Ten Foot Alice


From Alice in Wonderland, Walt Disney Productions, 1951

From Poetry:

In a Jefferson Airplane song that was something of a psychedelic anthem, Gracie Slick’s exhortatory, I’m-verging-on-ecstatic, sandpaper growl spoke to the feeling of transformative power that drugs held for a certain kind of user:

One pill makes you larger,
and one pill makes you small,
and the ones that Mother gives you
don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
when she’s ten feet tall.

These lyrics convey a disinterested, deeply curious fascination with the nuances of human personality as it’s illuminated by drugs. In Gunn’s poem “Listening to Jefferson Airplane,” the physical phenomenon of the music, as it “comes and goes on the wind,” is mirrored by its psychological effect as it “comes and goes on the brain.” In that sense, you could say that using drugs at a concert was a kind of laboratory to learn about human behavior and the workings of your own mind; hanging out with friends and the subtle and not-so-subtle transformations that you and they underwent was one of the things about drugs that Gunn most liked and that these lines, in both the song and his poem, point to.

And along with his attitude toward drugs, there was an ethos about erotic play that he wrote about in an essay, “My Life up to Now,” in which he discusses what his experiences in the sixties and early seventies had meant to him: a communitarian ethos of pleasure and of how pleasure and social equality were based on the freedom to give our sexual natures and desires full expression. As Gunn wrote of the Geysers, a hot-springs area in Sonoma County north of San Francisco:

Everyone walked around naked, swimming in the cool stream by day and at night staying in the hot baths until early in the morning. Heterosexual and homosexual orgies sometimes overlapped: there was an attitude of benevolence and understanding on all sides that could be extended, I thought, into the rest of the world. When I remember that small, changing society of holidays and weekends, I picture a great communal embrace. For what is the point of a holiday if we cannot carry it back into working days? There is no good reason why that hedonistic and communal love of the Geysers could not be extended to the working life of the towns. Unless it is that human beings contain in their emotions some homeostatic device by which they must defeat themselves just as they are learning their freedom.

This was before AIDS, of course—but I remember even after the Plague, as it came to be called, had claimed many of Gunn’s friends, he still insisted that he believed deeply in those values; and he once told me that he doubted he could really trust or be good friends with anybody who didn’t share them. Not that he didn’t have a profound understanding of the workings of the less savory aspects of sexual self-knowledge and becoming—and his image of a homeostatic device of the emotions displays a profound pessimism at the heart of his generous, radically visionary view of sexual pleasure as a revolutionary force. But a force also accompanied by depression, paranoia, self-suspicion, self-alienation, jealousy, and despair.

“Sex, Drugs, and Thom Gunn”, Tom Sleigh, Poetry