St. John’s poet, Matthew Hollett, comes at this debut collection as a poet, walker, and photographer. Funny, how so many of us (as poets) are of a similar ilk. It makes sense because poets see the world differently, taking note of specific details and transforming those particularities into poems. An image—seen through either human eyes or a camera lens—becomes a line and morphs into a stanza and, before you know it, the poem is there on the page. In “Cloudlarking,” the speaker notes that they are “halfway up Duckworth when the guillotine/gives way, veering mercifully east, a dull blade of vapour/scraping razor-burnt sky. It macerates and sinks/billows over the Narrows like a burial shroud.” Later in the poem, the speaker meets another photographer who “nods at the clouds and says: It’s something to work with.”
Further in Optic Nerve, poems like “Prisoner’s Camera,” “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees,” “Portable Keyhole,” “The Observable Universe,” and “Suomi Snowball” are populated by images of cameras, tools that create mirrors of what the speaker sees with the naked eye, and then those images are translated and transformed into new ways of seeing. Nothing is as it seems, and everything seems to suggest that the reader should be more observant in their daily life. The notion here is that perception and perspective can alter if you look more closely at things that you usually might too often take for granted.
Newfoundland itself becomes a presence and character in this collection, and the wind and rain make quick work of slicing through several poems. For those who know St. John’s, there are many references to well-known places. In “Wind in St. John’s,” the reader is reminded that “the wind in St. John’s snorts saltwater/in the parking lot by Cabot Tower before cannonballing/down Signal Hill Road as if it’s spotted its house/on fire from afar.” Those who have attempted to hike the North Head Trail (whether they’ve been successful or not!) will recognize the way in which the weather can turn on a dime and become fierce, when “the waves are unfurling/and the wind curls around the Battery Hotel/and the shadows of clouds are cartwheeling/down the side of Signal Hill.” And, in “View of the Narrows,” Hollett writes in a painterly fashion of how “the horizon is roughed in/with a paint roller” and how the “hills on the south side of the harbour” are “just floating there, without the clothespin/of a tiny stone tower.” All of Hollett’s poems are visual and some are ekphrastic, as well.
Go further afield, away from town, and find poems like “Coriolis Borealis,” where the speaker warns the reader not to get lost in the woods. A forest, after all, is a bit like “an aurora 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.” In “Walking on Moss,” which is inspired by collaged fragments from Audubon’s Labrador Journal of 1833, a sailor goes ashore with the captain for exercise, seeing only “A velvet growth of vegetation/that would astound any European garden,/yet not a cubic foot of soil!” Here, the sailor notes, is a wide expanse of land that encompasses just: “Granite, granite, granite,/moss, moss, moss, and nothing but granite and moss/of thousands of species.” In “Somewhere Near Hodderville,” observing the capelin rolling leads the poet to describe the event as “a group/of knackered pocketknives heaved up/on a beach, gleaming and googly-eyed,/each twerking…as if…they can’t quite/believe this is the end of it, twitching/turning to flip-flopping turning to/thrashing themselves breathless.” These are ordinary occurrences that are common to Newfoundland’s shores, but less so for those of us who live inland. What Hollett does, in so skillfully evoking landscape—water and land, even as they are marinated in rain and wind at times—is showcase how a poet observes (as Mary Oliver often said) the natural world around them and makes poetry of it.
Optic Nerve is a beautifully crafted debut collection. As a reader, you’re left feeling as if you should be thinking more clearly about how you are in the world, and about how you take note of what you see, hear, and feel. Mindful observation by way of walking—as well as witnessing and documenting life’s events and patterns through the lens of both human eye and camera—is Hollett’s centre point. In his poetic documentation, he calls his readers to take part in a similar fashion. Hollet suggests that what we see is just the beginning of things, and if we look carefully enough—underneath surfaces, even—the world will open itself to us poetically.
Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. Her latest full collection of poems is Emptying the Ocean (Frontenac House, 2022) and she's just published a poetry chapbook, Fault Lines and Shatter Cones (Emergency Flash Mob Press, 2023). She is the First Vice-Chair for The Writers' Union of Canada (2023-25), a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim's first novel, The Donoghue Girl, will be published by Latitude 46 Publishing in Fall 2024. She may be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com