The Butterfly Hotel
Peepal Tree Press, 2013
Roger Robinson's third collection, The Butterfly Hotel, is prefaced by this quotation from the American poet, Ira Cohen: "Must I read the Science Times to know that the Monarch's migration is a fragile journey?" This contemplation springboards a series of surprisingly buoyant offerings on location, relocation and the subsequent senses of loss and gain. Robinson's poems are the syncretic and layered products of this place, as well as another.
Principally, the "other" location to which the poet hearkens is Brixton, a district in London, and the first temporary housing of the 1948 Windrush generation of Jamaican migrants to the United Kingdom. In addition to navigating a black British/Caribbean sensibility of Brixton, Robinson unearths revelations of place and displacement on a major to minor scale, with resonances in often-unexpected corners of the globe. The poems almost always return to the Caribbean firmament, with T&T as their lodestone of identification.Robinson, a Trinidadian writer and performer, has two previous collections of poetry: Suitcase, published in 2004, and Suckle, published in 2009. Suckle was the recipient of The People's Book Prize, a UK-based award that focuses on highlighting new and undiscovered work. He also released an album of spoken-word works in 2004.
Poet and critic Kwame Dawes, associate editor of poetry at Peepal Tree Press, the book's publisher, has described Robinson's poetic strengths as being most evident "in the poem of narrative... the work that presents a story of uncomplicated plot movement, but quite sophisticated character." The poems in The Butterfly Hotel bear out the hallmarks of narrative tenacity to which Dawes refers: they are stories, each of them waiting to be spoken aloud, in which vocal performance they are almost guaranteed to have their finest lustre.This is not to suggest that the pieces do not hold up well on the page; they do. Each one is a pennant of remembrance or a banner for nostalgia; each poem adds to the collaged history that Robinson aims to piece together from memory or else recreate with the help of creative reinvention.
Section One of the collection plunges the reader into the heart of Robinson's Brixton, a riotous sound clash, a bombastic spectacle of cultures converging, a place wherein one might feel at home and simultaneously alienated. Prayers for Angry Young Men kicks off the collection, a fist-raising tribute of successive invocations, in which the narrator offers a litany of blessings for the brave, boisterous youth-men he observes. The repetitive cadences of the poem resound with the fever of a passionate call to arms, offering "prayers for the screw-faced youths who hold on to everything but own nothing, prayers for the buzz of the barber's blade keeping their heads neat while their minds are scattered."Sections Two and Three range wider, touching on the tales of migrants both within the Caribbean and without. Both native and interloper are revealed; both facets of the twinned coins of arrival and departure are flipped in Robinson's energetic interrogations. In The Pitch Lake, a violated Ewaipanoma girl serenely looks on as her Englishman rapist, one of Walter Raleigh's pox-spreading posse, is dragged down to the pitch-black depths.
The poem On Seeing the Butterfly Collection homes in on the narrator's attention to, and fascination with, Lepidoptera and their habits of journeying. The pinned wings of the mounted creatures in their display cases do not rivet the narrator nearly so much as the places the butterflies have been: "patchworks of fields, salt-crusted waves, the grey stone face of cliffs, the shock of red hibiscus, the grey-white of clouds."We human travellers, Robinson seems to suggest, would do well to take lessons in resilience from these supposedly fragile creatures. The voice in The Monarch Butterfly speaks on behalf of their undaunted kind, reminding the reader that their kind represents "the returning spirits of loved ones, reminding you to keep our graves clean."The Butterfly Hotel reads as one voluminous, winged passport: a poet's self-proclaimed series of markers, fluttering from continent to island chain, from metropolis to market stall. The poems sing, and lilt, and warn in equal measure. They declare with clarity and a richness of multi-lensed perspective, that no journey is identical, not for butterflies, and not for human sojourners.