A Portable Paradise, Roger Robinson’s fourth poetry collection, didn’t come across my radar until it won the 2019 T. S. Eliot Prize for poetry. While literary prize culture is as fallible as, say, film awards like the Oscars, the TSE Prize shortlist is always interesting to look at, and the title poem immediately caught my interest. Unfortunately, it was incredibly hard to get my hands on a copy! Robinson’s publisher, Peepal Tree Press, is a small independent press, and it seems like demand for the book far outstripped supply after the award.
I’ve been rereading it recently, because once I finally did manage to get a copy in 2020, it was easily the most memorable collection of poetry I’d read in a while. Robinson, a British-Trinidadian poet who splits his time between London and Trinidad, covers an incredible amount of ground in this slim volume: the early sections focus particularly on the Grenfell Tower Fire, the last one on the premature birth of his son, and in between is everything else: the Windrush generation, black experience in the UK, the legacy of slavery, anti-immigrant sentiment, and so forth. And yet it never feels scattered or incoherent: the collection as a whole is grounded by the various poems that, often at the end of a section, return to the topic of paradise that’s raised by the title. What is paradise? What do we mean when we say paradise? in particular, what do we mean when we consider paradise against the suffering experienced here in the world?
I work a lot with religion and literature, so the theological bent of the collection hooked me, of course: I hadn’t really anticipated it, but Robinson takes it seriously, and examines the word from every angle. The collection, as a result is shot through with interwoven threads of both transcendent ideals and political concerns: the personal is political, Robinson understands, but also, a word like paradise carries real heft, and often the stuff of real life happens where the personal and the political meet. But also, formally, it’s an impressive collection: one reviewer found it “uneven” for the number of poetic forms that Robinson tackles, accusing it of lacking formal unity, but the thematic concerns and arrangement of poems provide the unifying links necessary to keep the collection from feeling disjointed.
The collection opens with a sequence of poems on the Grenfell Tower fire, and cover the range of grief and pain experienced by those who lost loved ones in the disaster. It’s hard to choose a standout, but “The Portrait Museum” has a heartbreaking moment from onlookers who, after the fire, sees the missing posters put up by families:
In a minute of pure clairvoyance we understand
that many of these pictures are the faces of the dead…
These were the flimsy paper faces of hope for the living;
those not taped well are blown away on the breeze.
Many with posters refuse this first day of mourning;
as days went on, the wind blew most of them away.
The first paradise poem, “The Job of Paradise,” appears at the end of this section, like a prayer for comfort:
It is the job of Paradise
to comfort those who’ve been left behind,
to think that all those loved and lost
would live on their like tiny gods.
…If only I could live my days till death suffice
and make Earth feel like Paradise.
The next section tackles the black experience in the UK, from slavery to present day race relations and police violence; the fourth section is ekphrastic poems, about works of visual art, or inspired by musicians and other poets, and this one begins a more hopeful trajectory that culminates in the fifth and final section of the collection. This is, selfishly perhaps, my favorite part; in this sequence we see particularly poems that show people being everyday saints that others need, from “Grace,” about the Jamaican NHS nurse who cared for Robinson’s premature son, to “Liver,” about a black barbershop where a man with liver disease is brought in by a friend for a haircut and some community and normality. The collection then ends with the title poem, “A Portable Paradise,” in which the speaker recalls his grandmother’s advice to “carry it always / on my person, concealed,” so it can never be stolen and always held close:
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room—be it hotel,
hostel, or hovel—find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills, and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.
It’s a collection that keeps calling me back, again and again, and Robinson’s achievement here is to unflinchingly portray injustice, but also to stubbornly insist on hope, and most of all for those who have suffered injustice, for pockets of paradise to be found, over and over, in the stuff of ordinary life.