The Simplest Acts

Reflections on Colin Robinson

• June 2021

One Sunday afternoon last September, my mother placed a small, red, leather-bound book on the kitchen table. In the weeks since my father died, she’d been unearthing questionable treasures from desks, boxes, and closets. We enjoyed the long-lost photographs most, but she would shake her head, bemused by expired, useless documents: “He kept everything, everything.” This time it was a phone book with entries that dated it to my father’s first years in the United States. I flipped pages and asked question after question. “Aunt Gwen lived in New York before England?” Mummy’s yes came with the story of a family rift and with a detail that cleared up a childhood memory I’d long doubted: I did have a jigsaw puzzle with graphics from the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album because my aunt once worked for a US publicist for the Beatles.

My father’s phone book is representative of the migrant experience—numbers and addresses in Trinidad and in New York, some friends with multiple entries, like passport stamps. It gestures to that bifurcated sense of place that many migrants navigate, that of here, the space I live and work in, and home, a place of emotional connection. It speaks to how migration informs what we treasure and hold. And I think of Colin Robinson’s Bergen Street apartment. When he last lived in Brooklyn, years before new-build condos and craft coffee spots, Colin dubbed that corner of the world Automotive Heights—mechanics and body shops outnumbered storefront churches. But once inside #2D, you were transported into Colin’s world, his living archives presented as decor. Carnival costume parts and traditional African masks lined the fifteen-foot hallway—picture a string of ceremonial face paint dots. Pass the kitchen, where Colin’s staples were kutchela, olives, and Trinidadian rum, into the living room where the east wall was lined with CDs, mostly calypso—stacked high and wide, paint peeking through only in patches. Colin called the smaller of the two bedrooms an office, and yes there was a desk and a file cabinet, but again the walls told the story—they were stacked floor to ceiling, corner to corner, with books, journals, and magazines. Like my father, Colin kept everything.

Colin shared his poetry with me for the first time in that space of treasures. As I look at this I see a line connecting Colin’s home decor to his poetic sensibilities. I want to talk here about the connection and how it sheds light on his outlook on life, how he navigated the routine and the unwieldy, how he reconciled the many facets of his focus, how he thought. Sitting across from his calypso archive, Colin read a couple of poems for me: “The Mechanic” and “Unfinished Work.” Neither had been published at that point.

“The Mechanic” captured me most on an emotional level: its narrator’s longing gaze on a man working next door excited me as it recalled gazes from my own pubescent past. It offered me something like reassurance or forgiveness for my boyhood secrets. I saw a shared experience. This offer of understanding, of sharing, is a feature of vibrant, relevant works of art. In the piece, though, Colin moves past any simple presentation of the younger male’s hungry gaze as one-sided and secret. Upon discovering the attention, rather than shaming his young admirer, the mechanic starts a conversation. Over days their interaction opens space for the younger man to feel valued as he uses his literacy to help the older man—a Grenadian immigrant in Trinidad—to complete visa paperwork. The reader will decide whether to read the relationship as adolescent fantasy or improper contact. What is unquestionable is Colin’s sharp and complex eroticism. The poem opens with the line “Long strokes,” and with each return to the phrase, Colin builds a breathy erotic rhythm while also adding levels of meaning, complicating not only the refrain but the narrative.1

Years later “The Mechanic” was anthologized in Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. And because Colin had recommended/urged/insisted I submit something to its editor, Thomas Glave, my story “Time and Tide”—which can easily be read as a reconciliation, or forgiveness, of pubescent longing—appears in the collection too.2

For another two decades, Colin and I shared literary spaces and experiences: Peepal Tree Press published our books; we appeared on stage in a performance, Tongues Unchained, commissioned by Colin to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Other Countries (the historic Black Gay collective);3 I emceed the launch of his 2016 poetry collection You Have You Father Hard Head, and he emceed the launch of my 2019 collection Now/After at Bocas Lit Fest. Based on all we had in common—different versions of the migrant story; connection to Trinidadian culture; our gaze on men; and important messy family pulls—our works often create literary reflections, shadows or interlocking jigsaw pieces. But the uniqueness of Colin’s writing springs from the uniqueness of the man.

I consider here the other poem Colin read that night, “Unfinished Work.” It offers a window onto both the poet and the man and poses a useful framework for thinking about his way of being.

I don’t remember us saying much when he finished reading that poem. Perhaps I said wow, perhaps he offered a mock curtsy, echoing a line from the poem. I do remember walking back to my apartment awed, reflecting on and lost in the poem’s richness, complexity, and gift. And I think now of how “Unfinished Work” shifted my understanding of my friend’s mind. So much is going on in that poem, linguistically, emotionally, and artistically. New words, new ideas, new perspective, and insight.

Fearlessly, the poem begins in Spanish—“¡Maricón! // Cuando gritan maricón / yo oigo cimarrón.”4 Colin read the lines with the rich roundness of a Spanish speaker and the drama of a stage actor. I hadn’t known he spoke Spanish. My own high school language studies left me catching only some of the words in those lines and in the first two lines to the second stanza and in other lines in Spanish woven throughout the piece. There’s work here for the reader. Even as the poem moves into English, it presents colloquialisms—Trini buller, wider Caribbean anteman, American faggot, and West African adodi. Add quilomobo, coffle, and bantustan. Colin’s language is deliberately global, calling to Pangea, breaking borders; it spans countries and continents, cultures. The poet’s expansiveness and challenges to the reader are political.

Colin’s politics of language, how he deploys the uncomfortable and the unknown, mirror his approach to activism and to humanity: the work here is an organic, affirming, emotionally connected style of teaching. By the time the seventh stanza offers a translation of the early phrase—“Cuando gritan / When they call me” (56)—we’ve already learned its meaning. The poem’s imagery, the telling, the clarity of feeling have shed light on any unknown idiom. We understand before the definition appears formally. In this approach the learning is deeper, more closely held.

In the work that Colin did after leaving Brooklyn, founding CAISO, advocating for inclusion, his approach—different from traditional modes of advocacy—was like this.5 His questions to himself and to colleagues ran along the lines of, How can we assemble neighbors, family, and community but also legislators, clergy, and journalists? How can we sit someone down, in familiar space with soothing drink, music, art, or poetry, and tell them a story with unfamiliar/uncomfortable ideas that takes them on a path where they learn emotionally? How can we employ tools passed down from the ancestors—calypsonians, mas’ makers, griots—rather than the practices of the global North to call for change?

In “Unfinished Work” we get a sense of the unexpected response. The poem continues, with a memory of Michael, a high school mate from Trinidad, “dropping curtsy to / Buller / . . . / neutering insult” (51).

And while the first stanza establishes the unreliable aspect of memory, especially when fractured by miles of land and sea, the second stanza flies straight into mystic ancestral memory and calls on ties that span both temporal and physical space:

other countries
cities, villages, plantations
bantustans and ghettoes
other colonies and nations
old and new (52)

Setting us up like this, Colin then assembles a parade of community that—Escher-like—sculpted him, even as he molded it. As he calls them, he anoints them:

From Babylon
from Babel
coming
in procession
under canopies of breath
a chain of tongues unchained (53)

He takes care to invoke communities in Trinidad and in New York, listing names in two parallel columns—US connections on the left, Caribbean on the right— which graphically depict the migrant’s act of having one foot in one place and the other somewhere else. Only first names are listed. Like fabric sewn into a patchwork quilt they represent the specific and the sum, lives lost to the AIDS battle in New York and in Trinidad.

I remember a time Colin invited me out to join him and his friend Kelvin, who was in town from Trinidad. We met for brunch at a café in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I’d been to the gardens many times but didn’t know about the café. The weather was perfect for the outing—early fall, bright and warm. The café featured large windows. I remember Kelvin as small, with an already small frame challenged by low energy in a way that made him appear almost fragile. He worked in radio back home. I remember his conversation brought bright smiles to his face that shifted his fragile look closer to waif-like. The food was just okay, so of course Colin pong the kitchen. But it was a good lime, in that urban oasis. Brunch was a simple act. It would be weeks before Colin talked to me about the logistics of trying to get a reliable supply of meds for Kelvin in Trinidad. The work.

The final name in the right column of that stanza of listed names in “Unfinished Work” is “Kelvin.” When I read his name I stop, take time to remember the meeting and the man.

“Unfinished Work” marks a time when Colin didn’t have the privilege of moving back and forth between Trinidad and the United States. Esthetically the poem evokes the Other Countries collective and the period of a particular form of exploration, learning, and creativity in Colin’s life. But the reaching toward Trinidadian community is at the core of the narrator’s sense of unfinished work. In hindsight, we know that Colin returned and accomplished much that he pines for in this piece. Still, what we see in the poem is the question of how to do the work there—to finish the work—when one is elsewhere. In my reading, work applies to a host of possible efforts. The expansiveness of possibility is a gift of both the poem and the man. The work, in the poem, is as much about friendship and kinship as it is about advocacy, perhaps more so. We see Colin grapple with friendship and distance in his memories of his high school mate Michael that anchor the piece. The narrator crosses countries and time as he reflects on Michael’s response to homosexist harassment: a curtsey and a “Thank you!!” (51). Within the consideration, the lens shifts, sometimes offering the perspective of a younger self, at other times of the adult. The lens situates Michael’s responses within the adult’s consciousness and the adult’s connection to queer theory, to activism, and especially to queer lives lived:

and we came
arrivants
awkward migrants
changing territory
heard our
eager muffled voices
learn to sing
in their full range
falsettos deepened
basses soared (54)

It is through the adult’s lens that we can consider, in the poem, the options for names, the options for responses. We travel with the poet: on the page is evidence of his own learning and growth, through experiences and connections, new friends, completing degrees, working professionally in advocacy around queer issues. Pivotal in the growth is the adult’s view of creativity as a weapon or, even better, as a tool; his understanding the value of a response that catches the other off guard, shifts the tone, creates space:

pervert the language
oigamos cimarrón
the simplest acts are the bravest
like rearranging syllables is
revolution (56–57)

Therefore, we return to names—buller, battyman, anteman.

The poem itself does important work, beautifully. Colin is patient with his teaching in this piece, wielding big concepts for the reader to grapple with: naming and renaming; marronage; imperfect friendships; nation and belonging.

The language, apart from showing that words can harm or heal, separate or bridge, shows Colin at play. Here is the man who just gets a kick out of words and usage, living words in poems and papers and articles, yes, but no less so the wordplay of the calypso, kaiso (ah, CAISO), the man on the street corner, the schoolmate. I will insist that Colin’s approach to play and work, alive in how he uses language here, is central to his ability to have envisioned and practiced his creative advocacy. Let no one question the value of arts and letters, the power of the poem. Colin’s poetry provides an answer.

On Juneteenth 2021 Jafari S. Allen and I read “Unfinished Work” together at a virtual Other Countries celebration of Colin the writer, inextricable from Colin the activist, from Colin the man. We: a Trinidadian and an American; a creative writer and a scholar; two men who love men, who love words, love thought. We took up the poem and its themes and sent it again into the world. One common thread in the many tributes offered upon Colin’s death was his dedication to community—large scale and intimate.

 

As with “Unfinished Work,” Colin’s poetry collection You Have You Father Hard Head is a trove of language and exploration, of archived friendships and work. “Connel, Morning” perfectly captures Port of Spain; “NYCitizen” captures the subway just right; “Lovers-in-Waiting” pointedly shocks from its first line. Colin dedicates thirty-nine of the fifty poems in the collection. In this way You Have You Father Hard Head offers its own archive of connections.

So, as to unfinished work, as to archives, to masks and music collections and personal libraries, I am clear that after the collector, the writer, the father, the friend, is gone, there is work, enriching work, to be continued. There are no useless documents. There are questions and stories, memories and promises to propel us. And there is Colin’s most treasured archive: people, doing the work.

 

Anton Nimblett, a Trinidadian who lives and writes in Brooklyn, is the author of the short story collections Sections of an Orange (Peepal Tree, 2009) and Now/After (Peepal Tree, 2019). His fiction and poetry appear in several literary journals and in the anthologies Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Duke, 2008); War Diaries (Aids Project Los Angeles, 2010); and The Peepal Tree Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories (2018).

 


[1] Colin Robinson, “The Mechanic,” in You Have You Father Hard Head (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2016), 89 (italics in original).

[2] Thomas Glave, ed., Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); see Anton Nimblett, “Time and Tide,” 261–67, and Colin Robinson, “The Mechanic,” 316–19.

[3] The archives of Other Countries (1982–2002), including memoranda and correspondence by Colin Robinson, are held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. An overview of the history, work, and archives of Other Countries can be found at https://archives.nypl.org/scm/21111#overview.

[4] Colin Robinson, “Unfinished Work,” in You Have You Father Hard Head, 51; hereafter cited in the text.

[5] CAISO, founded in 2009, stands for the Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation. The work of the organization is coalitional and collaborative, building alliances between LGBTI groups, NGOs, and social movements both within Trinidad and Tobago and internationally. In 2016, CAISO formally changed its name to CAISO: Sex and Justice to reflect a more expansive vision and practice. For more about CAISO’s work, see https://caisott.org/what-we-do.

 

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