Melanie Branton reviews ‘Zebra’ by Robert Garnham

I have been thoroughly enjoying Robert Garnham’s Zebra (I know this sounds like one of Robert’s own comedy innuendoes).

Robert, of course, does funny so terribly well and there is vast amounts of crowdpleasing funny here, whether it’s his surreal imagination (a national craze for snogging zebras, a badger who thinks he’s on Eastenders, an evening spent loading the dishwasher with Montserrat Caballe), his unerring ability to observe all-too-true detail (the straight men’s pub that has a porcelain vase with chisels in on the windowsill, the gig in a remote part of the Amazon basin which is recognizably every poet’s worst gig ever, the comparison of noisy neighbours’ orgasm to the noise made by a flatulent elephant trying to squeeze the last drop out of a washing-up liquid bottle), his witty parodies of The Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly and Titanic, or his audacious Byronic rhymes:

e.g. “Wiped your sweating brow with a serviette.
My friends think I’m pervy, yet
I’m not.”

“Seeing yesterday’s sandwich
in the bin
with a sense of malaise.
It’s chicken mayonnaise.”

But the serious undercurrents that were there in Nice, the tears-of-a-clown preoccupations with death, loneliness, fear of failure and inadequacy, existential angst, gay politics, are foregrounded here and at times take on a more overtly serious form, but with Robert’s trademark diffident understatement making them all the more poignant. Autobiographical poems about trying to date a girl in his teens, the horrible experience of being at secondary school, the disturbing experience of witnessing a sudden death, and an extended sequence of poems where the Arctic cold is used as a metaphor for the repression faced by gay men in a homophobic and closeted society have a massive emotional punch precisely because of the precision and economy of his storytelling and his elimination of any hint of self-pity or attention-seeking.

It’s even outer and prouder than Nice, with poems like Straight Pub and Flamboyant skewering the patronising, insulting heteronormativity of those who’re “not homophobic” but who would reduce gay men to exotic background colour or sitcom jokes, powerfully political poems like The Doors and Steadfast reminding of the external and internal repression, discrimination and persecution that gay people still face globally, and poems about Tom Daley, a beautiful shoplifter, shirtless roofers and ex-boyfriends unashamedly celebrating the beauty of the male form.

This wide-ranging,mature, screamingly funny, but also heartbreakingly serious book ought to be on everyone’s Christmas list.

Zebra can be bought here

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