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A GATHER OF SHADOW:
Jennifer Matthews reviews Mark Roper's newest poetry collection.
Jennifer Matthews writes poetry and book reviews, and is editor of the Long Story Short literary journal. Her poetry has been published in The Stinging Fly, Mslexia, Revival, Necessary Fiction, Poetry Salzburg, Foma & Fontanelles and Cork Literary Review, and anthologised in Dedalus's collection of immigrant poetry in Ireland, Landing Places (2010). In 2012 she read at Electric Picnic with Poetry Ireland, and had a poem shortlisted by Gwyneth Lewis in the Bridport poetry competition. She is currently working on a collaboration with poet Anamaría Crowe Serrano.
Photo © Dave Griffin
A Gather of Shadow
(Dedalus Press, 2012)
ISBN: 978 1 906614 591
Buy from Dedalus
A Gather of Shadow is a slim volume that begins with a bang and ends in a comforting whisper. This new offering from Mark Roper is divided into two sections: ‘Keep-Net’ and ‘A Gather of Shadow’, the first being a miscellany of nature poems and the second addressing the passing of a loved one. Throughout the collection Roper weaves in a strong thread of spirituality.
It’s difficult not to polarise or alienate readers when bringing in spirituality, particularly for those who have experienced religion as a force for expulsion, rejection or exclusion. Roper’s work, however, is a force for gentleness and inclusion where the metaphysical is concerned. ‘The Forge’ is a poem where perhaps we are encountering the Creator (or at least, a creator) in his workshop: “heaped on / a broken chair in shadow… ” When the smith (creator) speaks, he offers his tools as a point of interest:
The great bellows he showed us lovingly,
the many different nails, the shoes, tongs, hammers,
were buried under inches of dust,
sunken bullion on an ocean floor.
I was drawn in by the quirky, unexpected descriptions of the smith, who “moved like a man under water, / breathing equipment disconnected. / He touched his face and the spot stayed white.” The vulnerability of the scene absolutely drew me in, staying with me long after I’d put the book down.
‘Little Soul’, the poem that follows, makes a charming companion piece to ‘The Forge’:
curled inside like a cat,
turning up your nose
at the milk of everyday ….
Surprising descriptions are features in many of Gather’s poems. We have a thrush whose song is “a blow-torch, a sandblast”, a bull “flicking up his dainty feet, / bellowing raw joy” and a terrier with a “shitty coat, the edge of menace”. The terrier, “Ramming itself down burrows”, is from the poem ‘This’, my favourite piece in the collection for the raw emotional response it evoked.
Roper is particularly skilled at sketching movement. ‘Falling’ cleverly uses enjambments as ledges for the following line to drop from, echoing the subject’s descent:
So when I close my eyes to sleep, I start
to fall, through and out of all I know,
only to land with a bump suddenly back
in myself again …
After the variety and twists of the first section, the reader gears down to take in the more meditative second section. Although not taking a particularly short form, many of the poems employ a haiku-like ‘reveal’ at the end, a suitable reflection of how grief is experienced. The world we think we understand changes completely after loss, illusions lifted. In ‘Silence’ the personification is apt:
She’s asked you to clear
some space for her.
She doesn’t leave now
when we come in.
In his skill as a poet, Roper has done me the disservice of supplying a new worry about aging and dying. Contrary to the traditional fear of dying alone, ‘Public’ is a portrait of a woman who lost her privacy entirely as her health deteriorated. “Unable to find a quiet corner to die …. You left your face behind, / crawled away deeper and deeper.” These poems of mourning are not maudlin, however, and their touches of compassion help carry the reader through this exploration of grief and passing. Each poem in the second section is a look at how memory creates tribute to those we've lost, the titles creating a scrapbook of final moments together: 'Last Breath', 'That Day', 'Last Look', 'Crossing', '19.9.08'.
That this is Roper’s first collection since his 2008 Even So: New & Selected Poems, and that this collection is slim, indicates to me that Roper is a poet I can trust with my time. It is ridiculously rare that poets turn a selective eye to their own work, with many contemporary authors pumping out new books at an alarming pace. With A Gather of Shadow I am confident I am reading the cream of his productivity, and that he’s concerned not only about his interests and craft, but also my experience as a reader.
©2012 Jennifer Matthews
Matthews poems at Poetry International Web
Yank Refugee in the PRC (blog)
Long Story Short literary journal