Colin Robinson Offers a Strong New Voice in Caribbean Poetry – Review by Jacqueline Bishop


Colin Robinson’s recently published collection You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press: UK) adds to the small but growing corpus of Caribbean writers who self-consciously write as gay Caribbean writers. However, while Robinson’s work invokes issues of sexuality, his collection of poems encompasses many more issues other than sexuality. The activist bent of his book is very much reminiscent of that of the poet Audre Lorde, herself a gay Caribbean author.

Colin Robinson’s book is a wide-ranging volume that takes one from Trinidad to Jamaica to Brooklyn, and even beyond, sometimes in one poem. The scope of places that the persona in these poems travel is breathtaking and, in some ways can be read, noting the actual exception of travel to the continent of Africa in the poems, as wandering the triangular trade routes that brought the African diaspora to the Caribbean. The central focal point for the persona in these poems is Trinidad, which is both home and the place to be wary of as such. For example, in the opening poem, “Nobody Go See”, the narrator laments writing books that no one will read in favor of calypso music, but the end word of each line cleverly shows that the real fear is that of rejection by one’s chosen community: “I/fraid/you/go/make/a/calypso/on/me.”

What is notable about the collection though is that it continually confronts fear to challenge not only Trinidadian society, but the homophobia that attends to places that are known to be particularly so in the African diaspora, especially where the Caribbean is concerned. In the beautifully moving poem, “We Did Not Follow The Hummingbirds,” a persona finds himself on the island of Jamaica, driving from the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston. The persona continues:

i have always been unreciprocally in love with Jamaica
the unfolding magic of this passionate place
my human rights friend once called
the gayest place he’d ever been

In other words, if the homophobia that is promulgated about Jamaica is any indication, it really is only an inverse indication of the obvious. I had a good laugh, as a Jamaican, I must say, reading this. So many Jamaicans do so much to deny the homoeroticism easily visible to others.

The strongest section of Robinson’s book was the third section under the heading “Sliding Over Your Perpetual Stubble”. In this section I caught glimpses of something I can honestly say these two eyes that have been reading Caribbean literature for a long time have not really seen before, and it is someone — a persona albeit — speaking quite clearly and directly about what it means to be black male and gay in the Caribbean in a poetic form and to embody this and these identities in a public way. The persona in these poems and in this section, is out to everyone and has a positive relationship to his sexuality. In addition, there is a forceful reclamation of the black male body and particularly the black male gay body that is astonishing. I kept reading this section over and over again. Which is not to say that there are not black male bodies here in pain and afflicted, black male gay bodies in pain, but the all-seeing eye throughout this section of the poems is clear as day as to what causes the pain and despair in black male bodies, and it is not one’s sexuality. It is an audacious display and poems build upon poems in this section, poems cross-reference other poems in this section to form a riveting crescendo. One cannot help but think of the pioneering work of Audre Lorde in reading this section of poems.

The collection could have been strengthened by being shorter, as it seems to get better and stronger as it moves along. The other sections of the book never quite achieve the sustained energy of the third section, though there are deeply moving poems towards the end of the book about a father and a son’s inability to bridge several layers of difference that has come up between them. Most moving of all is the tenderness with which the persona in the poems treats the mother as she leaves the father and moves on to make a life for herself and her children:

Mommy don’t cry
My nine year old sister and I cry
Chant in unison
From the darkness of the back seat

The sympathy with which the male narrator presents difficult moments in the mother’s life, and his willingness to work through moments of conflict with the mother is commendable. What is more, there is a sense of authenticity to these poems, as if one is getting to watch a son and a mother look at, think through and talk to one another in a quite direct way. It is a highly commendable performance.

The Gymnast & Other Positions is Jacqueline Bishop’s most recent book and has been awarded the 2016 OCM Bocas Award in Non-Fiction. She is also the author of the novel, The River’s Song; and two collections of poems, Fauna and Snapshots from Istanbul. Her non-fiction books are My Mother Who Is Me: Life Stories from Jamaican Women in New York and Writers Who Paint/Painters Who Write: Three Jamaican Artists. An accomplished visual artist with exhibitions in Belgium, Morocco, Italy, USA and Jamaica, Ms. Bishop was a 2008-2009 Fulbright Fellow to Morocco; the 2009-2010 UNESCO/Fulbright Fellow; and is an Associate Professor at New York University. In addition to the OCM Bocas Award, Bishop has received several additional awards, including: The Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for short story writing, A Fulbright year-long grant to Morocco, a UNESCO/Fulbright Fellowship to Paris, The Arthur Schomburg Award for Excellence in the Humanities from New York University, A James Michener Creative Writing Fellowship, as well as several awards from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission.