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On Bindweed, The Yellow House and Courting Katie:

Matthew Geden reviews new collections by Mark Roper, William Wall and James O'Sullivan

 

 

 

yMatthew Geden was born and brought up in the Midlands of England, moving to Kinsale in 1990. His most recent poetry collection is The Place Inside published by Dedalus Press in 2012. He reviews regularly for the Irish Examiner and in 2017 he set up Kinsale Writing School.

 

 

 

 

nBindweed

Mark Roper

Dedalus Press, 2017

ISBN: 9781910251249

€12.50

Buy from Dedalus

 

 

Mark Roper was born in Derbyshire in 1951, but has lived in Ireland since 1980. Since then he has become a familiar figure on the literary scene, teaching creative writing workshops, editing Poetry Ireland Review in 1999 and publishing a number of strong collections including Even So: New and Selected Poems which came out from Dedalus in 2008. He has collaborated on two operas with the composer Eric Sweeney, The Invader and most recently The Green One. Roper has also worked with the photographer Paddy Dwan on two books and in other ventures with photographer Margaret O’Brien-Moran, painter Susan Hughes and choreographer Libby Seward. He has also taught in prisons, schools and senior citizen centres so has a broad range of experiences.

 

This latest collection, Bindweed, is divided into two distinct sections both of which draw upon recurrent themes from Roper’s poetic career including place and the natural world. In the opening poem, “Longtailed Tits”, the place of the piece is itself the natural world as the poet finds himself caught up in the “urgent conversation” of the birds around him. The birds can be heard in the sibilance of the first line and their chatter is reminiscent of human gossip reminding the reader that birds have their society too. The poem seems to speak of paying attention to the natural world, of listening carefully before it’s gone.

 

Other poems examine birds plucked out of their natural environments, stilled and stuffed into cabinets in museums. Here it seems the lesson to be learned is that one must not interfere too much with nature, and in fact the more we examine it the more we are aware of our need to leave it be:

as if by a closer look we might learn

how best to let them keep their distance.

“The Wader Cabinet”

Man cannot control the natural world and is in fact destined to lose it even as he or she reaches out for it. This is also evident in the poem “A Far Cry” which seems to echo the comparison made by The Venerable Bede when he parallels the flight of a sparrow through a mead hall to the life of a man. In Roper’s poem a swallow “swerves across a dune” and then vanishes so fast “it leaves an ache in your eyes”. The swallow, however, seems to represent nature once more as elusive and fleeting something that the human world only notices as it disappears, even the poem itself “cannot hold you, though / it holds you, swallow, gone.”

 

The slightly shorter second half of Bindweed deals with a serious accident that befell Roper in the mountains and charts his reactions and recovery with remarkable honesty and lack of self-pity. In fact, the first poems are almost detached, implying a near-death experience:

through the gulf I looked

down on towards me

looking down.

“Stretchers”

It is this ability to stand outside himself that makes Roper such a good observer. As he waits to be rescued in “After the Fall” he looks and listens to the birds, the sound of a stream and ends up “almost resenting / the helicopter, / the rescue it brought”. Once more the poet is caught between two worlds, the human world and the world of nature which chatters on regardless.

 

Bindweed is another fine collection from a poet who is alert both to the natural world and his own fragile existence within the world in general. As the collection progresses it takes on an elegiac tone with the loss of his father spanning several poems. There is a poem for a favourite cat which is given human qualities when he is buried “in his favourite cardigan” and the story of a last crossing of the Rinnashark Harbour in County Waterford. Such encounters place the poet in his natural state, remembering and ultimately:

 

Making

the strange meanings

you make

when you’re alone.

“Bee Orchids”

 

e

The Yellow House

William Wall
Salmon Poetry, 2017
€12

ISBN: 9781910669877

Buy from Salmon

 

The yellow house of the title of William Wall’s latest collection refers partly to the famous house in Arles where Vincent van Gogh and, for a short time, also Paul Gauguin lived in 1888. Van Gogh’s painting of it is on permanent loan to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, but the house itself was demolished after being severely damaged in an Allied bombing raid during the Second World War. More personally, the yellow house refers to Wall’s own former residence in Whitegate, Cork which was also destroyed, due to a gas explosion in 2008. These two houses bookend the collection which contains elegies on the themes of loss and displacement amongst others.

 

Wall is a highly accomplished poet, novelist and short story writer, excelling at all three disciplines which is a rare feat for any writer. His numerous awards include the Patrick Kavanagh Award, the Sean O’Faoláin Prize and the Virginia Faulkner Award whilst he has been longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Manchester Fiction Prize. He has translated from the Italian and maintains a specific interest in Italy, attending festivals and giving readings there. Furthermore, at the beginning of 2017 he became the first European to win the Drue Heinz Literature Prize issued by the University of Pittsburgh Press for a book of short stories.

 

The Yellow House then is an offering from a writer who is at the top of his game and this is evident from the confidence of the writing. Wall’s poetry is an impressionistic style of free verse which moves swiftly through time and place. There is no punctuation, allowing the poems a free flow so that they seem to run into each other as the book becomes one long meditation. There are plenty of rhymes including a nice pairing of “aplomb” and “boom” in the opening poem, “The Yellow House”. The overall effect is to link the past and the present as well as the private and public worlds.

 

The first poem begins and ends with the explosion of the house where Wall grew up. This event elicits a combination of memories which are occasionally thrown into contrast by the modern world. The year 2008 was not only the year of the house being blown up, but also marked the time when the Celtic Tiger came crashing down. This latter event is not explicitly mentioned here, but it remains at the edges of the poem and in remarks such as , “where the house should be / a development opportunity” and “today is for the kindness of markets / regrets and dividends”. The past is romanticised as a time of “love” and “all that stuff about our fellow man”, but as the poem progresses this idea is undercut by “pain”, “crying” and the deaths of the poet’s parents. The past is, as Wall puts it in a reference back to the destruction of his childhood home: a bomb in the best of places / a mine in the heart ("The Yellow House”).

 

The funereal tone of this poem continues in five elegies for friends and family including the Cork poet Patrick Galvin and the American poet Amiri Baraka. The sense of loss is not restricted to individuals but also encompasses ways of life as is evident in “In the Greek Theatre”, the first section draws parallels between Syracuse in Sicily and Donegal, “all the abandoned villages / hillsides lined by the plough”. Sicily is also the site of a new emigration disaster as it is a landing point for many refugees travelling from various parts of Africa.

 

Wall is not afraid to tackle big political issues and at the heart of this new collection are concerns with displacement and the modern refugee crisis. He is, however, aware of the disparity between poetry and the real life suffering going on. In “The Ballad of Lampedusa” he writes:

 

and I sit by a window translating

a poem about people drowning

         half-way to Africa

         almost in Tunisia

          in Lampedusa

“The Ballad of Lampedusa”

 

Meanwhile, “the dead came ashore like drowned birds”. This is very much a collection for our times, a meditation on the destruction of the past and the way the same problems nevertheless return on a cyclical basis. Yet, there is hope in the love poems towards the end of the book and also in the act of writing itself. As Wall says in “The Ship of Theseus”, “I remake myself / in every new phrase”.

 

 

w

 

Courting Katie

James O'Sullivan
Salmon Poetry, 2017
€12

ISBN: 9781910669853

Buy from Salmon

 

James O’Sullivan, a native of Cork city, has become an important figure on the ever-developing Cork literary scene. He is the founding editor of New Binary Press, an independent publishing house which was launched in 2013. Since then the press has published books by a number of new and interesting writers who are for one reason or another outside the current mainstream of Irish literature. Such projects are vital at a time when the poetry world here has been dominated by only a handful of presses and individuals. The emergence of new voices owes much to small publishers like New Binary and others such as Doire Press and Tramp Press.

 

O’Sullivan also founded the journal Digital Literary Studies, completed a Ph.D. entitled Towards a Digital Poetics and has edited several books. He has published articles on electronic literature and digital studies and has also published two previous collections of poetry. This impressive CV highlights the fact that O’Sullivan is a deeply committed writer and publisher. New Binary Press has not only published individual works such as those by Graham Allen and Colm Scully, but has also produced an anthology of poetry and, in 2017, a book of creative responses to the Elysian tower in Cork.

 

The title of this collection, Courting Katie, gives a deliberately misleading notion of its contents. One might expect traditional poetry harking back to simpler times when courting, such a polite term, was the norm before Tinder and other forms of internet dating. The poem “Katie”, however, describes a very different sort of courtship in a language that skillfully weaves contemporary vernacular with a more courtly style. The first verse is typical of this:

 

I met Katie down on Pana, a young beur

with legs that gave her the walk of the queen -

we shifted off Daunt’s Square, where

I told her how she’d blossomed, bloomed,

how there’d never be a man to take my place.

“Katie”

 

Meeting on Pana, or Patrick Street, is a long-standing Cork tradition, while colloquial terms such as “beur” and “shifted” enhance the locality but are also relatively uncommon in Irish poetry. These lines suggest a recognisable Irish love poem and phrases such as “walk of the queen” and “blossomed, bloomed” reaffirm this notion.

 

The next stanza is set in the Bróg pub once a trendy meeting place, but here the couple already feel they have outgrown it and its “church-like / benches”. In the third and final stanza the poem shifts radically to a very new sort of love poem as the couple head to Parnell Place where the poet is left:

 

holding her hair

while she vomited, my left foot lodged

in discarded pizza, the smell of urine

in my nostrils, ready to be held myself.

“Katie”

This sudden change of register is shocking when juxtaposed to the earlier references to old women passing by and church pews. This modern Ireland co-exists alongside a gentler Fáilte Ireland version. In many ways this is a contemporary aisling poem with Katie representing modern Ireland, a country that may well have “bloomed”, but also contains an unsavoury edge that has often been ignored.

 

O’Sullivan takes this idea further in other poems such as “Those Streets” where the Cork streets are “where I bled” and the poet recalls a “den for drugs and predators”. The contrast here is with the university and its “marble halls” and “professors” which cannot quite diminish the Cork identity. There is a toughness here but there are also more tender poems such as “The Laundry” where the poet recalls visiting his grandmother to “listen to stories / while she did her needle work” and remembers “Packie Bonner’s save” at the 1990 World Cup. Later poems in the collection also reflect on the boom and bust of the last ten to fifteen years noting, in “Malin Head”, “a son emigrating, / and a daughter sleeping / under a European-funded bridge”.

 

Courting Katie is a fine collection from a relatively new and vibrant voice. O’Sullivan’s poems are timely reminders to look closer at the world around us. Ireland, and in this case Cork, has many layers and complexities which cannot be ignored or brushed under the carpet and this collection highlights that. “Memory suggests that things were simpler” writes O’Sullivan in “Fadó Fadó” but it is clear in this book that things are never as simple as they seem.

 

 

©2018 Matthew Geden

 

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