The poem is telling us about shapeshifting.
One of the earliest poems in Colin Robinson’s You Have You Father Hard Head, “I Want to Bite” is a spare, enigmatic offering, showing the reader vignettes in eight movements. I am fortunate enough to be a nameless stagehand at these scenes, not remotely pivotal to them in any way, but a certain kind of present, a particular sense in which I was both there and not there. The actions of the poem all occur at the 2010 Cropper Foundation’s Residential Workshop, a three-week long creative writing intensive at which I met Colin, along with several other writers whose work, like Colin’s, is as valuable to me as any vital currency.
If you were there, as I was, some of the instances the poem rethreads seem and feel familiar: they hearken to events that happened, as the poem describes them, in 2010: there are tableaux of accusatory linens flapping in the Toco breeze; undersalted food served at a broad table; a visit from a poet who speaks of an intense attachment to lagahoos. There is some satisfaction in the being there, and especially there is a kind of aching elation at not being pinned to any of these scenes: a kind of richness begins to unravel, red and soaked in memory, from seeing the space as Colin the person and poet remembered it, the events that happened in that strange, wild, transformative time when writers gathered as strangers to each other to write and tell each other in kind and unkind terms what they thought of each others’ writing. There is pleasure in seeing the poet transmogrify on the page that which was experience, lived and actual, into the matter of poetry, which needs to express no full fidelity to fact or fiction.
Perhaps one of the greatest powers of the poem is that each of its eight movements, set interspersed at opposite alignments on the page (i starts on the left hand, ii on the right, and so forth) is that you, the reader, do not need to have been there to feel that the world of this place is real: that biting and transforming are crucial to its strange, unheimlich manifestations. In the first verse, both soycouyant and la diablesse are summoned entirely without speculative fanfare, but as simple declarations. Brown blood wells in the second movement, the action of the speaker dislocating their scabs; we move from one brownness to another in movement three, with the advent of a small brown insect visitor, unwelcome and leggy on the speaker’s bed.
Held in suspension from each other, these movements might resemble a disjointed quarrying of the mind over days spent in one place. Yet when the poet tells us, in movement seven,
hung a lagahoo’s picture
over his bedhead
to seduce verse”
and we turn the page of the book to read the poem’s conclusion:
we should not be ashamed
we must acknowledge that this is no idle quarry; this is a rich and unsentimental hoard: eight steps through brown blood, soiled linen, lagahoo energy and too little salt to say a heraldic suck your mudda to shame. That it has no place in these motions of writerly living, though so much writerly living is embedded in shame, the secret, the unaddressed. In so few lines, Robinson addresses so much of it, allowing us to partake in these recollections made poetry, these observances of how life has passed through the poet in a specific place, how the poet, like any good and watchful poet, has taken those memories into the mas of the poem. And what we have, as you can, see — oh, how it transforms us.
This is the first of seven reflections in “and i am the man / laughing”, close readings of the poems of Colin Robinson. Each of these poems appears in Colin’s debut collection, You Have You Father Hard Head (Peepal Tree Press, 2016). Robinson, a beloved and pioneering poet, activist and columnist, died on March 4th, 2021 following a prolonged battle with cancer. He was a powerful creative and transformative force, an ally without comparison, and a truly irreplaceable comrade. He will be missed, and his work will live long and impactfully.