Aug 22 2023
Poetry review – EARTH HOUSE: Paul McDonald admires Matthew Hollis’s new collection of poems exploring place and time
Matthew Hollis ratcheted-up his profile recently with his much praised, The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (2022), but those who remember his first collection, Ground Water (2004), will know that he’s an accomplished poet in his own right. This new collection has had a protracted gestation, although he did take time-off to write an award winning biography of Edward Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, published in 2011.
Earth House is a beautiful book, looking wonderful in the hardback Bloodaxe edition, with lovely cover art from Jonathan Gibbs. Essentially it’s a book about places –specifically Britain and Ireland – and an exploration of those places through time. It splits into four sections, roughly corresponding to the cardinal points, and presents Hollis’s reflections on significant regions, drawn partly from his life experiences. It begins in the north east with a poem called ‘Causeway’, about crossing to Lindisfarne:
Beneath the rain-shadow and washed farmhouses, in the service of the old shore, we waited for the rising of the road, the south lane laden in sand, the north in residue and wrack; the tide drawing off the asphalt
I love the image of the rising road as hidden landscapes emerge. It opens a book which often deals with what lies beneath surfaces, and portals that might grant access to fresh insights about place. In this poem the experience of crossing the causeway teaches the speaker the significance of the journey itself, and the importance of cherishing it in its transience: as he goes on to tell us, ‘our licence [is] brief, unlikely to be renewed’. Tides will continue to rise and fall, but this experience, this moment of transition, is specific to him and his companion. He captures it beautifully in the final couplet:
Between mainland and island, in neither sway, a nodding of the needle as the compass takes its weigh.
There’s a tension between stasis and movement here, with the ‘nodding’ needle yet to settle between ‘mainland and island’, north and south. It’s a moment of epiphany for the speaker, underscored by the half-rhyme that closes the poem.
As in ‘Causeway’, Hollis’s poems often record movement through a landscape that is at once changing and permanent. This can be seen in the long poem, ‘Leaves’, previously published as a standalone pamphlet by Hazel Press. It’s partly a poem about the relationship between the speaker and his daughter, and his response to questions about life and death. The context is a ‘lulled wood’, with its cycles of death and regeneration and, as with ‘Causeway’, permanence is set alongside transience:
A tree on Earth shall lose its leaves But the wood that held us holds us, and the moment we stood in is standing. So the wood, now, is not the wood then, advancing like a tireless queen, its roof of new hours and axes. And the wood, then, is not the wood now, but a hearth of continuous elsewhere.
While the wood advances ‘like a tireless queen’, some things remain constant: a ‘continuous elsewhere’ in the midst of transience. Hollis loves such contradictions, and we feel the force of this one again at the end of ‘Leaves’:
Don’t leave me wherever you go And we won’t, and we won’t, until. We can never go back to the watering wood. We go back.
Our ability to make sense of this depends on how we conceive of time, and Hollis seems to feel that past, present and future are, to use Einstein’s phrase, ‘persistent illusions’; certainly in this poem, and throughout the book, the past is never over, and continually informs the present. Both father and daughter will leave the wood, but their visit will endure in a ‘continuous elsewhere’, where ‘the moment we stood in is standing’.
Myth and language keep the past ever-present for Hollis: his work is steeped in allusions to Anglo Saxon, Celtic and Norse myth, and richly textured with regional discourse, anchoring language both to history and place. Regional words feature in ‘A Harnser for James’, for instance, a lovely poem where the speaker introduces his son, James, to the abundance and power of words whilst out crab-hunting. The two of them are ‘Gillying on Blakely quay’, and James becomes increasingly frustrated with his inability to land a crab. The father urges James to be patient, reminding him that education and achievement can be slow processes:
But even the harnser in his reed bed, there, had once to learn to stalk and bait and spear- And what’s a harnser, anyway? you ask. All the printed names you’ve yet to learn then the country words, worn at the ear, passed in playgrounds and childhood towns: The harnser is the heron. And something in your worldhood fires, What else?
The father goes to list a host of dialect words for birds – ‘The crescent tailed erriwiggle/The jacob and the pollywiggle’ among others – and James becomes frustrated again by all he’s yet to learn, but his father encourages him to take heart:
Other days will come within your calling, practised and articulate and rhymed, though now it feels like workfulness or forgery, though now it feels hard-won: stay with me, if you can, you will take up the line.
The final word, ‘line’, references both the crablines that James is struggling to master, and his lineage as a son; his father can teach him ‘Gillying’, but he can also help his transition into the community, partly via the discourse that represents it, and which will provide a context for his own ‘worldhood’ to flourish. Once more the significance of the past and place are clear: James must learn from the former in order to thrive in the latter; in time he will become a living conduit between the two, ‘practised and articulate and rhymed’.
Each section of the book closes with a translation from the Anglo Saxon Exeter Codex, further reinforcing the connections to the myth, language and the past. The final translation, ‘Ruin’, ponders a building destroyed by fire. This poem is often interpreted as a metaphor for human existence, with the ruined house reflecting the inevitability of death: great houses, like ‘civilities collapse: even giants must die’. Hollis’s translation picks up on this, and seems to imply a connection between the fire that destroyed the building and the fire that burned in its hearth; in other words the fire which made the ‘unshakable house’ a dwelling, and ‘something in which to believe’. It closes:
precious, the sheer stones of the earth and all that came from them: an unshakable house, a hot spring, a garden walled on three sides, some place to bathe, to heat the heart. That was a moment. AND HERE ALSO THERE WAS A FIRE.
For me there is a connection between what was lost to fire and what was sustained by fire in the period when the building was habitable. In a manner of speaking, fire made it habitable, and the final capitalised line alludes to the enduring power of fire, which can nurture as well as destroy. Thus this translation is in keeping with the spirit of the book as a whole, which is always keen to dwell on the forces that continue to inform our lives and make them possible. It provides a fitting close to a stunning collection.