The Beautician

Gunn, Thom

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Nov-06-2017
  • Last revised: Nov-06-2017


"Beautician" is a short poem about a beautician visiting a dead friend in the morgue, her sorrow at seeing her friend dead and not looking her best, even dead, and the beautician's attempts to rectify the situation. It is fifteen lines long, in three stanzas of five lines each, in iambic pentameter with a rhyming pattern of abbab. The rhyming is best described as approximate, e.g., "skill" with "beautiful" with "all".


Thom Gunn was a British poet who spent the greater part of his life in San Francisco.  The 1992 volume in which this poem appeared, The Man With Night Sweats, has as its major focus the AIDS epidemic. He died in 2004.

Although this poem might strike the reader, on one's first reading, or even a second, as a casual poem, it is anything but. In fact, it is a triumph of the poet's ability to write a complex poem dressed in thrift shop clothing woven with threads of subtle and graceful methodology. By means of diction, syntax and tone, Gunn leaves the reader with a quiet sense of empathy for the beautician, the humanity of friendship and the power of creative gesture when informed with caring.

Gunn's diction begins the process in the first stanza registering the difference between the living, uncaring morgue attendants, the dead friend and the beautician. The beautician finds her friend's 

... body dumped there all awry,
Not as she thought right for a person's end,
Left sideways like that on one arm and thigh.

When one reads the ironic next line describing the morgue attendants'

"familiarity with the dead"

the reader realizes that "familiarity" here is the type of poetic ambiguity Empson would categorize as of the second type, when two or more possible meanings are resolved into one. (REF) One is the denotation of knowing someone. The second is also a denotation but often connotes an easy working relationship, not always of respect. Yes, these men have a daily familiarity with "the dead". However, unlike the beautician, they are not familiars of THIS dead person. The beautician, on the other hand, is described as a friend and one using her skill to arrange her friend's hair one last time, leaving it ´beautiful´. Although the ideas are not complicated - respectful treatment of the dead, caring for one's friends, and the gift relationship - employing fifth grade diction with a feel to the poem far removed from the lapidary creations of, say, Donne or Heaney, Gunn's accomplishment is no less forceful.

Gunn's manipulation of syntax contributes as well to this apparently offhanded tribute to friendship and the gift of one´s particular skill. "Friend" is in each stanza, keeping our gaze centrally focused on the body of the friend, which undergoes a metamorphosis from "dumped ... awry" in the first stanza to "beautiful" in the last. It is no co-incidence that the word "beautician" has a chiastic relationship with the body of the poem, occurring as the third word from the beginning of the poem and then the third word from the end of this understatedly complex paean to post mortem care. 
The tone of this poem is matter of fact, deftly hiding, like a magician, the poetic slight of hand behind the scenes. Gunn cleverly uses tone, an aural metaphor, to highlight the nonverbal content and expression of the poem. After the beautician has had her cry (a sound without words), she witnesses how the men have "dumped" (a verb usually associated with disdainful silence or a nonverbal thud) the body of her friend. As she prepares to arrange the hair of her friend, "She did not speak; instead/She gave her task a concentrated mind", again signaling to the reader that virtually all the action in this poem is mute, internalized in content and expressed in an equally mute fashion, externally, graphically for all to see, but not to hear.

In this regard, the coiffure, as does the poem, becomes a silent ekphrastic epitaph. Both are "beautiful", emblems of their creators' caring, objects reflecting their "skill" and, most poignantly, their "tenderness as skill", an interesting inversion of what we expected the poet to say, i.e., "skill as tenderness". Here, instead, tenderness is an arete, a virtue one can develop, or not, in the service of another.

"Beautician" is an example of "occasional poetry" i.e., a poem written for an occasion, a special event, in this case to commemorate a visitation to the dead, reminiscent of "Catullus 101". It also celebrates what William Carlos Williams called the "tactus eruditus", or "knowing touch". Although most commonly used in association with contact, the physical laying on of hands in a knowing, experienced way to assess, via physical diagnosis, a patient's condition, it can also be applied, metaphorically, to any skillful interaction, especially physical, between actor and object - here, the beautician and her sculpture of her dead friend's hair, and, analogically, the poet and his expert fabrication of a poem, his own linguistic coiffure.

This poem will provide much in the way of discussion of the treatment of the dead, and offer fertile comparison with other works involving post mortem interaction - often disrespectful - between the living and the dead in this database, e.g., Csáth’s "Trepov on the Dissecting Table", Beernink’s more compassionate "Stanley Long: Barbiturate Ingestion" (in his collection of poetry, Ward Rounds, wherein the poet notes (on page 9) "Before I replaced your red shroud / That you’d neatly combed your hair / While you waited / To go / To sleep." One could also read, to advantage, Auden’s poem, "Miss Gee" and Raymond Carver's "The Autopsy Room", as well as Richard Selzer's "Blue Ribbon Affair" and "Imelda". "Imelda", "Stanley Long" and this poem all deal with the cosmetic appearance of the dead in an unusually similar and poetic way, highlighting the distinction without a difference between the rights of the dead and the rites of the dead.


Empson, William Seven Types of Ambiguity. New Directions. NY, NY; 1966

Primary Source

The Man With Night Sweats


Farrar Straus Giroux

Place Published




Page Count