L.K. Holt: Keeps (with Patience, Mutiny and Man Wolf Man)

St Kilda: John Leonard Press, 2014, 162pp.

L.K. Holt’s Keeps – her third book – is saturated with images and themes drawn from the visual arts but it is more significant that it leaves one with the sense that something of the “art-object” lies behind the existence and construction of the poems themselves. Of course there’s plenty of the visual arts in her other two books, Man Wolf Man and Patience, Mutiny, including a series of “long” sonnets about Goya, spoken by his housekeeper/mistress, Leocadia, but it’s in no way as overwhelming as it is here. The result is interesting and not only thematically. Much contemporary poetry looks like slices of material from the upper end of a vast slab of communal discourse called perhaps “discussions” or “conversations” and so the sense of poems as individual, engineered, free-standing constructions can come as welcome relief. One of the benefits of the highly formal poetry of the postwar period was that it did create a sense of a poem as a thing, a construction existing with various degrees of comfort in the world. Those, fifty years ago, who disliked this kind of poetry – a poetry whose features the New Critics were inclined to devote a lot of attention to – wanted a poetry of process, of immersion in reality rather than extruded droppings. But the wheel turns and, earlyish in the twenty-first century, there seems a lot of value in the experience of a poem as an object, rather than one which sends us running to other poems for contexts of explication. And poetry like that of L.K. Holt, camped along the borders of the visual art-world, seems to encourage this. Indeed it’s a measure of the extant of this that a comparatively conventional, personal work like “Poem for Brigid” should stand out in Keeps as something of an oddity.

The poetry of Wallace Stevens is a reference point for explorations of the nature of the “reality” of a poem, a “supreme fiction”, and of the way in which it interacts with the world and so it’s perhaps no accident that one of the poems of Keeps, “The Indigo Banjo, or Methodologies for Outcomes”, plays with Stevens’s “The Blue Guitar” – a poem that uses a work of the visual arts as its starting point. Like most of Holt’s poems, “The Indigo Banjo” isn’t easy and the free-standing features I’ve spoken of tend to mean that feeling comfortable with one poem isn’t going to guarantee that you can deal with any of the others with any confidence. “The Indigo Banjo” is made up of six sections each of which seems to deal with a different issue involved in the creative act: it begins with a poem about various preparatory acts, situations and stances long before the act of making a poem, goes on to a poem about the way a phrase lodges in the mind as irritant before being “pushed / out of the nest . . . not as a bird but / disembodied wing / unbalancing the wind” and finishes with a final preparatory state, “the plunge / just before it is a poem or just / before the plunge”:

. . . . . 
          We bathed in a deep natural pool at the top of the falls,
we were in the air on a ledge of water,
where the car-keys sank to the bottom.
It was too narrow for head-first - 
she took my hand and I held her under
and she searched by toe, my muse,

and found them: the method
I will replicate here.

The third, fourth and fifth poems introduce a really important theme in this book: that of the hinge (of a diptych), or inner margin (of a text) or mid-point (of rope, film, time). In the third poem of “The Indigo Banjo” the ego is positioned at this hinge

of vestige and prospect,
of sermon and snowstorm,
of verdant-verged cliff and

brown churned ocean,
of vestige-and-prospect
and sermon-and-snowstorm,

of corner-cutting housewives
and the type that leave behind
“papers” . . .

It begins by dividing the past from the future (vestige from prospect) as well as raw experience (snowstorm) from experience processed as text (sermon) but then, really interestingly (as can happen with any binaries) unites opposed states so that they become one side of yet another binary (which is my rather clumsy attempt to explain what lies behind “vestige-and-prospect” and “sermon-and-snowstorm”). In the fourth poem, the apparently unmotivated decision to roll over in bed is explored and, interestingly in terms of the previous poem, produces “a little dicky dialectic . . . be / irresponsible medium / or own your accidents, god-provoke. / Or go to sleep. Or be the mother.” By the time we get to the fifth poem, “Soliloquy”, the first and fundamental question is about a hinged binary: “May I start twice / at once, from memory and sensation?”

Holt explores this notion of a hinge in many of the poems which reflect on perspective and the structure of paintings. In “The Etching” a representation of the five arches on a bridge, hung next to a window, seems like a frame through which the world outside is presented but, as with all doors the process can be reversed so that the viewer, the woman who lives in the room, can also be the object that the external world sees through the five arches. In “Last Outcome”, about resurrection and perhaps based on something like “The Cookham Resurrection”, it isn’t the theological complexities that come first but the position of the observer in time and place: “You must be one of them, if you’re here / to wonder”. The final section of the poem begins with a pun on “lying” but is really based on a pun on “plot”:

Whichever soul you are, you can’t keep lying

in full moulderment - 
studying the backs of your long gone eyelids

intricately dark,
the last plot of dark, the last plot

of who did what and what became of them - 
it’s quite time for eternity.

Although this makes the unexceptionable point that narrative needs to evolve in time and eternity is the end of narrative, it has important results in something like Dante’s Commedia – a recurring source of allusions in poems other than “Late Outcome” where the narrative of one’s crimes and virtues is replicated out of time in the afterlife. Finally, a series of poems taking off from works of Dane Lovett contains – as a kind of interloper – a poem devoted to the third panel of Uccello’s “Battle of San Romano”. The binary here is “a love of surface” and “one-point perspective”:

                                         Both claim each line
for its masculine cause or feminine upkeep.
Peace is surface decoration. Sex is a horse haunch
turned to face. War is a one-point perspective.
The problem with allegory, it longs
for a one-to-one with reality, a true romancing . . .

But although this seems a poem about perspective points which focus the world (like the arches in “The Etching”) there is another element. Holt sees, as we do in those trompe l’oeil Jesus-in-the-clouds illusions, a face in the right-hand part of the painting made out of elements of horses and knights: “It takes / for its eyes the slight openings / of soldiers’ helms, its red mandrill nose bridge / a length of painted lance, its bared teeth the bronze discs strung / along a horse’s browband”. “I see it”, she says, “because I’m averse / through tiredness, modernity, / to making any sense of the action” but it’s a face which is not amenable to allegorisation: it has presence but no meaning.

If viewing through perspectives can make a point into a hinge, there is also the issue of midpoints. Near the centre of the book is a poem, “Maas River Filmreel”, whose difficulites are perhaps increased by the fact that the actual film is something I’ve never seen, unlike the paintings of John Brack, Picasso, Goya, Dane Lovett, Uccello et al, which are easily available to readers with access to the internet. The film is of a scene in Rotterdam in 1948 and lasts for seven minutes and forty-six seconds. But the poem is about what happens at the halfway point when an old woman appears: “the fold / is where something collects” and it engages that disconcerting sensation that historical film creates of looking at past time in the present. It’s a challenging poem honourably working away at its own thematic obsession but its construction is what interests me at the moment. It is built out of two contrasting elements. The first is a reasonably clear retelling of the events of the film and the second is a free version of part of Inferno so that the old lady is imagined as descending into the circles of Hell. Thematically one can see the logic of this since Dante’s journey is, famously, made at the midpoint of his particular life straddling the turn of the fourteenth century. But you feel that the real value of this conjunction is the contrast of styles between the expository mode of “the fold / is where something collects” or “the river knows its midpoint / by the holding from mountain / to mouth of a constant thawthought” and the denser Dantesque pastiche of passages like “Crow/owl amalgams, moans like a gland leak”.

In other words – and I suppose it’s a minor, laboured point – there is an assemblage quality about many of these poems that seems to belong to the satisfactions of visual art rather than those of poetic discourse. If the thing has enough tensions to stand alone then it “works”. This isn’t to say that Holt’s poetry isn’t full of the usual suspects when it comes to poetic discourse: there are a lot of verbal jokes like “it’s quite time for eternity”. A poem about the statue of a crouching Aphrodite which raises issues that will now seem consistent in Holt’s poetry – a statue is frozen in time and yet the interpretation of the meaning of the statue is a cultural phenomenon in time – finishes with two puns in two lines: “There is a time which statues won’t stand for – / we should let them tire”. Holt’s style also involves a lot of neologisms or, at least, odd uses of language: “moulderment” from “Last Outcome”, already quoted, will serve as an example but there a many others. You feel that this is part of the visual-art approach: a rough but interesting surface. From the conventional standpoint of poetic rhetoric it is something that most editors would want removed but here it seems appropriate enough.

The last part of Keeps is an extended (sixteen page) poem based on Bresson’s marvellous film about the life of a donkey, Au Hasard Balthazar. The sequence is imagined as a kind of Greek tragedy with a poetic chorus accompanying the text, and the dynamics of the thing – which goes on innocently in chronological sequence, much like Bresson’s film – is built on the interaction between the elevated language of the elders and the basic poetry of the narrative. This recalls the interaction of the Dantesque and the denotative in “Maas River Filmreel”. When Balthazar’s mother “strikes him over the head with / a teat” just after his birth, the chorus spin off into elevated metaphysics:

be ahead of all partings,
as long gone already
like winter in spring;
. . . . . 
be – yet know
of its antipode,
nothing-source of your trembled ontology . . .

At the film’s great final scene of Balthazar’s death when the tinkling herd of sheep “parts gently round him”, the chorus celebrates the inevitable joining with the vast numbers of the already dead, those who inhabit Dante’s afterlife:

is death your ownmost, Balthazar?
if not: to all that carbon, all the done creatures
in the earth, unthinkable sums,
add yourself happily and cancel the count.

“Unthinkable sums” of all that carbon but designed to be thought about. Rereading this sequence it is one of the prefatory quotations which catches the eye: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick says: “It is possible to use one’s resources to assemble or repair the murderous part-objects into something like a whole. Once assembled to one’s own specifications, the more satisfying object is available to be identified with and to offer comfort”. Assembling parts into a whole of one’s own specifications seems like a perfect description of the poem-object direction the poems of this book want to take.

Does this relate to the book’s title – which doesn’t derive from any of the poems it contains? Possibly it does refer to the comfort that something stable made out of “murderous part-objects” can convey. It also suggests phrases like “playing for keeps”. But it may also derive from a poet’s sense that certain poems, as they are written, are “keepers”. The book in which Keeps appears also contains Holt’s previous books. It’s a nice idea – already essayed by the publisher (John Leonard Press) in the case of the three books of Petra White – and it enables earlier work to be kept in print – hopefully for keeps.