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The Complex Lives of Caribbean Gay Men

Poet and activist Colin Robinson. | RASHMI MATHUR

Poet and activist Colin Robinson. | RASHMI MATHUR

BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY | 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

3 Responses to The Complex Lives of Caribbean Gay Men

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