The Complex Lives of Caribbean Gay Men

Poet and activist Colin Robinson. | RASHMI MATHUR

Poet and activist Colin Robinson. | RASHMI MATHUR

One of Trinidadian writer Colin Robinson’s new poems from his inaugural collection, recently published by the UK’s Peepal Tree Press, begins, “I crossed water and waited/ at the ridge of the sea my notebook open.” That image provides a single, orienting snapshot of the speaker as our cicerone, guiding us through a collection that concerns itself with many different people, passions, places, tones, textures, and troubles. The speaker’s attention can veer even within a single poem from the intensely personal to the mythologizing, from the philosophical to the desperate.

“Ours are simple/ urgent choices,” the speaker tells us. Included in one fell swoop as dramatis personae are health activists inventing new HIV prevention messages that Robinson was a leader among, the writers of color in New York City that helped nurture his developing craft, his mother, (“to my friends she’s/ the old lady/ who could real cook”), his absent and unknowable father who never completely tamed “the excess length of his pride,” and a host of lovers and friends, none of them casual in any way we think of as “casual.” They have come together in chat rooms or bars, collectives and action groups, and are sometimes ill and perhaps dying (“you devolve/ I am constant now”).

“You Have You Father Hard Head” sets these relationships in colors brightened by the Caribbean sun and in emotionally charged relief. This softens a reader’s absorption of a very shrewdly honed critique of simplistic identity politics and what Robinson defines in metaphor as a gay male Caribbean diaspora. Indeed, the collection breathes into words a force of living language that describes a heretofore largely hidden and marginalized group: the generations of boys becoming men without any template other than the Creole slurs like “batty boy” and a similarly razor-thin road for opportunity and self-esteem.

Trinidadian New Yorker returns home as a loving queer tribune

Many gay men raised on Trinidad and Tobago have found they must reverse the cliché of being abandoned on a island and journey to some more tolerant one like Manhattan to find themselves one day “walking through New York streets/ with the mother I insisted/ embrace my queerness” or perhaps returning to pick up familial obligations, like a suitcase that also contains all the weight of the Caribbean’s uniquely charged homophobia.

PEEPAL TREE PRESS/ KRISTON BANFIELD

PEEPAL TREE PRESS/ KRISTON BANFIELD

“I have never felt safe in manhood,” the speaker states in language so starkly simple that it takes one’s breath away. “You Have You Father Hard Head” does what art and poetry on rare occasions sometimes can: confers upon the invisible a dignity of careful and loving perception that simply did not exist before.

Robinson, in an email, ruefully described himself, having not too long ago taken that lonely return trip back home at the age of 45, as one of the biggest “bullermen” in the country, “the spokesperson for CAISO, the leading LGBTI advocacy group” who wrote a Sunday newspaper column “as a gay man” for two years.

But, in a small but significant act of generosity, which this landmark collection writes large, he asked me to take note that “the cover art was done as a custom image by a wonderful young local artist, Kriston Banfield.” The painting is of a young black man in a field of fertile greenery, holding in one hand a long needle, the other a comb, the tools to tame and soften, if he can, his hard homo head. “It actually is speaking back,” Robinson said of the image’s symbolism, “along with one of the early poems, ‘Writing is an Arsenal,’ to Essex Hemphill's idea in ‘When My Brother Fell’ of what tools are valuable to warrior artists.”

Artists who, in this case, are marking out safer space for their brothers to grow and thrive, defining themselves, not in reaction to or in spite of their homeland’s hardheadedness, but in a softly shared embrace of understanding and love.

COLIN ROBINSON | “You Have You Father Hard Head” | Peepal Tree Press | $18.95 | 72 pages | Peepaltreepress.com or Amazon.com | Facebook.com/colinrobinsontt

INDIVISIBLE

for Shadath

He’s very well rounded

like his lover like(s) me

An engineer, I have to pry it out

He jokes, I’m 569 years old

Dog years, I ask, what to divide by

google it’s a prime number

We are linked online

by another man

he too does not remember

We chat routinely about random things

BRB

I cam a quickie with a mewling chubby boy

Fantasy is cute in ways reality doesn’t match up to LOL

I type, I never had a good imagination, he IMs back

how Mills & Boons are a good lesson in writing

to make a kiss last four pages

I ask what tongue you grew up speaking

I had to allow my language to fall on all ears

Today we move to a higher order

talk fetishes, we like the same things

But my numeracy gets the better of me once again

as I calculate the probability

that in any triangulation

two times out of three

there will be a remainder

either two or one

MANHOOD AT THE OVAL

there was no teargas today

just an interminable string of singles

the english batsmen hit over hours

that made my eyes water from yawning

i had no idea

i was reprising a manly ritual

when i agreed to take my godson

to the fifth test at the oval

whispering my inability to answer

his string of earnest questions

because although i can trick him

into upholding my adult dignity

by dint of the agecraft we practise

with children who are charming

enough to pretend to be fooled

there is no such hoodwinking

the men everywhere within earshot

for whom cricket is incubated

in vesicles between their legs

who hold this masculine knowledge

(transfused to them by uncles brothers peers bullies

and the occasional father)

as casually as they might grab their crotches

i had no idea my dead father

when i left home this morning

would be a memory sitting in

the same stand i am sure he took me to that once

like always

when we never got to be male together

because the match started late

and the crowd got unruly

and this was the jittery 1970s

(before prices and highways and

containers of bulletproof children in shaven vests

kept people out of their place)

and a young policeman hurled a canister

and there was a stampede

and the crowd broke down a gate

i do not remember

if it was football

but i remember the press of people

and the stinging in my eyes and throat

and the fear in my stomach

and the panic all around

i do not remember my father

with nostalgia or warmth

that he was my safety my pride

his funeral a place of awkwardness

erasure margins

not tears like that day

at the oval

chris is awkward with me always

sometimes ashamed

when i challenge him to multiply or remember

but this shrunken wizened 14-year-old

is my pride

and shame

he makes me smile

try hard feel bad

when i am just as neglectful

as my father

i have never felt safe in manhood

and thirty years since

i last set foot in queens park oval

just below the surface

of my grand gesture of godfatherhood

is the panic like that day

at being discovered as a fake

or worse

discovered to be faking

until behind me a male voice talks loud

on the phone in a trini accent

shares that england have declared

“we” have gone in to bat

and chris guyle

is at the wicket

gayle

another voice

corrects him

and i am the man

laughing

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