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L K Holt, man wolf man (John Leonard Press 2007)

551cman wolf man won the Kenneth Slessor Award this year. Whatever may be wrong with literary awards (promoting the view that art is a competition, for example), they do extend some readers’ range, mine included. How would I have picked this up if it hadn’t been singled out by the judging panel?  I’m glad I did pick it up.

Luke Davies is quoted on the publisher’s website as saying, ‘Holt’s is one of those voices that blast from the sky now and again, like a lightning bolt.’ To which I reply, ‘Fair enough.’ The writing in this book is sharp and playful and versatile and makes wonderful music. There are two long pieces, series of long sonnets (that is, sonnets with 18 lines – I don’t know if this is something L K Holt invented). One of them, ‘Unfinished Confession’,  starts out with almost A-D-Hopish gravitas, talking about an ancient pioneer of anatomical knowledge, then in the last lines of the first sonnet lurches into crude, impatient vernacular and reveals its totally contemporary subject, still serious, still – like much of A D Hope – rich in scientific reference and allusions to works of art, and preoccupied with sex, but very much its own thing. (I’m trying not to be spoilerish, and also keep my PG rating.) In the book as a whole, there are many delights in the patterning of language, many memorable lines.

The very first poem, ‘Man is Wolf to Man’, begins with a grim commonplace:

Until the consummation of things
man, wolf, man.

and goes on, elegantly, with a catalogue of horrors, ending:

Sometimes the enemy knocks before
entering. A baby is hidden in the drawer.

It seems to be saying that humans, or perhaps just men, are incorrigibly vicious to each other and that the best we can hope for is sometimes to protect something precious. I find this view of things repugnant, its pessimism in some way too easy (not the attribution of lupine viciousness, but the notion that it wil be with us forever, that it cannot be effectively resisted). It’s a gauge of how good the book is that I intend to keep it, and reread it, and will seek out more of L K Holt’s work.

(An unsatisfactory explanation of the title of this post can be found in a post on my superseded blog, Family Life.)

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