and i am the man / laughing: “I Have No Name for my Father”

Image: Black Boy Booty, posted at Flickr by nathanmac87 under a Creative Commons License.

We are who we are because of those who made us, or so we’ve been told. We model our lives in the shadows and the halos of our parents, and their parents before them: it’s part of what makes us get through the hard, hard grift of living, sometimes — this notion that we’re acting for our legacy, and in defense of the legacy left for us. Be the kind of woman your mother would be proud to call daughter, or, he’s every bit his father’s son, and that’s a good goddamned thing.

“I Have No Name for my Father”, a poem from the section of You Have You Father Hard Head that also bears that name. The phrase “You have you father hard head” is further embedded in this poem, in a line from a mother to her son as she stresses over the unruliness of her child’s hair. The mother figure is a passive speaker here, in that she does not address the reader of the poem, but there is nothing docile or minimal about her impact. Her frustration at the gone father, the one nameless in both her “disappointed woman’s pain”, and the son’s immersion into the deep lake of that teaching, is written everywhere in the poem’s overt and quiet spaces. The mother’s fraying wig is a tactile symbol of more bedrock fissuring. The boy’s indoctrination into self-loathing, sole male pitted against/cradled within three generations of women who teach him feminism and also introduce him to pervasive self-hatred, permeates to every physical part of him that is fatherless. His body lacks the image and measure of a man named father, as much as he intellectually, emotionally mourns the loss of that figure, that man who might never have been there at the beginning.

The name of the missing and vanished man is known, the poem’s speaker tells us in the poem’s opening lines. Yet there is a great distance between knowing a name, and having it. Having implies possession, implies ease or certainty of ownership. There is no having of this father, though the knowledge of his name permeated the speaker’s childhood, was with him as he sat between his mother’s frustrated knees under the bitter tutelage of her fine-toothed comb.

“You have you father hard head”. It’s worth it to pay attention to the echo and reverb of these words, so significant to the poem, this movement of poems, this collection entire. Linguistically it catches the subject in a vise not of their own making: the you have indicts the speaker into an uneasy, almost unsanctioned ownership, saying “You may know nothing about this man; he may have had nothing to do with you, but in your hair and his there is an unbreakable bond. It’s up to you to live with that.” We add to this the knowledge that “hard head” speaks not only of hair, but of an emotional language so many of these poems’ speakers falter and fight to finesse on their journeys: tenacity; ownwayness; vexation; obdurate ire; stubborn troubling of the waters; ignorance — but the Trini definition, allyuh.

We move through this brief poem as though it is much longer than it is — a skill of the poet, compressing an entire life’s searching, questioning for fatherhood in short, taut verses that do not only occupy the page, but trouble it. Towards the poem’s end, poised once more on a platform that can provide no easy answers, no graceful names:

“A grown man now has no names to own
the blankness that I feel
to silence the longing
What is the name for father I can
sound into the darkness for rescue”

What about you, adult and immaculately poised on the balcony of your own life? This feels strongly like an invitation from the poem, not only to focus on this speaker’s pain, but to taste the unnameable borders of our own. What name do we hold in our soft viscera, hoping to mewl it into the night? What name do we want to wave hard, like a flag?

This is the fourth 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.

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