Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 1998

Monument, by Labi Siffre

reviewed by Jim Herrick

Labi Siffre is a passionate and pertinent poet. He is passionate about ways to stop the cycles of cruelty and discrimination in the world. He is pertinent to our times in bringing us an account of the experiences of a black gay man in Britain today.

Born in London and now living with his partner of 33 years in Wales, he is a talented poet, songwriter, singer, musician and playwright. The title poem in this anthology Monument points to how one group kills the children of another and that group kills their children in turn and so ‘the circle game / is an endless game’. The only solution is that ‘every child is everyone’s child’. A plea for that openness and universal kinship is at the heart of Siffre’s poems. And he speaks from the heart direct to the reader.

He feels strongly the lack of paternal affection that he experienced as a child: the harshness, the lack of encouragement, the absence of a big hug. He also received hard homophobia from his father. He was forbidden to join the scouts in case it might make him gay! In fact he had known he was gay long before and had this confirmed as a youth by a waiter on a railway station who “warmly served me well / and showed where I fit in” – lines which demonstrate his deft and sometimes humorous word play.

He chronicles the delights and pains of his gay life. Waiting for a pickup in a pub, conversation in a sauna, the fun of sex – ‘I’d give it all up / for a lifetime / of sex / with you’. There are a few beautiful love poems, for instance, ‘In Case I Hadn’t Told You’ beginning ‘You are my undivided attention’. Of course we cannot ignore ‘Paradise Lost’ ‘now that sex is dicing with death ... / even with a condom on / the good old days are gone’. Nevertheless he speaks movingly of the feelings evoked at Scottish Pride ’97 in ‘A Gathering of Rainbows’ where he feels ‘An exile safe in a family / of exiles by birth’.

He is caustic about heterosexual homophobes who are often the ones who perpetrate war and violence:

funny thing ... you don’t have to be straight to be brain-dead, shit-scared, eyes nailed shut to the bone but from where I stand, in no-man’s land it certainly seems to help

I don’t however agree with the implication that gays are not aggressive warmongers – think of Alexander the Great.

There are references to God – the old question of why those who give thanks for deliverance in a natural disaster don’t ask where did the natural disaster come from. He suggests that humans have a habit of calling that which they don’t know God – why don’t we declare ‘I don’t know what it is’. A revealing poem about Christ and madmen suggests that to follow Christ’s injunction to give to the poor would soon lead you to the padded cell.

Siffre also writes successfully about being or not being Welsh: the experience of the incomer.

As he says, he cannot “spare us comfortable poems”, but must take on the blood and hate and love of being alive. He writes a poem pointing out that when art comes from Nigeria “it’s ethnic” and that, when in a poem two men or two women are romantically involved, it’s “a Gay poem”. He rejects this narrow pigeonholing and is a poet for all. His lines come at you with a punch, but by the time they reach you they are a caress.

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