Roger Robinson’s fourth collection of poems, A Portable Paradise, has deservedly won some attention as the winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2019 and the Ondaatje Prize in 2020. It’s good to see, as not only is A Portable Paradise published by a small press, PeePal Tree, but because Robinson’s poems are bristling with empathy for ordinary people, the underdog and the downtrodden.
Whether you are British or not, whether you like poetry or not, it would be hard to disagree that the eleven poems in the first section of A Portable Paradise, focussed on the London Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, serve as moving eulogies to the victims of the disaster. Prose poem “The Father” tells the story of a twelve-year old girl “becoming” her missing father by taking responsibility for her family. Robinson evokes pathos through the details of her new life: being interviewed on TV, filling out forms for new housing, and taking care of her grieving mother. “Blame” takes a different stance by hitting out at the bureaucratic chain of finger-pointing: “People still cry./Nobody took the blame”.
Section II of the collection deals with slavery, the Windrush Scandal (a British political scandal concerning wrongful deportation) and, more generally, race. Two of these poems in particular teeter on the brink of revolution: “Bottles Flying in Slow Motion at the Police” and “Beware”, the latter sadly describing a knee to neck death before the 2020 death of George Floyd. Robinson has said in his Poetry Manifesto (published in the autumn 2017 issue of The Poetry Review) that “ordinary poems won’t change the world. You have to negotiate between your private world (emotions) and your conceptual world (ideas and concepts)”. He puts this into practice here: each of these poems is high concept, but also high risk because they seek to address urgent social issues in three lines only. They are effective because of their immediacy.
Robinson brings “the rage to the page” in Section III, made up of three poems each in the voice of a dispossessed individual due to Windrush or Grenfell, “Citizen I”, “Citizen II” and “Citizen III”. These poems are almost long form theatrical speeches, and are particularly persuasive as direct appeals for compassion. Robinson’s extended imagery and dramatic tone ensure the reader is fully engaged.
“Citizen I” excels in its sarcasm: we’re asked how is it there are meticulous records of genocide and slave trading, but the immigration records for the Windrush citizens disappeared? “Citizen II” details the painful struggle with “the process” for new housing following Grenfell. “Citizen III” is set in the modern wasteland of collapsed housing estates whilst:
Up in glass buildings, men meet
over polished hardwood tables talking to the people
who own your houses and streets,
every reddened brick and crease of mortar,
paving the way for a future that does not include you.
On occasion A Portable Paradise groups poems together side by side for added effect. Two poems in Section II and set in Brixton, London are standouts; “Walk With Me” describes the poet’s walk through the area with a young man “in screw-faced street mode” (in turn the young man comically considers the poet “bookish”). Avoiding certain streets, the poet lyrically recites that under where they are walking is:
A black and powerful river coursing without light.
That one hundred and fifty years ago
royalty would sail down his river
in their best finery into Brixton
never thinking about crack, never thinking about cafés.
With some originality Robinson puts this ancient imagery firmly into the context of a modern city; the tower blocks act like speakers for the sound of the “pure, flowing” river. This movement of the river helps the poem shift to optimism, so that “even though the river calls, things have moved on here”.
Its’ sister poem “Ashes To Fire” provides a stark warning to “[B]eware of these hot nights in Brixton”, but there is still some modernistic, downbeat beauty to be found in the deprivation of a violent and drug-infested city:
in the car park a young father whispers
weed smoke about how his life feels,
like that burnt-out car that never moves,
the one with shattered windows
leaving diamond tears in the meting asphalt.
Robinson’s imagery is frequently startling, but importantly his ideas for poems are often equally so. He presents “transformative ideas” to his audience. For example, he takes two difficult and possibly embarrassing encounters relating to race and turns them into memorable poems, at times humorous but also alarming; “A Journalist Repeatedly Asks Me About Race In A Poetry Interview”, so he retorts in telling her that his grandmother could curse more than any sailor, and then there’s “Black Olive”, in which a white woman at a literary party clumsily tries to pick up the poet, and gets caught using the same lines on different people.
A Portable Paradise has been rightly praised for its “socially necessary” poetry on important contemporary British issues. Robinson approaches his subjects with subtlety and compassion, and has said in an interview with the Guardian that poems are “empathy machines”. Writing pre-Covid 19, he gracefully brings a Jamaican nurse to life through the detail of her work on a hospital ward, singing “pop songs on her shift, like they were hymns” (“Grace”). In prose poem “On Nurses” he reminds us that nurses “see it all: the birth, the death, the vomit, the blood, the shock, the diseased, the perturbed, the pain, the smiles”.
Much of A Portable Paradise is concerned with social justice, but this should not deter less political readers. Many of his poems have universal appeal, his poems about animals are appealing, with three striking poems which feature crows and an impressive but sad poem about a racehorse (“The Champion’s Final Rubbing Down”).
Robinson also works as a dub poet, and he is especially adept at writing about music. The free-flowing prose poem “Bob Marley In Brixton” immerses us in Marley’s imagined thoughts in a foreign country where he “doesn’t feel like one of the greatest musicians in the world”. ”On Sade” uses a short, minimalist approach to match Sade’s “one take” method in the studio; this then transports us into the personal:
She had been brought up
to avoid the unnecessary
Her family had not been
very expressive, yet they all
knew there was depth there.
“Ascension”, for John Coltrane, starts off with the eye of a documentarian on a table with a “small white cocaine hill” and then expands out, so that “[T]hrough a telescope’s dark planetarium/you closed one eye and viewed the world so big”. The poem seems effortless, but much skill and effort are required to write so well.
At times Robinson’s poetic method is not dissimilar to those of a jazz musician using variations to explore one theme. All but one section of the collection end with a different poem about paradise. In “The Job of Paradise”, Robinson asserts that Paradise is “to comfort those who have been left behind”. Later in the collection he questions the traditional notion of paradise as the “reward for a life of good deeds” and “an island of perfection”, “all pina coladas, swimsuits, shades and sun beds,/our bones finally relaxing in their sun-soaked skins”; he’s aware that human nature is such that we may “secretly long for a night/when we wake to skies of bruised clouds” (“Paradise”).
Robinson concludes in the final and title poem that paradise is something personal to each of us, with an almost secret knowledge handed down from his grandmother to him like a folk song. The poem and collection finish on a note of cautious optimism, so that although paradise may best be concealed so that it can’t be stolen, it can be used in times of struggle. The reader is demonstratively asked to “shine your lamp on it like the fresh hope/of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep”. It is an appropriate end to A Portable Paradise as these are often demanding poems requiring a response of some sort from the reader; at the very least we are asked to think of other people more or in a different way. If achieved, perhaps this would be a poetic revolution in itself.
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press
Publication Date: 08 JUL 2019