If we are lucky within our sorrow, those who die before us tell us exactly how they wish to be mourned.
You can take “The Plural of Me” in this spirit. For me, right now at least, it’s difficult to read this poem without wondering if this precisely is how Colin the human being would like to be remembered, would choose his loved ones to live with him. In the poem, the speaker makes a simple exhortation of their future mourners, gathered casketside to send them to a respectful and well-appointed grave. “leave no funereal instructions / to coffin my mourners”, the speaker asks their audience, and it is a deliberate gesture on the poem’s part that we do not know to whom the speaker speaks: will this listener, or group of faithful beloveds, be in attendance at the future funeral, too? Is the subject of the funeral a hazy, too-many-rum-punches-over-brunch hypothetical, or is it ensnared in the specific; is a calendar date assigned to the hour of passing?
These are not questions for which there are ready answers. So it is, with what death leaves us and what we are left to take, two-handed and bewildered, from her sovereign wake. It’s as if we are resident within a poem where the speaker already knows this to be true, already knows there will be an “inventing memory from desire for my / respectability achievement bodyparts worthiness”. Faced with this certainty that they will be misremembered, unevenly allocated, imprecisely configured in the minds and testimonies of those left to mourn them, the speaker issues a simple addendum to this necessary pageant.
Box me up in little packages, they say. Let the people of my life and now my afterlife live with me as they may.
Ahh, this shifts the goalpost, or the procession standard, of the terms of the death-deal, doesn’t it? The speaker allows the expected rituals of congregation and varying reports of their stature, but also insists, “if public health allow” (a swiping unintended brutality of the poem, written years before anyone knew our public health crisis of 2021 would make gathered mourning a heavily curtailed transaction), that these mourners must also literally take their beloved home. It matters, the poem tells us gently and sternly, not only how we wail and rend and pulpitize on the day of mourning, but how we live with the departed beloved after there are no guestbooks left to sign, when it is only you and your grief and your remembering: only you you must hold to account for well or ill you served as friend, as ally.
“parcel my cremains like wedding cake
small ribbon-tied boxes
for everyone to travel home with
stamp and spit and pee on as they curse
or smear themselves to rapture”
The poem understands, and waits patiently for us to understand too, that the many stations of death have their own allotted times: that there is the public-facing death, and the several that fewer and fewer know about, til you are distilled to the one death you can hold in your hands, can scoop into your mouth or lay on your tongue like ashes.
It is impossible, and I will not try, to say I can read this poem and not miss Colin. I miss my ally. There is a void and an aching that this writing about his work creates, and I would not wish it otherwise. I want to curse, and smear my ash.
This is the third 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.