By Philip Nanton
Suckle, by Roger Robinson
(Waterways Books, ISBN 978-190-523-3212, 66 pp)
Bird Head Son, by Anthony Joseph
(Salt Publishing, ISBN 978-184-471-4353, 96 pp)
Left: Roger Robinson. Right: Anthony Joseph, photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo
These two collections of poems appear at first to have much in common. The authors are both expatriate Trinidadians who have received recognition as part of the new generation of Caribbean poets writing in Britain. Both are poets who move between performance and the written word. They each perform with backing bands; Anthony Joseph, for example, is closely associated with The Spasm Band. Both poets have toured many parts of the world on behalf of the British Council. They have each been recognised as among fifty writers who have contributed to the Black British canon over the past five decades. Both have a number of previous publications to their credit, and so are confident in practising their craft.
In these collections, they have turned their gaze back on late-twentieth-century Trinidad where they grew up. Not surprisingly, common themes are family, remembered friends, and a sense of their respective Trinidadian heritages. The subject matter that attracts the poets’ attention overlaps, with individual poems exploring the absent father, death of a mother, sibling relationships, Carnival, friendships, and kite-flying — albeit in Port of Spain and Edinburgh, respectively. However, it soon becomes apparent that the poetic lenses that filter their themes, and ultimately their respective Trinidads, vary enormously.
The first lines of their collections tell the reader much about each author’s design and interest. This is Roger Robinson’s opening to his poem “Parallel”:
And there under the plastic film of Gramps’ album,
a picture of her in Demerara sugar sepia. 1974-short hair,
a brown dress with a thin red belt cinching waist to hips.
This introduction offers the reader a descriptive, open verse and three-line stanza. The title word implies keeping some distance. The lines call to mind West Indian front-room behave-yourself language, bound by the three end-stopped lines. It is a sort of Caribbean poetic sociology with date stamp to help fix the image. The poem, like the collection, introduces a family story that is in turn poignant, humorous, and sad, at times conveying feelings of both betrayal and hurt.
Anthony Joseph’s opening poem is titled “Bosch’s Vision”, and begins:
It started as I was leaving
…..with a dim groan in the afternoon.
What started? Where are we? The title, combined with these opening two lines, is unsettling. His is a wider canvas than Robinson’s, used to explore the personal and the universal. Like Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, Joseph offers terrifying images of suffering and Hell, which he transposes to modern Europe and Trinidad. The phrase “a dim groan” gestures to later themes of a painful upbringing, the lamentation for a distant father, and his mother’s death, to which the section “The Tropic of Cancer” is devoted. His uncluttered opening sentence calls to mind Derek Walcott’s search for the line of poetry as a clear and most natural statement. There are other instances, as in “Conductors of his Mystery”, which ends: “He came back smelling of the sea.” On the other hand, the breath space in the second line of his opening poem offers the merest hint of Kamau Brathwaite’s Sycorax style. These elements suggest that Joseph has kept a close ear on contemporary Caribbean writing, and we should not be surprised to find echoes of other Caribbean poets throughout the collection. So, for example, in this poem he recalls Paul Keens-Douglas’s refrain “Tell me again” from his poem of the same title, which invokes, among other things, the mixed blessing of Trinidad’s oil.
In Suckle, Robinson is primarily the poet as storyteller. Without fuss or fanfare he sits you down and tells you this happened at this time and in this way. His poetic stories are finely worked. They often concern domestic locations and events, as the title of the collection suggests. For the most part, Robinson’s English is standard, highlighted by the occasional contrast with his handling of the Trinidad vernacular. On the back cover of his book the reader is told on one hand that “his unique territory is memory and its capital is Trinidad.” Simultaneously, it’s suggested that his approach “creates intoxicating poetry flavored with the attitude and lingo of his Trinidad homeland.” However, in only one poem, “The Blade’s Edge”, is the “lingo” extensively used. Here the chopping of a man is told from the perspective of a friend who fell on hard times. He felt himself compelled to an act of violence for a cash reward, so that he could feed his siblings. This raises two issues. First there is the questionable use of the vernacular as a resource only in association with violence, and in contrast with the standard English predominant in all the other poems. Second, the heavy weighting towards standard English suggests that the pull of the metropolitan diaspora is more fundamental than Robinson (or possibly his blurb writer) might be willing to admit.
In contrast, the Trinidad vernacular is more than a resource in Joseph’s collection. From the outset, the title — Bird Head Son — is without compromise. There is no apostrophe-“s” after “Head.” The title is also a nickname, a term of friendly abuse that is a longstanding tradition in creole culture. It is not by any means that all the poems are in Trinidadian vernacular, but more that its use informs what Brathwaite in his History of the Voice refers to as “the very shape and spirit” of many of the poems. In “The Cinema”, for example, Joseph captures the feel of a run-down cinema in the Caribbean of the 1970s, where
The seat back break from balcony to pit,
The screen heng like curtain that twist
In one section of “The Carnival Suite” Joseph captures the event’s testosterone challenge by mixing the vernacular with single-word spacing:
……..leave she dey man
….doh even try — unless you name Jamada
Robinson’s pages are held in check by regular patterns of two-, three-, four-, or five-line stanzas. Joseph’s pages are full of energy and bustle, where a line break and a breath after each short line can convey the physicality of a beating:
Beat him but he will not speak.
till I catch rage.
Or it can be a quiet play with Brathwaite’s Sycorax style. In the poem “Carenage” a sense of longing for the ongoing sea is emphasised in the last stanza by wide line-spacing. The final full stop, falling immediately before “infinitely,” the last word of the poem, embodies its open-endedness.
And tonight I call my brother
….from a room of sighs
still missing the sea
Joseph’s page, then, is more than the frame on which to write; it is nearer to a canvas that he chooses to disturb, so making the page part of the poem.
Two further points of contrast are the ways each poet handles corporal punishment of children and the representation of Carnival. In both instances, Robinson is the messenger. In “Griffiths”, he watches and reports the public beating of a schoolboy by the boy’s father with a degree of distance and coolness.
But nobody wanted this. After the fifteenth stroke
some boys and teachers were in tears, still watching
this very public execution. By the twentieth stroke
we noticed our principal’s paunch bobbing
quickly towards the scene and physically stopping
Joseph, the recipient of a beating as well as other severe treatment in “His Hands”, tells and shows. In a parody of Psalm Twenty-three, the psalm’s comforting and familiar words contrast with his discomfort:
He whippeth me from arse to widow’s peak.
While alliteration captures the movement of his oppressor’s belt, the speed of the blows:
His wicked wrist
……..hits so swift
There is a similar contrast in the lenses the poets use to describe Carnival. Essentially, Robinson fetes and tells:
I hear a song and all I can do is dance.
I’m taking off my shirt
and waving it over my head.
And everything I can feel has now moved
up past my neck into my head.
It’s too much, so I have to close
Joseph tells and shows — that it is a communal event. And so in “Bougainvillea Super 8 Red” each word is scattered across the page, playing mas in noisy capitals. “The Carnival Suite” explores different sides of the festival beyond personal enjoyment. They include a sense of threat:
Let us travel dangerous routes
where cut eyed boys are waiting
and the messy contrast when it is over
……..where fish gut and shrimp stalk
wash up and stinking
in a stagnant black moss
where sequined spears are floating.
In an artist’s statement, Robinson sets for himself the criteria that his writing should “energise, provoke thoughts, discussions, smiles, and make listeners have inner monologues with themselves.” For this reader, Joseph’s collection comes nearer to these goals.
Philip Nanton is based in Barbados. He teaches cultural studies and is a freelance writer. He is the editor of Remembering the Sea: An Introduction to Frank A. Collymore (2004), and writer and producer of the spoken-word CD Island Voices (2008).