Kim Cheng Boey reviews Man Wolf Man by L.K.Holt

Man Wolf Man

by L. K. Holt 

John Leonard Press, Elwood, 2007
ISBN: 9780977578771
78 pp. pb. AUD23.95


Reviewed by KIM CHENG BOEY




           Lyric poetry has the power to slow time down to intense, expanded moments of see­ing and feel­ing. Its mea­sured breaths con­nect lan­guage and silence, music and poetry, the vis­i­ble and invis­i­ble in an attempt to assuage the long­ing for answers to the deep­est ques­tions of what it means to be human. L.K. Holt’s Man Wolf Man is a won­der­ful proof of the potency of the lyric. It is an aston­ish­ing and deeply sat­is­fy­ing debut, its lyric grace and power, strongly evi­dent from the first to last poem, sus­tain­ing the enquiry into the nature of human bes­tial­ity, art, beauty and love.


There is a remark­able range and reach of theme, style and form here, but the under­pin­ning ques­tion is Shakespeare’s “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?” Beauty and ter­ror, eros and thanatos reside together in these poems of baroque equi­lib­rium and deco­rum. Obliquely the poems seek grace and redemp­tion in the face of the unspeak­able. The open­ing poem broaches the dual­is­tic nature of man, the bar­barism of truth in the title and the imagery:


We want not beauty

but light for aim, or the cover of black.

Some­times the enemy knocks before

enter­ing. A baby is hid­den in the drawer.


            There is none of the por­ten­tous grav­i­tas that many poets fall prey to when deal­ing with such grave themes. It tells the truth but tells it slant, as Emily Dick­en­son counsels.


Death and its vio­lent dis­rup­tions are taken up in dif­fer­ent ways in the rest of the col­lec­tion, in “Slaugh­ter House,” “The Botanist,” “Vio­lence,” and most mov­ingly in “Long Son­nets of Leo­ca­dia,” a sequence about Goya, the mas­ter of the abom­inable and grotesque. The speaker of these dra­matic mono­logues is Goya’s housekeeper-mistress, who is rumoured to have borne him a daugh­ter and who was erased from Goya’s will by his son. Here, in a rein­vented son­net form and in stan­zas effort­lessly rhymed, love and loy­alty are held in ten­u­ous bal­ance with hor­ror and death. Goya’s art of unflinch­ing wit­ness is vividly ren­dered: “every hor­ror a new eyehole/ for you to focus.” Holt cap­tures Goya’s sig­na­ture sub­ject and style in pre­cise, flu­ent strokes: “You paint a pur­pose­ful silence, mouths chasmal/ to con­sume all sound, small com­plete eclipses.” The wolf motif in the open­ing poem looms large in the last poem of the sequence, and refers to Goya’s crayon sketch “Wolf and Man”; in its cen­tral loca­tion in the col­lec­tion and in its fore­ground­ing of the key motif, “El Otro,” which means “the other,” as the wolf is called in Span­ish folk­lore, becomes the piv­otal lyric in the col­lec­tion. It depicts Goya’s art of wit­ness, the vig­i­lant wolf-like way he observes and turns human car­nage into art. Goya him­self meta­mor­phoses into the ani­mal that is his emblem for the human condition:


Yet when our time comes

we want noth­ing but to stay want­ing; to be consoled


looks a lot like the end. I’m scared of dirt.

You, of the wolf who does not flee but, slowly, turns.


The sequence, like the other two sequences “Unfin­ished Con­fes­sion” and “Glove Story, Para­phrased,” reveals a capac­ity for sus­tained engage­ment with the sub­ject, and a del­i­cate, thrilling fusion of intu­ition and intel­lect. There is an eru­di­tion that is never showy, a deep engage­ment with his­tor­i­cal facts that feeds her quest for under­stand­ing and equi­lib­rium in the face of ter­ror. Indeed, Holt wears her learn­ing lightly, grace­fully: Galen, Donne, Shake­speare, Kris­teva, Primo Levi, Althusser all cohabit har­mo­niously in a lan­guage and form that is intri­cate and sin­u­ous. The elegy to Althusser cap­tures his life and work in a pow­er­ful psy­cho­log­i­cal snap­shot, the lyric clev­erly mim­ing the post­mod­ernist reflex of “interpellation”:


He has no his­tory: a thorn of theory

for the biog­ra­pher. He ‘epis­te­mo­log­i­cally breaks’

from him­self each moment of each day

and in a such break – a tiny slice of clock –

He Killed His Wife. Cap­i­tals his punishment.


The dis­con­ti­nu­ities of death faced are not merely pub­lic or his­tor­i­cal. There are inti­mate famil­ial por­traits of pro­foundly mov­ing ele­giac note. “Grand­moth” com­mem­o­rates the poet’s grand­mother through a mar­vel­lous meta­mor­pho­sis of image and theme. In its lyric grace and del­i­cate han­dling of detail, it is an impec­ca­ble elegy worth quot­ing in full:


On the wall the moth has fash­ioned itself

two-dimensionally, self as self-portrait.


Its eye-forgeries see every­thing in the room:

where I see mem­o­ries it sees a great feast.


They are always flee­ing, like thieves, like bits of dusk

left behind, at the open­ing of drawer or door, their stomachs


freshly full of coat or jewel-box lin­ing; tweed and velvet

are left a demented lace of their hun­gry design.


From the box where I keep her necklace

(in non-existent pho­tos I see her neck laced


with it, I see how it hangs con­sol­ingly beside

her one lonely breast) out stole a moth


and I thought it was her: my grandmother

return­ing as some­thing hun­gry for a time not lived.


           The moth, a sym­bol of tran­si­tori­ness, trig­gers the mem­ory of the grand­mother, and a fleet­ing moment of recog­ni­tion and rebirth. The details are never loud, gen­tly evok­ing the move­ment of thought and feel­ing, aided by the cou­plets that ren­der the son­net all but recog­nis­able, another instance of Holt’s for­mal­ist lean­ing, which is not con­tent with using inher­ited tem­plates but turns them into star­tlingly fresh and coher­ent forms. “Half Ses­tina” is another exam­ple of Holt’s con­fi­dently deft han­dling of form; here the ses­tina is remod­elled to con­vey the nar­ra­tive threads between par­ents and child: “In sepia wraps, father is a baby I can hold any­time. / To for­get my begin­ning and con­sole him in love’s-end: / an oxy­moron bru­tal; impos­si­ble by design.”


Holt han­dles seri­ous themes with del­i­cate grace and irony. There are also play­ful erotic moments of Meta­phys­i­cal or Cav­a­lier verve and wit. Donne is present not just in the par­ody “The Flea,” but also in “Pom­peii” and in “Sed­i­men­tary Lay­ers,” which, like Donne’s love poems, yokes the seri­ous and play­ful together in a car­nal moment:


If a geol­o­gist were to wan­der in

and see us lying here


– my head on your chest but

but your legs on top of mine –


he’d cer­tainly be a lit­tle perplexed

over whether you or I came first.


           This is one of the delight­ful lyrics of the here and now, an instant unbur­dened by his­tory and death. “Bird Ghazal” offers a train of fleet­ing avian tran­scrip­tions, reveal­ing a mind as alert to inno­cent plea­sures as it is to the som­bre shades of history:


The tern – wings ink-tipped – is poised mid-thought before

a ther­mal, for­mal arc: wind’s cal­lig­ra­phy in the sleight of bird.


These are nec­es­sary moments of light relief. The col­lec­tion returns to a more som­bre note in the last poem, “Time of Houses,” a lyric sequence explor­ing the exis­ten­tial ideas of habi­ta­tion and home, man’s ten­ancy on this earth. The sequence sifts the dif­fer­ent mean­ings of “house” in rela­tion to dif­fer­ent stages of life and ends mem­o­rably with “Apoc­a­lypse House,” reca­pit­u­lat­ing the key motifs and images and resolv­ing ten­ta­tively the conun­drum raised by the open­ing poem. It is a solu­tion that we all expect, but the way Holt broaches it is arrest­ing, unaf­fected, and makes us pay atten­tion to a com­mon truth – that we must love one another or die:


You leave in the time of houses always assuming

you need not say more than a ration of farewell,


nor shake out the pit where your head emp­tied out

into pil­low, not smooth out the sheet’s seismogram


of rip­ples, nor pack your things into boxes, your hair

from the plug, not pre-prepare in lines in my tongue


every is into was, nor unfo­cus your face caught

and framed into that of the stranger you were but


once, nor snuff out the synapses I light for our love,

lit­tle bon­fires of love, man’s first type of home.


          In its Auden-like affir­ma­tion of human love, the poem answers the ques­tions explored in the ear­lier poems and also imparts what Yeats calls “a unity of being” to the entire col­lec­tion. The book has a won­der­fully coher­ent feel to it: the man/ wolf theme explored in dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions, the sub­tly orches­trated leit­mo­tifs of art and death, and the way inex­press­ible truths are intu­ited or glimpsed rather than overtly stated. Yeats says that man can embody the truth but he can­not know it. In their per­sua­sive music and elec­tri­fy­ing imagery, Holt’s poems embody the deep­est truths of the human condition.


Holt pos­sesses a rare Mozart­ian grace and range: witty and light, erotic and play­ful, som­bre, med­i­ta­tive and ele­giac. Her mas­tery of form is exquis­ite and exem­plary; she has devoured and assim­i­lated Donne and Shake­speare, and is able to turn inher­ited forms into some­thing uniquely her own. Holt has set very high stan­dards in her debut col­lec­tion, not just for her­self, but for Aus­tralian poetry.


(Parts of this review, writ­ten entirely by the author, are reprinted with per­mis­sion from the Judges Com­ments 2009  NSW Premier’s Lit­er­ary Awards)