Bindweed, by Mark Roper, Dedalus Press, 80 pp, €12.50, ISBN: 978-1910251249
Mark Roper’s poetry has always been deeply rooted in an attentiveness to nature, and his precise and often thought-provoking lyricism has been impressively sustained throughout his many collections, from his debut, The Hen Ark (1990), through to Even So: New and Selected Poems, published in 2008.
Having moved from England in 1980 to the countryside of Kilkenny, where he has since lived, Roper has become, in the words of the poet Carol Rumens, “an extraordinarily distinguished ‘nature poet’ – or perhaps the better term, ‘poetic naturalist’”. His love of birds, in particular, is instantly apparent in the opening poem of his fine and most recent collection, Bindweed, where the “tiny travelling circus” of long-tailed tits is celebrated in nine joyous couplets. There are other memorable poems in this first section of the book, some of them inspired by the poet’s trips to the Natural History Museum in Dublin. In “The Wader Cabinet” he ponders the sight of an eskimo curlew, now extinct, and then philosophically concludes:
a last likeness, a bird extinct –
whatever we might have promised denied,
whatever might have bound us, untied.
Particularly appealing to me is his poem “Carving”, where the poet’s intricate detailing of a European Bison sculpted from a mammoth tusk some twenty-two thousand years old, on display in the British Museum, concludes with the powerful lines: “We keep going, though we are / all in some way wounded.”
And it is these two lines, it seems to me, which are the emotional core of Bindweed – a book of poems which is persistent in laying bare both the pain and happiness of being alive, while always looking to the forces of the natural world for guidance – and not just in Ireland. “Water and Stone” is an intriguing sequence based on a trip to Namibia, and the poem “Andean Cocks of the Rock” is inspired by a challenging walk down into a ravine in Ecuador, while “Never to Run Out” details an arduous trek on Vancouver Island and the poet’s unrelenting desire for the path to continue on, “for distance which when reached / would open to become again distance”.
There are poignant elegies in this book too. I particularly enjoyed the poem “Anniversary”, where the poet takes a freezing swim and remembers his dear friends Joe and Eilis who made the lake, “filled by the stream off the hill”. In “30th August 2013” – the day Seamus Heaney died on “an early morning out of Hardy” – Roper pays heartfelt homage to the great poet, who “even here shed light as you went / on your way, gratefully, into the earth”.
The second half of Bindweed gathers poems which are determinedly detailed in their descriptions of the poet’s near fatal accident while on a lone mountain walk. In “After the Fall” the language becomes a conduit for healing, as the poet unravels what exactly happened to him.
from my mouth
was not word but bawl –
as I think now
of pain of course,
but also triumph –
“Still Here! Still here!”
There is jubilation in these final words, a celebration of the consistency of life, while the poet lies injured. He has no choice but to lie still and listen to “a wren threading heather. / A pipit’s measured bounds.”
The poems in this section are impressive for their skilful melding of nature with the reality of being hospitalised and the trauma of the long journey to recovery. There is a memorable elegance to the first stanza of “X-Ray”:
Grace of the neck’s bearing, its fluent stoop,
how it holds like a spring the skull’s bowl;
a flower stalk, a thin leaning tower,
whose each storey floats on a bed of air.
This poem’s imaginative conclusion rises out of pain towards the mystery of healing, “haunted by / the most gentle swan; nerve feathered bird, / already mending, without a word”.
Poems and the writing of them become the force of recovery vital to the poet, who finds solace in the world about him. His own playful shadow in the poem “Shadow (2)” reminds him that he is still here, that “its exact likeness would not / from the world of light be gone forever”.
In the title poem bindweed becomes a metaphor for the frustrations of recovery and also a celebration of the beauty of the creeping perennial:
It’s true, no matter how I try
I can’t get to the start of it.
I feel it climb and twine around
my ribs, coming into flower
its silent white music through me,
over and over again.
From the slowness of recovery comes thoughts of his own father, a man after the poet’s own heart in the poem “On the Road”: “The gift of quiet / a quiet I’m covered in, / a quiet I break / to tell the difference / between us. To make / that difference.”
In another poem, there’s a forty-year-old photo of Roper’s father posted by a cousin on Facebook. The poem is knotted with self-doubt, a yearning still for his father’s attention. Would he approve of his son? Would he click on “Like”? In the poet’s garden one evening the ghost of his father appears, the final two verses both honest and heart-breaking:
What do you want?
I want you
to disown me.
Why am I still here?
You are digging down
for my tears.
One of the strongest poems is “The Lane”, where the poet describes the joy to be had in the healing walks he takes with his wife, down the lane which leads away from and eventually back to their home, when they would turn on their heels down “the shit-creamy lane” and go in through the gate:
It was open to us always to return.
You must have felt it too: each time we turned,
that’s where you reached for, took my hand.
The poem’s quiet intensity serves as a convincing testament to the worth of Mark Roper’s poems in Bindweed – a collection to be admired and returned to again and again.
Enda Wyley is a poet and children’s author. She has published five collections of poetry with Dedalus Press – most recently Borrowed Space, New and Selected Poems, 2014. She was the recipient of The Vincent Buckley Prize for Poetry and the Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship for Poetry, 2014. She is a member of Aosdána.