Leaves, Matthew HollisThe jacket is brown with a wallpaper type design of rough orange leaf shapes running in horizontal rows. All text is in a small white rectangle centred in the top third. The collection title is in orange lower case. Below this is an ornament and then the author's name in tiny black caps.

Hazel Press, 2020, £10.00

Chasing the ephemeral

Since his debut, Ground Water, in 2004, Faber poetry editor Matthew Hollis’s poetic output has been as rarely sighted and reverently received as a very occasional migrant bird.

Leaves, like 2016’s Stones, and like Eliot’s The Waste Land, is a five-part poem. Hollis describes it as being ‘balanced in the five elements of the Chinese tradition of Wu Xing, Fire, Water, Wood, Metal and Earth’. Given the author’s specialisms, it’s unsurprisingly steeped in the Englishness of Edward Thomas and the Anglo-Saxon Maxims, and in the Modernism and Orientalist and quasi-anthropological interests of Pound and Eliot, extensive notes and all. Dedicated and addressed to his daughter, it movingly interweaves themes of infancy, aging, family and a world-weariness induced by grief:

Frost shall freeze. Fire melt wood.
Earth grows, ice bridges, and water wears
a helmet of glass to shield its new-made life.
And a worn mind slips to a fire-pit in childhood:
wet lines looped on a cool lawn,
a wheelbarrow ferrying its deadwood and leaf-break —
those moss-run bones of broken branch
having no more and so more to give.

Hollis’s quiet reflectiveness about the passing of time emerges in momentary perceptions of beauty:

In some moments you see or think you see the join:
a kingfisher flushed from Beverley Brook —
that blue you only grasp in flight,
the painted air long out of sight 

There are many such elusive glimpses in Leaves, often of a deer, which conjure an autumnal sense of melancholy at the fragile temporariness of human existence, especially when set against and within nature. Hollis writes an increasingly rare kind of modernist(ish) poetry, which is unafraid to philosophise, and to do so in a sometimes declamatory and grandiloquent style.

In Leaves, this culminates in near-nonsensical, time-bending short sentences:

Somewhere ahead of where we are we are.
Somewhere behind of where we are we also are.
I was there with you now. I am here with you then.
The park gates close to reopen.

Some readers may dismiss this as babble. For me, the cumulative poetry of Leaves and its enchanting explorations of time make it irresistible.

Matthew Paul