Matthew Hollis, Earth House – review

Most of my poetry reading involves concentrated focusing on short poems or passages. Much of Earth House demands reading of a different kind. It asks readers to open themselves to a flow of verbal music and of images and ideas that are sometimes concrete and sharp, sometimes blurrily evocative, letting emotional and intellectual suggestions accumulate at their own pace. The result is beautiful, often moving and in many ways elusive, becoming frustrating if you try to focus it too definitely. Absorbing it requires a kind of receptive passivity, like the calling from the thicket in ‘Hedge Bird’, of which Hollis says

You know the song, it was with you
when you started. Try not to think
you can find it with your eyes, reach out
and you’ll only silence it. Listen.

Of course there are poems that don’t make this kind of demand. ‘A Harnser for James’ shows the poet trying to teach a five year old child how to catch crabs on a line without a hook. As a self-contained poem, it delights by the tenderness of the father’s empathy and the sensitivity with which he explores differences between the perspectives of early childhood and maturity. Attempting to distract the child from frustration at his failure, Hollis breaks into a litany of East Anglian folk names for wild creatures. In the wider context, the poem reflects several main themes of the book, such as its emphasis on place, its passion for absorbing cultural heritage (folk names, here), and its strong sense of change as involving both loss and gain (maturing will bring a loss of innocence).

In ‘A Harnser for James’ those themes are clear and explicit. In many others, wider suggestions are evoked in shadowy, ambiguous terms. There’s a fascinating overlap of ideas in a line from the first section of ‘Stones’ describing childhood beachcombing – ‘These were the jewels when the jewels were living’. On a literal level, it refers to the difference between finding starfish, say, and only finding pretty stones. However, the oracular balance of the phrase gives it a haunting, mysterious suggestiveness. It seems to me to evoke the cycles of life and death in terms of a magical, fairytale metamorphosis, and it’s followed by a surreal fantasy which tells us that the stones the speaker and his companion dropped on the beach behind them became girls and boys and those laid in the wash turned to water again. In the wider context, the sense that ‘when the jewels were living’ looks sadly back at a lost higher state is reinforced by the way Earth House is haunted by an awareness of time and change that involves both growth and decline but seems to lean particularly towards the latter. The tenderness in poems addressed to children seems to reflect this sense of their vulnerability and perhaps also a sense that even positive growth involves the loss of that first untainted bloom.

For all its title, and the gritty particularity of some of its descriptions of place and nature, Earth House is extremely literary. Though its verse is generally free, it’s highly rhythmical and full of echoing sound patterns, often seeming on the verge of breaking into a chant of a sensitive and subtly shifting kind. Admittedly, occasional lines sound like simple informal speech – ‘Summers he would sail for Alaska’, ‘Turn into the lane, the house is in view’ – but such are rare. More often there’s a heightening formality, both rhythmically and in terms of linguistic register and metaphorical resonance, as in the description of a child kicking leaves at the beginning of ‘Leaves’. Here, the chant-like effect comes from the way each line seems to divide into two halves, with a ghostly echo of Old English alliterative verse:

Kicking up leaves in a lulled wood
when paths are covered under foot
and a low rook claps at a loose dog,
or a called name carries in the bare trees …

Moreover, the whole book is full of allusions. Apart from Eliot’s Four Quartets, two allusive fields seem particularly important. One is Chinese philosophy, particularly the idea of the five elements, wood, fire, earth, metal and water, feeding and consuming each other in cycles of generation and destruction. This idea is explicitly referred to in the notes to ‘Leaves’ but seem present elsewhere in the volume’s pervasive concern with flux and its recurring images of these elements. The other is the way each of its four sections ends with a translation of an Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book. An often melancholy tone finds its sharpest expression in these. In ‘Deor’, for example, there’s a yearning for change but the hope it offers is bleak. Relating his sufferings to that of others, the speaker consoles himself with the refrain line, ‘These things have passed, so may this pass from me.’

Incorporating old literature, old idiomatic sayings and dialect words in a new volume may hope to breathe new life into things in danger of being lost. However, it inevitably emphasises the fact of transience, that all achievement and all sense of belonging is only temporary. The book’s tenderness towards young lives is sharpened by a constant undertow towards loss and ruin. It ends with a devastatingly powerful translation of the well-known Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’. The title Earth House receives a cruel twist in these lines:

All that was raised has fallen, all in time
undermined. Grasped in the ground
in the harsh gripped ground:
the makers and masons, their centuries’ kin.

The ground is gripped by frost. That brings out a poignant ambiguity in the closing line (capitalised by Hollis) ‘AND HERE ALSO THERE WAS FIRE’. The main suggestion is that fire destroyed the once-great building. However, there’s also a sense that even this now-desolate scene was once a place of warmth and life.  There’s an almost overwhelming emotional force to such a line coming at the end of the volume.


Earth House by Matthew Hollis. Bloodaxe Books. 112pp.; £14.99 hardback

I would like to thank Danielle Hope, the editor of Acumen, for permission to post this review, which appeared in Acumen 108


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