Ian Humphrey’s Zebra – review

Ian Humphreys’ Zebra has come out to a deluge of praise and it’s easy to see why. Above all this book leaves you with the impression of his uninhibited zest for life, his high spirits, humour and resilience.  Singing what it was to be gay and of mixed race in the eighties, he can briefly touch rueful, even bitter notes, but they’re soon absorbed in the prevailing exuberance. This even applies to two elegies which I suspect may be for people who died of AIDs. The first of these – ‘Clear-out’ – is grim in its setting and prevailing imagery but celebrates the dead man’s art in a way that makes it also a celebration of his courage and whole-heartedness –

……………………………………….the removal man squelches

…………………down the path to the van face-hugging a huge red canvas.
…………………Tommo’s eyes burned with pride when he told me

he’d mixed in his own blood with the acrylic paint.


The poem ends with what strikes me as an implicit metaphor for independence and energetic self-affirmation in the face of adversity –

…………………………………………………………………Under clay
skies, a child rumbles past, pulling his own pushchair.

The other of these two elegies, the fine “Stickleback”, expresses defiance in a more obvious way with its reference to a warrior’s funeral, but makes it lyrically beautiful. After describing the pain of his subject’s last two years Humphreys ends

But today
I’m with you on the beach
near the old quarry. Sunrise

twists waves into flames, a warrior’s pyre.
You swim in light, dive
into the salt-sting of morning.

Admittedly death by AIDs and the shame it brought in the eighties form the theme of the book’s last poem, ‘Return of the discotheque dancers’. Sadness at the sheer finality of death is sharpened by the thought that the people the poem addresses missed both the medical advances that would have saved their lives and the relative sexual enlightenment of our own times. My father used to say that ‘too late’ were the saddest words in the English language. It’s fitting that such reflection should come at the end of the book. There, it counterpoints the prevailing exuberance without undermining it.

Both the sadness and the celebration will have particular force for members of the gay community. However, we can all take pleasure in Humphreys’ celebration of courage, meeting prejudice and adversity with glitter, humour and light, and can enjoy the exuberance of his language, the sharpness of his wit, his sensuous alertness, his gift for metaphor and the animation of his style. His writing seems to  focus on verbs to an unusual degree and it’s striking how often it’s the verb that detonates the charge in his metaphors.

Describing a woman in a train carriage:

A woman in a striped a acrylic blouse
………….Perfume-bombs me

A man on the Rochdale Canal towpath carrying what at first seems to be an electric guitar:

As he floats into focus, his guitar
………..transmutes into a swan.

A cow breaking out of her electric-fenced field (addressed as ‘you’):

…….the grass on the other side is emerald green
and you ease into the long grind of breakfast. Later,
slumped, restocked and flanked by horseflies, you wait
for the gentle scratch of rain. Blink at a dry-stone wall.

Here, description is mostly achieved by the past participles of verbs – “slumped”, “restocked”, “flanked” – and the nouns “grind” and “scratch” are nouns referring to actions.

Finally, a woman summoning a cab in New York:

Outside P. J. Clarke’s a woman’s whistle
lassos a yellow cab, hoists it kerbside.

Jean Sprackland, quoted on the back cover, says the material is often emotionally risky but that Humphreys’ confidence with form enables him to control it. No doubt that comes into it, but I think the question of confidence goes deeper, that it reflects the poet’s enviably strong and confident sense of who he is and what he thinks. This enables him to draw strength from the mixed heritage and sense of otherness that might have brought vulnerability and uncertainty to a different personality. I was struck by the deft humour and detachment with which he skewers the memory of a homophobic teacher:

Mr Brigham assured us
he had nothing against
homosexuals except
they stink of shit because
when you deal in shit
you stink of shit. That
was the first and only time
a teacher at my school
acknowledged the existence
of gay people so I suppose
in that respect Mr Brigham
was ahead of the curve.

I’d like to quote one other short poem, this time reflecting Humphreys’ Chinese heritage, to illustrate his fine sense of comic timing and also what I think is a special gift of his position between cultures, the ability to shift adroitly between perspectives.

Dim sum decorum

She who pours  tea
for her elders
will see a thousand moons.

He who takes
the last prawn dumpling
without asking
three times
if anyone else wants it,
will see stars.

In short, I found Zebra very easy to get into, moving, thought-provoking and at the same time full of sheer fun. It didn’t seem to me that there were many lines in it that had been carved into the kind of memorable shape that makes them sing in the head, linger in the imagination and radiate  a force beyond that of paraphrasable meaning but I thought most of its poems showed a fine sense of form and timing on the larger scale, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Zebra, by Ian Humphreys.£9.99. Nine Arches Press. ISBN: 978-1911027706

I would like to thank David Cooke for his permission to post this review, which appears in The High Window.


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