Written from the gut, loaded with real life experiences
With Bob Marley brought to life in Bob Marley in Brixton, Sade, who ‘never liked doing more than one take of a song’, nods to Ted Hughes and his crow poems, the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, which claimed 72 lives, and more shared references for the Londoner; the world-dweller, Roger Robinson’s A Portable Paradise is exactly that – a literary paradise that travels with you, both physically and metaphorically.
A collection loaded with real events, real emotions and real people, A Portable Paradise is indeed a deserving win for the 2020 T.S. Elliott Prize, which carries with it a purse of £25,000.
The 58 well-written poems, grouped into sections I, II, III, IV and V, are written from the gut; are vulnerable and strong at the same time and are poems the reader is invested in. After reading Liver, the poem set in a barbershop, you hope for the opportunity to ask the writer one day if Abdullah (a patron of the barbershop) got the liver transplant he needed.
In A Portable Paradise, you’ll see a father praying for his premature infant, pleading:
Lord, save my baby. Lord, save these babies, save all babies. Lord,
save her baby. Lord, save their baby. Lord, save your baby.
One more, amen,
Your humble servant till then.
– Prayer, p. 71
In A Portable Paradise, also, the prostitutes are the ‘Saints these days (who) bear other’s sweat and suffering,’ who are ‘martyrs to lust’.’ (Saints p. 75) Yes, in the same book, the same author pleads with God for the life of a ‘preemie’ and sanctifies the prostitute.
Complete with at least seven poems that address racism in the UK now, including the Windrush saga and some that bring us back to the slave ship and the plantation, A Portable Paradise has all the ingredients for a major prize. It has obvious skill, with an attention to the sound of the poem; zeroes in on issues and events of high tension and far-reaching implications and, as noted earlier, is written from the gut; from the place close to the heart.
Below are the first two and last two couplet stanzas of Windrush.
They came down from the ship
on a footbridge of firewood,
architectural pleats in their trousers
and suitcases each containing a live lizard.
But still the three wooden birds on their walls
were flying back home in super slow motion,
because nothing promised was what it seemed,
but it was somehow more than what they left.
– p. 27
The second and last stanzas from the five-stanza poem (Some) Sweat.
In the sugarcane field with a machete
he thought about how it would feel to
hack the master’s throat like the tender
necks of these canes, as beads of sweat
rolled down his knuckles and wet
the silvered edge of his blade.
The night he ran he could hear
the barking dogs behind him,
and he ran till his cotton shirt
could hold no more sweat.
– p. 23
With this book, Roger Robinson, who tours extensively as co-founder of the Spoke Lab or with fellow poet Nick Makoha (shortlisted in 2017 for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection), with their duologue show, Mixtape, adds further weight to the argument that performance poetry, when also excellent on paper, is extremely potent. This sentiment has been previously shared in this Gleaner book review space, using the New Zealand poet Sam Hunt’s 2018 book as an example.
Enthralling on stage
In other words, Robinson, like the recently deceased luminary, Caribbean scholar and writer, Kamau Brathwaite, is an example of the Caribbean poet who is enthralling on stage and on paper.
In fact, Robinson and Brathwaite are not the only ‘book poets, who thrill on stage. The Belarusian poet, Valzyhna Mort, the Irish poet, Paul Muldoon, Jamaicans Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Tanya Shirley and Kei Miller, are some who quickly come to mind.
Back to A Portable Paradise. As said before, the poems stay with you. The poems in Section I, which range from chilling to haunting, focus on the Grenfell Tower fire – the aftermath, the deceased/missing, the survivors, even those now living in the rebuilt and re-commissioned apartments.
Below is an excerpt from The Portrait Museum, one of the poems in Section I.
The morning after, the streets filled with portraits
of missing people – brothers with bushy beards,
olive-skinned, wrinkled-faced grandmothers,
pig-tailed daughters with red ribbons, smiling –
stuck on tree trunks, walls and fence boards,
the neon red MISSING floating above their heads.
In a minute of pure clairvoyance we understand
That many of these pictures are the faces of the dead …
– p. 13
Below are four stanzas, of six, from the last poem in Section I – The Job of Paradise. It is also the last excerpt, giving you a taste of what to expect from A Portable Paradise.
It is the job of Paradise
to comfort those who’ve been left behind …
It is the job of the long black hearse
to show we head to death from birth.
It is the job of a clean neat grave
to remind us how to live our days.
If only I could live my days till death suffice
and make Earth feel like Paradise.
– p. 20
Title: A Portable Paradise
Author: Roger Robinson
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press Leeds, England: 2019
ISBN 13: 9781845234331
Ann-Margaret Lim has two published poetry books – The Festival of Wild Orchid and Kingston Buttercup, with the latter shortlisted for the Bocas Prize for Poetry in 2017. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.