Book: A Portable Paradise
Author: Roger Robinson
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press
Buy the bookhereReview by Tricia Wombell
I agreed to review A Portable Paradise, an important poetry collection by the prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, despite feeling that my lack of poetry knowledge would leave it beyond me.
Not that I avoid poetry, I don’t. I tend to buy poetry after hearing the poet. Once the poet’s voice, declamations and signature movements are etched in my mind, and their words have bounced around my heart, it is easier to engage with the work on the page.
Robinson was new to me before reading this collection. But from the first poem, ‘The Missing’, written for those lost in the Grenfell fire, I was smitten by his enormous and generous talent.
Drawn in gently, I am reminded of the shock and sadness of what happened in 2017, and how two years later, little has changed. In a few beautiful phrases the anger at this horror flooded back to me. The moment that resonates centres on how Robinson conjures up the vision and spirit of the visual artist Khadijia Saye who died, in so few words: “An artist in a wax-cloth headwrap: all airborne pageantry of faith, the flock of the believers.”
A Portable Paradise, Robinson’s fourth poetry collection, mixes pop culture, history, nature, mythology, art and socio-political commentary to illustrate the suffering of contemporary living. A co-founder of both the Spike Lab and the international writing collective Malika’s Kitchen, he is one of the key mentors and influencer of many of the most productive and admired poets and writers working in the UK today, such as Inua Ellams and Johny Pitts.
Many of the poems are hugely affecting, whether evoked in a traditional format, short paragraphs of prose or a few lines. Some would imagine that such poems are easy to do, but the skill and graft shine through Robinson’s words.
‘Grace’ is dedicated to a Jamaican nurse, working in premature baby unit, and celebrates her compassion and loving care that protects both the child and the desperately worried parents. She is an unrecognised leader, which Robinson celebrates in his poetry. Music fans will adore the poem (which feels like a short story) of ‘Bob Marley in Brixton’. It depicts the reggae legend shopping for Jamaican food in Brixton market, while trying hard to avoid adoration as he mentally prepares himself for his next album. Art lovers will especially admire the poems, ‘The Human Canvas (for Rothko)’, ‘Stubb’s Whistlejacket’ and ‘Portrait of My Great Grandmother as the Subject of Gericault’s Monomie L’Envie’ that draws on well-known paintings from important collections around the world.
A recurring theme throughout the collection is of paradise. Four of the five sections are bookended by poems that riff off explorations and questions of paradise. Is paradise a reward for a good life, or is it something you devotedly nurture as you go about this life?
Robinson gets you thinking about those questions deeply. The only paradise-free section looks at the Windrush Scandal as a paradise lost as those wrongs can never be put right.
A Portable Paradise’s cover features a photograph by the talented Johny Pitts (author of the recently published Afropean) in the deepest of black tones, with almost no shades of white or grey. This style of photography, reminiscent of the African-American, New York photographer Roy DeCarava, completely sets off the rows of black young men, together while alone in their thoughts. It is a distinctive and standout cover.
There has been so much fabulous poetry published and celebrated in recent years – however, with this book, you are in the hands of a brilliant artist. It is a raw, powerful and inspiring collection that will touch you deeply, and which you will return to often.