Sunday, May 07, 2023

Matthew Hollett, Optic Nerve: poems


Roll Over

We didn’t learn the burned-out building had been a cinema
until the day they tore it down, but we squeezed into the crowd
to watch an excavator pulverize it into popcorn. In the rubble

we dug slivers of film like mussels, blowing ash off newsreels, musicals,
porn. I uncoiled a strip of colour, a cartoon beagle spinning through
a wild blue yonder. He was a runaway load of laundry, an adorable

ouroborus pinwheeling into a yin-yang of yellow and brown,
balled up like yarn or a yoga instructor. By yo-yoing the filmstrip
on my finger, I trained him to somersault at half speed, or double,

and when I took him home he curled up in a film canister. I clipped
the mangled ends from his reel, so now when I take him out for a tumble
he isn’t scorched or torn when it ends. He just goes, like a bubble.

A follow-up to the creative non-fiction and poetry title Album Rock (Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s NL: Boulder Books, 2018) is St. John’s, Newfoundland poet Matthew Hollett’s full-length poetry debut, Optic Nerve: poems (Kingston ON: Brick Books, 2023). Through an assortment of first-person poems set in a lyric simultaneously narrative and cinematic, Hollett offers a descriptively-thick and finely-honed intimate portrait of east coast space. “It took two of us to haul the river out of its box / and wrangle its segments together like vertebrae / or slabs of sidewalk. As rivers go,” he writes, to open the poem “Waters Above and Waters Below,” “this one had been / stepped in more than twice, its leisurely ripples and eddies / scuffed with footprints from small armies / of schoolkids.” Hollett works his lyric as a way of examining small moments of time, comparable to how Michael Crummey wrote contemporary and historic Newfoundland through his Passengers: Poems (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2022) [see my review of such here], or how Michael Goodfellow wrote his personal Lunenberg County, Nova Scotia through Naturalism, An Annotated Bibliography: Poems (Kentville NS: Gaspereau Press, 2022) [see my review of such here]. One could say that all three of these poets are simply following elements of Newfoundland-based poet and editor Don McKay [see my review of his 2021 collection Lurch here], and that would be entirely correct, each writing their own small perceptions through carved lyric observations. Weighed down through the dark, there is significant and even pragmatic light in these lines. “If you find yourself lost,” the poem “Coriolis Borealis” begins, “try not to walk in circles. A forest / is an aura of revolving doors, every spruce or fir is / a celestial body that wants you in its orbit. For the first / twenty-four hours, you’d be wise to stay put.” Across his densely-packed Optic Nerve, Hollett writes short moments and scenes, fully aware of the differences in seeing and perception, writing narratives many of which are centred in and around Halifax. “In Halifax it greets me like a gauntlet of bear traps.” he writes, to open the poem “Shipshape.” “Sidestepping swollen potholes on Quinpool, I pass a traffic island / with its mascara of snow, a bicycle wheel crushed into a taco, / a bird’s next asquint with icicles.”


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