First Loves, Remembered

First Loves, Remembered: Peter Kahn on Roger Robinson

First Loves, Remembered

Mango Juice

Trinidad is…

The green cat’s eye
of the last marble left
from the two bulging pockets
that I win from my schoolfriend
Junior. As I slam his last
remaining marble
from the chalk circle
with a running start
he kicks me in the balls.
and all my mother’s friends
visit asking me if my balls
are feeling any better?

Trinidad is…

The bead of sticky mango juice
running down my bony wrists.
And it’s the Indian girl next door
who wears the same two dresses
all year round. She gives me a ripe
mango plumped to sweetness
once a week. She never talks
she just gives me the mango
and sits in the yard
with a goofy smile watching
me as I eat it, and then she leaves.
If she’s trying to get me
to like her I can tell you right
now it’s working.

Trinidad is…
The first drop of warm rain
of the wet season.
And all the young kids run
out into the street
in their Jockey shorts
with a bar of soap
for a rain bath.

It’s nights so long
you feel you could reach up
and pluck the diamante stars
from the black velvet sky.
It’s where I was, where I am
and where I’m going.
It’s the knot in my throat
when I have to leave.

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Twenty years ago, the Poetry Society published a series called First Loves in which we asked distinguished poets, including W.S. Merwin, Ntozake Shange, and Robert Creeley, to reflect on the poems that first captured their imaginations. The series eventually became a book, edited by Carmela Ciuraru, titled First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them. Here, we revisit that question with a new generation of poets, revealing how poetic influences both endure and change.

Peter Kahn on Roger Robinson's poem "Mango Juice"

It was June of 2003. I was teaching in London and physically and mentally burnt out. My good friend Roger Robinson and his wife Nicola had given me an open-ended invitation to stay with them in Trinidad. There was a term break and I decided to take them up on their kind offer. After a couple of days with them, I felt fully rejuvenated, like they had provided a 24-hour foot massage for my entire being.

I’ve never liked reading poetry. I hated it in junior high, high school, college, grad school and as an English teacher. In fact, poetry was my least favorite unit to teach. But one morning in Trinidad, I was up before anyone else and I spotted a stack of paper with a black clip holding it together: Suitcase by Roger Robinson. I figured Roger wouldn’t mind if I had a look. An hour later, I had finished reading Suitcase like it was a page-turner of a mystery novel. It was beautifully crafted, totally accessible and provided a road map for my visit to Trinidad (and my friendship with Roger). There were stories poetically woven throughout the book, with characters I wanted to meet. There was music and laughter and tears. I’ve always loved reading novels and now I had read a book of poetry that fit the bill.

I realize that I’m talking about discovering the joy of poetry at 35, instead of at 12, but that was how it was for me. There’s one poem in Suitcase that has stayed with me the most. It’s called “Mango Juice.” I first heard parts of it a year earlier when Roger performed a one-man show. “Mango Juice” is a funny, sweet, and poignant love letter to Trinidad written when Roger was living in London. It has personification like, “The bead of sticking mango juice/running down my bony wrists.” It has vivid imagery like, “It’s nights so warm/you feel you could reach up/and pluck the diamante stars/from the black velvet sky.” It has emotion, ending with, “It’s the knot in my throat/when I had to leave.” That’s the very sentiment I felt when I finished reading the final poem of Suitcase.

I love Roger’s most recent collection—the T.S. Eliot Prize-winning Portable Paradise—but there’s no love like a first love and Suitcase is that for me.

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