Cover of book: Keeps

L. K. Holt

L. K. Holt’s first two poetry collections received generous critical attention. Her first book, Man Wolf Man (2009), won the Kenneth Slessor Prize, and Patience, Mutiny (2010) was awarded the prestigious Grace Leven Prize. Holt has been linked to the so-called New Lyricism that the academic and poet David McCooey suggested as a title for a new generation of Australian poets whose work deals with matters of body, mind, relationships and the natural world, and how these things interact and inform each other. The poets most often linked with Holt are Petra White and Elizabeth Campbell – lyrical poets whose work is technically assured and deeply imagistic.

Keeps has been published as New & Selected Poems, running to 66 pages. It’s a generous, beautifully produced collection, and will go a long way to establishing Holt as a major young poet. The themes and abiding concerns of the first two books (history, music, art, friendship and love) are taken up again, and Holt has intensified the challenging syntax of previous work to create a complex, musical series of poems that demand close reading.

Still, while poetry does not need to be immediately accessible for it to be memorable, Holt’s work can suffer from what seems to be a refusal to allow images or provocative lines to remain alone and unadorned to work their spells. It’s as though she is often more concerned with the complexity and literary structure of a poem than its ability to strike sparks in a reader via lyrical transparency. Thankfully this tendency towards crowding the poem with detail doesn’t overwhelm or diminish the collection. She can summon striking images that work to give common objects or ideas a remarkable, enduring quality. Take the second stanza of the opening poem “Shark”:

But your size is your size in your sole element!

Gums gashed with teeth you rise like a crag

from the sea and foot-soldier on tail-fins

up the beach, mouthing a skull-shaped vowel

and seeming a lot bigger out of water.

These lines are examples of what’s best about this new book: Holt’s imagery can be unsettling, disturbing, hilarious and tender simultaneously, and it takes a deft hand and profound musical ear to make this happen. Other poems such as “Love (Enlarged)”, “Love (Take a Pillar)” and the extraordinary sequence “The Indigo Banjo, or Methodologies”, make Keeps cohere and sing.  DL

John Leonard Press, 160pp, $24.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "L. K. Holt, Keeps".

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