“Invisible Kisses”: an inspiration

When I happened upon the Alan Yentob Imagine BBC One programme on writer Lemn Sissay some months ago, it piqued my interest as I remembered enjoying his poetry as an art and literature undergraduate about 20 or so years ago.

INVISIBLE KISSES
written by Lemn Sissay

If there was ever one
Whom when you were sleeping
Would wipe your tears
When in dreams you were weeping;
Who would offer you time
When others demand;
Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand.

If there was ever one
To whom you could cry;
Who would gather each tear
And blow it dry;
Who would offer help
On the mountains of time;
Who would stop to let each sunset
Soothe the jaded mind.

If there was ever one
To whom when you run
Will push back the clouds
So you are bathed in sun;
Who would open arms
If you would fall;
Who would show you everything
If you lost it all.

If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Who would clear the air
When it’s full of loss;
Who would count love
Before the cost.

If there was ever one
Who when you are cold
Will summon warm air
For your hands to hold;
Who would make peace
In pouring pain,
Make laughter fall
In falling rain.

If there was ever one
Who can offer you this and more;
Who in keyless rooms
Can open doors;
Who in open doors
Can see open fields
And in open fields
See harvests yield.

Then see only my face
In reflection of these tides
Through the clear water
Beyond the river side.
All I can send is love
In all that this is
A poem and a necklace
Of invisible kisses.

One of the things I find most striking about Lemn Sissay’s work is that having had a tough early life, there is a positivity that pervades it – in his own words: “I’m not defined by scars, but by the incredible ability to heal”.  This chimes with me particularly at the moment, as it’s a concept that informs my work for E.A.S.T’s 2021 exhibition, Transformation.

I recently read Sissay’s memoir, My Name is Why, published in 2019, which tells of his experiences as a black child growing up in the care system, firstly within a foster family and then a series of children’s homes in the 1970s and 80s.

Due to, in his words, “a near-lethal dose of racism delivered by The Institution” he didn’t know his mother until he was 21.  While studying in the UK, she later needed to return to Ethiopia, and decided to entrust her newly born baby Lemn to social services, intending to return from Ethiopia for him. However, her later efforts to be reunited with him were thwarted by the system.

Baby Lemn was renamed and placed with white foster parents where, after 12 years of his living with them as part of the family, and believing they were his adopted ‘forever’ family, he was rejected at the age of 12 by his foster parents.   He then went through the care system in a series of children’s homes until, reaching the age of 18, the system ejected him from its ‘care’, with his birth certificate that revealed to him for the first time his true name.

Many accounts of the care system during Sissay’s childhood bear witness to it being at times a hostile and bewildering place for many in it, and for a black child in 1970s Britain, there was the added element of that society’s endemic racism to cope with.  However, the oppressive system did not deter the teenage Lemn Sissay from writing poetry, and by the age of 21, he was becoming known as a publicly performing poet.  Unlike other contemporary poets of colour of the time emerging in the UK of the 1980s, such as Benjamin Zephaniah, Grace Nicholls and John Agard, Lemn Sissay’s Mancunian accent set his performances apart from many of those peers who had accents that expressed their heritage.

‘Rain’ by Lemn Sissay – part of the urban Manchester landscape

A popular choice of poem to be read at weddings, “Invisible Kisses” was written at the time of a relationship breakdown, and as Sissay mentions in his blog, its meaning has, and continues to, change for him over time: he also talks more recently about feelings around the hurt of a lack of family for him at an especially vulnerable time.

Determined not to be pigeon-holed or ‘packaged’ as a black, radical, angry poet focussing primarily on race and racism – issues about which Sissay is no stranger to in either life experience or his works – he has chosen to read “Invisible Kisses” at events such as the Pan African Congress Conference in a subversive act of breaking the popular perception of what a radical poet is.

I was drawn to this particular poem of Lemn Sissay’s as it speaks overtly of love, with the accompanying loss being present in the background – a theme I’m also exploring in my work on the theme of grief for Transformation.  I keep coming back to the “incredible ability to heal” – an inspiring thought …

You can hear Lemn Sissay read “Invisible Kisses” with a short discussion following by clicking on the link below:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2018/mar/01/lemn-sissay-on-the-radical-poem-born-of-heartbreak-the-start-podcast

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