By L.K. HoltPoetryVagabond Press

Birth Plan

Birth Plan, L.K. Holt’s fourth full-length collection, is a generous, sharp-edged, technically masterful and expansive collection from one of Australia’s foremost female poets. These poems are transformative, fiercely feminist, unrelenting in their clarity, and display a rare mastery of the musicality of language. Exploring the realities of mothering and loving in the late Anthropocene, Holt’s work is rigorous in its exploration and evocation of psychological truths and half-truths. Fearless and darkly humorous, these are poems that turn on a phoneme and give full life and song to the shimmering uncertainties and hard realities of selfhood.

Portrait of L.K. Holt

L.K. Holt

L.K. Holt lives in Melbourne, Australia. Her previous full-length collections are Man Wolf Man (2007), Patience, Mutiny (2010) and Keeps (2014). She is a recipient of the Kenneth Slessor Prize and the Grace Leven Prize, and has been longlisted for the Literature Society Gold Medal.

Judges’ report

Ambitious in its thematic scope and highly original in its fusion of registers, L.K. Holt’s Birth Plan builds an expansive vehicle to explore the complexity of what it means to be alive in the world today. The poems are exhilarating in their complex and nimble rhythms, examining parenting, mortality, sexual politics, science, literary inheritance, illness, postcolonial dislocation and more, through a fearless and erudite feminist perspective. The voice that sustains throughout this collection is a wry one – sharp-edged and unflinching. Birth Plan bridges the complexity of history with the tension of the contemporary. It is rare to find a collection so skilfully layered, thought-provoking and affecting.

Extract

MODERN WOMAN SONNETS

What places a man beyond comparison? What shape
and shade and look drives us to despair the least
circuitously, without the patience pace
for comedy or tragedy?

What playlist most befits the whole man,
who can he outsource his outpouring to, who
still plays the lute, who could be Nature for him?

Let’s say we are, at least, a breath-piece
with a sex a gait a few tracts and a brain upturned
and we each can know one thing at a time
and this is mine:
all the art that improves on the world
has a tinkling-nóthing effect
on lust’s blue hot blue overruns.

                       

                        \

 

There’s a face precise from the deep’s allowance:
the stranger on a sofa I knew just once,
the pristine first-sight before
Love claims with its almost-claws.

Seeing how he loved me hard
I took pity, utter, and then fell despite,
in the valley of the young and well 

in a lot of little hurries, detailed rushes
in a dearth of field. Grey green.

But as I watch now the low-pressure system
massing darkness its gale-forces
smearing stars, I wonder what did finely arrange
my shipwreck on my rocks,
then cross-hatched in thin ink from cliff-top the scene.

 

                        \

 

How lovely your eyes and their looking,
small gardens with sex-minded flowers. . . .
into flesh le fleche de l’amour shot from
their shaded bowers. My gaze was holding, calling
wrongly your bluff, me and the blown rose
and its fresh interpetals of air. 

So I’ve cried my days down the days-drain. 

You my eyes were lit lucky objects of his eyes
but you my heart – meat! – with your surface-envy
retreated past red past desolation,
till that first replication which was desolate. . . .
Let none believe I’m a single cell or second
at ease, not when my heart and eyes can’t share
a good or bad or neutral word.

 

                                                                        (Labé 21; 20; 11) 

 

IS IT SERIOUS 

His fever is a primal engine turning over:
the system, working, thrashes.
‘Mama is that the sea being born?’ ‘No –
well yes – it’s low cloud
upon an alpine lake where we walked last month.’
Her face underlit with the internet
she scrolls through symptoms, lays her hands on,
him her son and her worldsickness.

An Ebola-recoveree: a little boy,
shines from the Guardian,walking on through the parting chlorine ‘happy shower’
with his ration, Plumpy’nut
and Solid Therapeutic Milk. 

‘Off he goes,’ she says,
she who narrates to understand
nothing but with structure. 

She toggles between child and screen,
reason and its sleep, things are seen
from midnight’s height.
‘Attention is the same thing as prayer,’ Simone Weil said
but it’s not an action. Only graceless,
shameless will can save. . . .

‘Good hulk of children’s hospital,
in purple darkness newly opened and waiting
for us, your pristine linoleum, internal courtyard
with meerkats on loan from the zoo, 
soft steady beeping and doctors flowing in pastels,’
she prays, ‘please grow older slower than my children.’
She has a special way of being unafraid:
her death is a fur-ball beside the child’s
that is a black sphinx forever turning in an oiled coil,
bigger than a hospital.

As her son is sleeping she thinks of what
she’s given him – at minimum –
the empty palace of – a human precondition –
to do with as he wishes – off she’ll go.
Glass-faced, he begins to bark in Hellhound, the biteless
telling sound of croup, it’s nothing serious.

She moves on through a parting in
the things that – mostly – never happen.

 

 

DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS (BYE DAN, HI DAN)

            1. 

We were standing on the edge of the point
upon granite’s externalised memory,
far sea glittered like milk teeth,
bull kelp in the deep pool at our feet
rippled then loosed its burliness,
light had a jaunt inside each droplet . . . bye Dan.
There’s death’s horrible breach in our gladness.
Then there’s the whale’s breach that makes us more than glad,
astonished, to see the brilliant exhalation,
to see it the once. Hi Dan.

 

            2. 

The musk-stink of now, lit frankincense in lit rain
as Tom read out Dan’s letter, his hands conducting
the all-caps and underlines not overly,
he left the imperatives feral.
Dan’s mother spoke to him with half her and half her
mother’s tongue, a patois from darkest sunspot,
she is mother and daughter of her only death
which is non-transferable.
It needn’t be said, she couldn’t do it in his stead.

 

            3.

It’s a Struggle!  inked on his arse-cheek for a laff
as he lay, odalisque-like. The tattooist (Dan’s type
of touché hombre) did ask as he finished up
(Dan’s bare moon as gold as mescal did shine
beside the blue night): 'Do you mind me asking
what’s the significance of It’s a Snuggle?'
Dan told me that story many times not-enough.
Beside the castellated tide-rocks among the gulls’
cloacal zodiacs – trying on the sort of escalating
ornate phrase he’d start the night with,
the sort he’d take and run with, he’d run all night
Renaissance Dan – we tell his stories passably.

 

            4. 

Men as boys – they bang against Death’s inattention;
as young men – they ride the disappointing quell
of their antsy ardency but can’t reach down the dim fathoms
            to the lava-leak;
as new men – they world-rule but only through self-treachery,
becoming harder, softer, Hemmingkovs;
as old men – denigrating what is lost but you
            will never be that.
You wrote me – The memory of fear knocks
but at last there is no door to open – full-throatedly. 

 

            5.

Your sister – like you with the dark brows
of an albatross that slips from the Falklands
to Tasmania – once she’d washed
the skull off her face in the morning she said:

a dying albatross may rest on a ship awhile
but will never leave so late as to not
put good distance between itself
and that with a weakness for landfall.

  

I DON'T KNOW

There’s a pegboard in the Quaker hall
for hanging up the chairs for ease of sweeping.
The hung chairs, their conflicting angles,
look like violence paused and levitated: 

now there’s time and space to think below.
If violence is spirit over matter,
or matter over spirit I don’t know.
It’s always too near or far away to tell.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist