Nicola Healey

The Sheer Stones of the Earth


Earth House, Matthew Hollis, (Bloodaxe, 2023), 112 pages, £14.99


The first thing to admire about Matthew Hollis’s Earth House is that it is beautifully produced: in smooth and elegant hardback with an inviting, swirly night-blue and cream jacket illustration by Jonathan Gibbs, complete with brick-red title lettering. It’s the most attractive book I’ve held in a long time – it has a traditional feel in the best way, and makes one wish that more poetry could be afforded this level of care and attention, to be presented in its best light, as it deserves. It is a respectful act of curation, contributing both to the integrity of the literary object and to the reader’s experience, attachment and enjoyment. We tend to take more care with an artefact that has been cared for.

Earth House, which was longlisted for The Laurel Prize 2023, is Hollis’s first collection since Ground Water (Bloodaxe, 2004), though some of these poems have previously appeared in pamphlet form in the intervening years, often in handset and limited editions, most notably Leaves (Hazel Press, 2020), which was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards in 2021.

The elemental natural world imbues every poem and title that Hollis carefully constructs. His poems featuring his children are especially touching. ‘A Harnser for James’ (‘harnser’ is a Norfolk dialect word for a heron) is a poignant meditation on all the gaps, in language and understanding, in a child’s developing ‘worldhood’ (lovely word), and the child’s impatience with achieving a goal in this state of becoming – in this case, trying to catch a crab:

[…] your five-year face flares with frustration
at this world so slow to reward.

How far you are from patience still,
from coaxing more from less

Alliteration, which can be obtrusive, is employed to ideal effect here, concentrating that fiery, spluttering flare of frustration. With no sure psychic grasp of the passage of time, the floundering child is entangled in the present moment, and the gossamer filaments of knowledge that it throws up, as yet unable to spin these into a secure and supportive inner web of self-possession: ‘wound in ties and single threads / as yet too subtle for your engineering’. The poem seems to be as much about how the father has learned, and learns, how to handle time and waiting, and slow progress – which ‘even the harnser’ had to learn – as it is about imparting that wisdom to the child. Some days, the speaker suggests, we reside in solitary naturalness and authenticity, ‘to keep the veil of gentleness from wearing out’ (a lovely, delicate insight and phrase, suggesting child-self-protection and -preservation, and not becoming hardened to the world, or harming it); other days seem (in that awfully crude saying) to require a person to effortfully ‘fake it till you make it’ – to feel an impostor until both life and language become smoother with practice:

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

I felt a reverberation of Heaney here (and elsewhere) – in domestic subject, plain language, controlled emotion and form, his understatement and gentle, level-headed tone, all of which somehow combine to burnish the lines; they slightly recall these lines in The Cure at Troy, which also balance past experience, future hopes and the present in a harmonious moment of fruition: ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme.’ Though Hollis’s poem is ‘for’ a five-year-old, adults often have to relearn what they already know – or learn what they don’t, or don’t quite – so I found it helpful to be reminded of this hard-earned insight: life is often trial and error, learning as we go along; an act of faith as well as persistence.

‘A Harnser for James’ is replete with delightful dialect words, which elude many adults let alone children and are in danger of becoming obsolete. Such ‘county words’, Hollis charmingly, subtly writes, are casually inherited in the playground and in local childhoods – ‘worn at the ear, / passed in playgrounds and childhood towns’ – emerging as our fragile cultural heritage. Poems that incorporate dialect words can feel excluding, or exclusive, to the non-initiated, but the way that this poem revolves around a child’s keen probing of this word-hoard makes the reader feel an extension of that sparky child’s hunger, which is involving and engaging. Regional words often have a poetry of their own, their cacophony of strange and unlikely sounds appealing to the curious, natural poetic-ear of children, and the childlike-ear of poets, a bit like nonsense language: ‘barley-bird’ (nightingale); ‘pollywiggle’ (tadpole); ‘pishamires’ (ants); ‘bishybarnabee’ (ladybird) (I learnt as much as the five-year-old James here, which is to say all of it); they are also just fun to weigh on the ear and on the tongue.

Hollis is a quiet poet – I particularly value and enjoy the power of quietness and restraint in poems, but even I did find myself sometimes wanting a bit more emotional directness or revelation in some of these poems, or for the reader to be trusted with that; to be let in. Ground Water felt more personal and intimate. (This may be unfair of me though, as restraint is usually wiser than too much, or gratuitous, personal information.) Individual specificity of feeling and of happening, rather than generality, engages a reader rather than distancing them and can, conversely, ultimately be even more universal in its distinct resonance; its singularity. Like T. S. Eliot, there is often a cultivated impersonality to his tone; he seems to follow Eliot’s theory of impersonality, or ‘depersonalisation’ of the poet, who wrote, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919): ‘Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’ Eliot then snipes, ‘But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’ (I am not onboard with Eliot’s whole scientific sentiment in this theory and there is surely a middle ground.) The poems, then, are not wholly the poet; he is more a mediating imaginative vessel, the catalyst in a chemical reaction; a crucible.

Strains of Eliot – on whom Hollis recently published The Wasteland: A Biography of a Poem (Faber, 2022) – his measured phrasing, use of incantatory rhythm and repetition, his detachment and at times air of inscrutability and vatic, cryptic speech, and especially his extended meditation on time and how the past and the future hover in the present – can be felt throughout this collection, especially in the elegiac sequences ‘Stones’ and ‘Leaves’, which are in dialogue with Four Quartets. Hollis’s pensive elusiveness is worth staying with, though, not least for the moments when he’ll suddenly deliver a lucid line or couplet that captures you and immediately connects, as in ‘Rooks’: ‘we learn, as every living creature must, / to heal again’. This seems to suggest a reluctant healing, a weariness of healing.

What is recognisably Hollis is a predominantly wistful, stoic, gently elegiac tone, which lingers like hanging mist. Many poems are infused with hints of ‘a child who sensed its dream of adulthood / had gone’, or is going (‘All there ever is’). Always, there is the sense of an unnamed, irrevocable loss or foreboding, surrounding the edges of the poems like a sea (perhaps, often, death and threatening grief(s) – I especially valued Ground Water for its careful, graceful evocation of love, sorrow and the loss of the poet’s father; and this present collection is in memory of the poet’s mother). My favourite lines in Ground Water, which are piercing, occur in ‘The Wash’: ‘It’s not the flood I fear but what comes after – / the endless roaming to find a home’, looking ‘to find place in the heart of nothing.’ We could say that Earth House (which is a great, solid title) takes up this feared project, centred in the void that remains after the primal, foundational loss of a loved parent: searching for a wider sense of place and belonging; to be ‘housed’ again by the earth, if not homed, but without entirely letting go of these formative, essential ties. Perhaps one way of finding place in this impossible quest is the other way around, through what the book itself does: houses Earth.

‘Grief clings,’ Hollis tersely writes in ‘Leaves’. For me, the long poem ‘Stones’ – which was first published as a pamphlet in 2016 by Incline Press, and took over a decade to write – similarly encloses a message on major grief – it doesn’t end, nor do we ‘move on’ from it or get over it, awkward and unpalatable as that may be for the non-bereaved to hear; if we are to live, we have to learn to accommodate and live around devastating loss and trauma, like an internal (and external) empty room – we have to make room for it:

[…] the past becomes a room within the present
that we learn to live around, locked or ajar
depending on the kind of keeper that we are.

After such permanent change, as ‘Ruin’ (from the Anglo-Saxon) later puts it, ‘the wrecking [is] absolute. The end of days.’ And ‘An end takes even the brave.’ ‘Defence’ gives way ‘to wasteland’ and ‘rubble’. We can only hope that, in time, new life can be built from or amidst this rubble, seemingly out of nothing but ‘sheer stones’.

There is a timeless feel to this writing: usually there aren’t any modern cultural reference points, so a poem taken at random could have been written in any decade. This will make the poems age well, but the drawback is that they can sometimes feel distant or remote, like islands (though that, too, is the true nature of total loss and its aftermath). That said, their fundamentally spiritual quality and sonic resonance means that they bear and reward re-reading, especially the longer, meditative sequences, like scripture; I am appreciating ‘Stones’ more and more for this reason. Through the Frostian ‘sound of sense’, it is gradually felt on the pulse and in the subconscious, like a hypnotic metronome or music, and gets into your bones; I would imagine it would be absorbed even more if heard spoken. Any poem that took over ten years to cohere deserves comparable patience and deliberation from the reader (‘Leaves’ similarly took seven years). The fact that these sequences took so long to come together means that they are quite literally made from and hold time.

Of the shorter poems, I was especially taken by ‘The Staithe’, an 11-line islet which concludes dramatically with a sudden line that seems both unrelated to what has preceded it – delicately observed nature observations – yet sprung from it, making the whole poem. Rilke famously achieved this effect in ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, which ends abruptly ‘You must change your life’, as did James Wright in the last line of ‘Lying in a Hammock…’: ‘I have wasted my life.’ In its simple phrasing, yet taut as a tight-rope balancing act, this startling effect requires perfect placement and cohesion to pull off without appearing stilted or derivative. Successfully executed, it is like having your psychic rug pulled from beneath you. ‘I thought there would be more time’, Hollis writes. The impact is quietly devastating; I find it hard to reread the poem without getting painfully moved each time. It will particularly resonate with anyone who has suffered the unexpected death of a loved one – the profound shock of death, its unalterable finality; it is an example of how a poem can be ‘about’ something for the reader without referencing it at all. For me, Hollis’s poem is more moving than these two earlier poems in its restraint, gentleness and vulnerability; for what is withheld. It is a whisper of a poem. The last line has the unexpected force of Charles Causley’s well-known, brief line at the end of ‘Eden Rock’, on the loss of his parents, which emotionally floors many – movingly, Andrew Motion has said ‘it knocks me almost unconscious every time I hear it’: ‘I had not thought that it would be like this.’

Hollis tends to write in measured lines and stanzas, showing meticulous craftsmanship, gratifying precision and a faultless ear, but my favourite poem was when he used a freer form to reflect his shape-shifting subject in ‘Rooks’. In three parts, the poem has increasingly staggered lines and fragments of lines and fractured speech, at once mirroring the mesmerising flock of birds’ movement, how the observer receives these momentary impressions – bit by bit – and his own caught breath; the drama of sudden movement, suspense and revelation. It is difficult to isolate a quotation, as the overall intense effect is achieved through the whole (which is all worth quoting), but the opening of part III is particularly effective:

                                                                      From south,

above the Carrs,

                             they come in

                                                     in their thousand.

More swarm than flock,

                                        an oil smoke,

lifting the choirs from their branches –

others from outfields     as though rising through earth

The poem is a stunning illustration of how taking risks with form can transfigure a poem, its content and the way in which it is received by the reader, imbuing it all with sheer dynamism. It felt like the poem was lifting off the page like the rooks that the poem seeks to capture – that it was even the verbal equivalent of a bird. This makes it moving in every sense, an expression of what Eliot termed ‘significant emotion’: ‘emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet’ (though a faint shadow, ‘the ghost’, of illness haunts this poem from line 1, returning to roost at the poem’s end). There is an unbounded freedom and urgency to this which is exciting, not least as it captures the mysterious, magnetic energy of the birds themselves. It is a great example of what D. H. Lawrence called, in ‘The Poetry of the Present’, ‘the unrestful, ungraspable poetry of the sheer present, poetry whose very permanency lies in its wind-like transit.’

‘Rooks’ evidently meant a lot to the poet, too, as, unusually, Hollis includes a lengthy note from his Notebook at the end of the collection, written in real-time, or just after, which describes this rook encounter in detail. This made me think of S. T. Coleridge’s arresting notebook description of a dazzling murmuration of starlings, which likewise sees both wonder and subtle menace in such a force of nature, appearing ‘without volition’. The juxtaposition also recalls Edward Thomas, whose prose descriptions he later worked up into poems, a poet on whom Hollis is an authority: in 2011, he helpfully included extracts of Thomas’s prose in his edition of Thomas’s Selected Poems, allowing us to trace the transformation from prose to poetry (Hollis’s brilliant study Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas was published in the same year). To start with, I felt the reader didn’t need to see this note, and that it was perhaps slightly self-consciously done; on later reading, I became grateful for being privy to the wider private moment of the poem’s genesis. Hollis also gives away more emotion in this note, an effervescence of instinctive thought and feeling, probably because it is closer to the immediate, ongoing moment of observation and inspiration itself – Wordsworth’s ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling’, rather than ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’.

‘The law must come new each time from within’, Lawrence writes in ‘The Poetry of the Present’. Hollis finds the ideal ‘law’ for this poem – or rather, one senses the necessary, irrepressible form was led by the rooks. Though still artfully controlled, it allows the poem to stay with what Lawrence termed (rather dramatically) ‘the insurgent naked throb of the instant moment’, ‘life surging itself into utterance at its very well-head’, rather than letting subsequent measuredness and time smooth over the ragged actuality of the living moment too much, such that it can feel almost passive, not true to life. Lawrence is worth quoting further, as this excerpt feels relevant to the vital, and vitalising, present of ‘Rooks’ and the way in which it has been so successfully realised:

The bird is on the wing in the winds, flexible to every breath, a living spark in the storm, its very flickering depending upon its supreme mutability and power of change. Whence such a bird came: whither it goes: from what solid earth it rose up, and upon what solid earth it will close its wings and settle, this is not the question. This is a question of before and after. Now, now, the bird is on the wing in the winds.


The four pages of ‘Place Notes’ at the end of Hollis’s collection, scrupulous as an Ordnance Survey map, tether each poem to a specific place and time (down to the hour, in the ‘Rooks’ note) and are a gift to a reader, or future researcher, wishing to contextualise the poems further. From Norfolk to Cumbria, Suffolk to London, among other regions, they are also a reminder that this is fundamentally a collection about place, and how an individual experiences place in a shifting way across time, and via their changing family; indeed, Hollis has an enviable sense of, and attachment to, place. This section won’t appeal to everyone – it’s rare to see in a contemporary poetry collection, as though the poet is a scholar of himself; some people also don’t seem to like notes on principle, as though a poem’s sphere should exist between the page and the reader only, without reference to anything else. Judiciously rendered, I find notes sparkling rather than dry or superfluous – I love their miniaturist quality and precision, their focused glints of light and irreducible fact. The random, yet organised, weather of paratextual paraphernalia can be a work of art in itself, full of condensed interest and leads; this section added another dimension to the invisible world of the collection for me – its worldhood – fleshing out its time-scape, biography and geography, ensuring that the poems aren’t perceived as detached, impersonal, floating entities.

The change of register in Hollis’s four translations from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book, which close each of the four sections of Earth House, takes a bit of adjusting to, but they, too, add another intriguing and satisfying historical layer to the deep time and place that is excavated throughout this impressively constructed book, like metamorphic rock beneath the sedimentary layers of the speaker’s accruing lives. Hollis writes ‘not merely with his own generation in his bones’, but with an understanding that the whole of literary history ‘has a simultaneous existence’ – as Eliot, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, argued a writer should, in recognition that we are one mind, one literary family. These potent, ambitious poems allow other aspects of Hollis’s voice, and that of the land and our literary heritage – the shared house of the earth across time – to surface and re-live, collapsing a diachronic writing community into synchronicity. In ‘Ruin’, an elegy for a lost city, which concludes the collection with striking pathos, and links with the book’s title, there was

so much of value to look upon, so
precious, the sheer stones of the earth
and all that came from them:
an unshakeable house, a hot spring,

But ‘That was a moment’, the poem ends. ‘AND HERE ALSO THERE WAS FIRE’. Though there is ambiguity as to whether this is the fire of vitality or of destruction, Hollis’s interpretation of the poem as a whole highlights the transitory, precarious state of human life, of beauty and grandeur, and that of the planet itself; none of our homes and habitations are ‘unshakeable’.

Hollis’s poems, though, seek to shore up our ruins, to paraphrase Eliot. What is precious to look upon resounds too in the more personal ‘The Collect’, situated in the home: here, rarity, such as that of ‘a scarce fen orchid’, is balanced against the commonplace as the speaker comes to realise that ‘scarcity can lend a mind to madness, / to strain to keep in harness what must run out’, just as youth, time and life do. And in our dwindling time, it is the everyday which is really of value, and revalued. Like a child – perhaps as stranded as one, grasping at those ‘single threads’ of being again – the speaker learns, or relearns, the importance of patience; and, as ‘A Harnser for James’ puts it, of ‘coaxing more from less’:

In these numb unnumbered mornings,
our tea-bags radiating in the cup,

what’s common is suddenly so precious:
this sunburst through a pane of glass;

an arrow of geese
pointed somewhere south;

I like the muted echo of ‘numb’ in ‘unnumbered’ here – the mimetic word itself becomes encased and numbed within another word, discreetly emphasising that all is not well, a sense of being lost in time and without feeling – perhaps indicating a period of depression, relational disconnection or grief. Numbness features again in ‘Hedge Bird’: ‘You’ve been numb / a long time’, and in ‘The Long Snow’, where the speaker is caught within a ‘hood of cold’. Both of these poems echo the lines ‘One must have a mind of winter’ ‘And have been cold a long time’ in Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ – a poem that adopts an objective perspective amidst ‘winter’. What saves Hollis’s speaker are what often save any of us: ‘ordinary’, sudden natural sights and impressions in the present moment, their gentle radiance lifting the speaker out of a slump, for today at least, and each day after. The simplicity of that humble tea-bag radiating in its cup like the sun – a perfect union of the sublime with the quotidian – is an image that will stay with me.

At the end of ‘The Collect’, a ‘toddler in the street below’ reaches out ‘an ungloved hand for rain’, linking us to the poem’s title. The child’s hand collecting raindrops (a beautifully simple image) draws a visual analogy to the monetary collection taken in church, suggesting the spiritual currency of the elements; the poem’s general gathering of noticings and thoughts, and the title, also allude to the collect prayer used in Christian liturgy. Simone Weil wrote in her Notebooks that ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer’. This form of prayer keeps people hanging on, Hollis implies, and is ‘answered in the life we lead’ (‘All there ever is’). It is bound up with the freedom bestowed by grace, Weil asserts, as she continues: ‘We should pay attention to the point that we no longer have a choice’. The level of unobtrusive, assiduous attention that Hollis pays to his surroundings, and to words and the line, in these reflective, balanced poems often does feel like a form of prayer – a somehow involuntary offering and a patient reception; an act of faith, courage and persistent love.

There were 19 years between Hollis’s first collection and his second, born almost a generation apart. I hope, now that his tenure as Faber poetry editor has come to an end, that he will have more time for his own poetry. In a world of noise, collapse and change, he finds Eliot’s ‘still point of the turning world’. His quietly dignified, wise and elegant poems, on the earth and our fluid, unsettled place in it, are always a pleasure to spend time with.



Nicola Healey’s poems, essays and reviews have appeared in The Poetry Review, The London Magazine, Wild Court, Poetry Ireland Review, PN Review and elsewhere. She is the author of Dorothy Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge: The Poetics of Relationship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Her first poetry pamphlet, A Newer Wilderness, is forthcoming from Dare-Gale Press in 2024.

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