I've had a great run of newly published poetry books recently and I'm finding them so fulfilling. I've been reading a lot of them on the train and the way you can drop in and out of an imagined scenario, emotion or landscape is truly a great feeling. I'm sure my fellow commuters wonder what my constant knowing nods, muttered comments of "oh dear!" or deep sighs as I look of into the middle distance are all about but that's just what it does to you.
Mark Roper is originally from Derbyshire and has lived in Ireland for thirty years (still a blow-in then, like myself!). Former Ireland Review Editor and with five other poetry collections under his belt, A Gather of Shadow published by Dedalus Press is his sixth and this collection again shows his understanding of nature of which he is much admired and also draws on his feelings of grief over his mother's death.
The cover design is natural looking but slightly haunting. It is a painting (by Dutch painter Felice) but it looks like a rough weave of cloth and a bird design with a red surround that looks somewhat like a blood stain. The collection is in two parts; 'Keep-Net' consists of seventeen poems and 'A Gather of Shadow' which has twenty-six poems.
The collection opens marvelously. 'River at Night' is very much a living thing; "It's vegetable breath,/ its mucky olive, soaked khaki coat." Roper has repetition of words through this section; the word "metal" and also a "swallow" is present in 'Falling', 'The Forge', 'Just' and also in a couple of poems in the second collection. It reminded me of the frequent use of the sparrow in poetry to symbolise time, originating from the Bede's eighth century poem where he compares man's life to a sparrow's flight through the banqueting hall. But in 'Just' it is the lyrical yet also short and tight language that is so effective; "Just the grebe/ on the lake/ first thing."
Nature rears its head again in the creature the 'Black Bull', ominous in its hard title sounds. The strong creature is left out in all weathers, "The great roof of his neck/ starts to leak." But we are not to feel any pity for this almost prehistoric looking creature, because, come spring he's seen "flicking up his dainty feet,/ bellowing his raw joy." Magic!
Still in the animal world, 'This' is a heart-tugging poem. The abandoned, almost rabid looking terrier dog, "filthy teeth", "shitty coat", lifts up its head with a "look, such longing./ Such open unguarded need."
From the second collection, 'Sea Fret' is a tragic poem about a drowning and the thoughts of the drowning man. You immediately think of the famous Stevie Smith poem. This poem is powerful too, with a wrenching request for forgiveness from the drowning man in its closing. Caught in the fret again, twenty years after having been caught when he managed to make his way to shore, "this time no shore can be found/ and you're saying I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry to let you all down."
A dozen poems deal directly with Mark Roper's mother's death, beautifully, peacefully and so respectfully. But there is humour there too as he can hear his mother's voice in 'Last Look', "O do get on with it, for pity's sake!".
I particularly liked 'Damn', a memory of family holidays, bad weather in caravans and fraught parents where;
"cooped up we fought and squabbled constantly.
Near the end you dropped a glass jug.
The word Damn broke from your lips, first time
we'd ever heard you swear. It left us speechless."
A collection that reaches so many different emotions and feelings, and one that is first and foremost real and human. I really liked the clean, sharp language and will be returning to several of Mark Roper's poems again to dwell further on them.