was that he confronted the night before. Line eighteen, beginning the fifth stanza, begins to describe her drinking ritual. “Scotch for breakfast, beer all morning…”(1343). The sister seems to have a problem that has led her to drinking and she thinks she has to drink to deal with it. “Fueling her private world, in which she builds her case against the public” (1343). Most alcoholics think their lives will go to shambles if they do not drink because they think their problems are unbearable. This fifth stanza also addresses the denial of the drinker. The sister tries extra hard to catch herself at the end of a sentence, being sure to pause for a comma, when in all actuality her sentences do not even make sense to everyone who is sober. “Catching at end of phrases in themselves meaningless, as ifto demonstrate how well she keeps abreast” (1343). I think this symbolizes the loss of self-control a person really has over himself and his life when he has an addiction to something.
The last stanza is the most powerful stanza of the entire poem. Gunn describes the sister’s physical condition as “light and meatless” (1343) and he is showing the sisters gradual deterioration of her body. In this stanza, we see Donahue’s anger towards his sister and that she is too far gone for anyone to help her or for her to ask for help. At this point, we see that the sister is killing herself, she is more than just addicted to alcohol. Gunn portrays Donahue’s anger through his thoughts as Donahue envisions throwing his sister over the staircase to put her out of her misery. “He glances at her, her body stands light and meatless, and estimates how high he would have to lift it to launch it into a perfect trajectory over the narrow dark staircase so that it would land on its head…” (1343). This stanza is so descriptive and outrageous in the way that Gunn describes how the skull would break into two, the image of her brain being an eggshell full of alcohol. “Leaving at last, his sister lying like the garbage by the front door in a pool of scotch and beer, understandably, this time, inaccessible” (1343). Donahue has given up on the possibility of his sister ever beating the terrible disease of alcoholism. The word “inaccessible” is the last word of the poem and it symbolizes the fact that Donahue should not feel bad for envisioning the act of ending his sister’s life because we are all supposed to recognize, along with Donahue, that his sister is better off dead.
I believe that Gunn chose alcoholism as the device for this poem to show how addiction can ruin a person. However, I don’t think Gunn is only talking about alcoholism. He chose alcohol as one form of self-destruction that a person may act out, but one could easily substitute adultery, drug addiction, gambling, AIDS, or domestic assault for the alcohol abuse. Gunn makes us aware of all of the prevalent social problems of our time taking into account that the poem is written in 1982. This poem is easy for people to relate to because most all of us know someone who is guilty of an addiction or habit. Maybe we gamble, or maybe our dad hits our mom. In some way or another, directly or indirectly, Gunn touches each and every one of his readers. By reading a poem such as “Donahue’s Sister”, a person could develop an evoking feeling to better himself or to help someone who truly needs help.
We must also explore the idea that Gunn may have written this because of a family member or close friend who may have had an addiction that he witnessed on a daily basis. This is obviously a valid possibility but because Gunn is known to deliberately address difficult issues in his poems, I feel that he is essentially trying to make people aware of what they are doing to destroy themselves. This poem shows that all hope is basically lost for a person if the family eventually gives up on them as well. Gunn shows us what it is like when there is no hope left for someone, when there is not a single thing that can help that person.
In all the research I did on Gunn himself, I found no evidence of a female companion in his life. It is possible that Gunn may have been gay. If he was, then this poem may have been symbolic of the destruction that AIDS can do to a person. Of course I am not assuming that Gunn had AIDS if he was a homosexual but in the 1980’s, AIDS was a disease that was just becoming known to people. In addition, during the eighties, people thought that AIDS was primarily a gay-man’s disease. Gunn may have had many friends in the 1980’s who may have been infected by the disease that he may have had very close relationships with. This is simply another possible interpretation of the poem if, in fact, this accusation of his personal life is accurate.
No matter how one may interpret “Donahue’s Sister”, it is safe to say that the poem can be viewed as a call to society to become aware of addictions and habitual acts of self-destruction by us all. Whether it is us personally who have the problem or someone we love, Gunn is calling our attention to the importance of support. He also lays out the social problems of the decade very subtly by making us think about what other form of addiction he could possibly be trying to portray.
Gunn, Thom. “Donahue’s Sister.” Contained in Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, 2nd ed. New York, New York: 1988, pg. 1342-43.