Toby Fitch Reviews Running time by Emily Stewart

By | 10 February 2023

This tension isn’t mutually exclusive but rather symbiotic, emphasising the dialectic between lived experience and representation. And it plays out across the spaces the poems navigate during lockdown, when screens became even more integral to the social, and when we were reminded viscerally how time is running and yet running in its place (perhaps time itself has always just been doomscrolling). Anders Villani writes in Australian Book Review that Stewart’s ‘depersonalised’ lyric voice is bot-like or a representation of our online subjectivities, and this may be so on one level, as these are partly static poems ‘deepfaking literaturr / on the computer’, but the poems are also walking or running poems – poems on foot with ‘lots of neighbourhood in this trouble’. We get plenty of movement, speed, shifts in gear, then stasis, doubt, and the re-tracing of steps and thoughts. Some lines of movement be like:

‘I go roadside – I roam / talking trash’
‘this rummaging this sorting is a live consciousness / that never rests or stops’
‘today I avoid catastrophe / burning through / quick sums’
‘the stars blister above me / all the way to central’

Which are offset against lines of stasis, like:

‘a lush new vector / has its hold on the herb / garden’
‘doubt is more private / than shame / which is worn on the body’
‘what propelled me cut me off’

With the split subject (between life and representation) split even more (‘I know where I’m going wrong / flicking between screens / my mood is split’), it all amounts to a fascinating poetics of worry. Stewart ‘diagram[s her] memory of events’, noting how ‘habits are force-fields’, meaning they are both difficult to escape and a comfort. The poems become a working through of worry – ‘my fantasy is / that crisis is revelatory / that change is a process’ – until ‘things appear to be moving “in the right direction”.’

The malleable syntax, title-less poems, and tension between life and art combine to create an inclusivity on ‘the commons of the street’. Phrases are interspersed among each other, and none dominate. Augmenting this is how the poems are assembled from an eclectic range of available things (images, observations, commentary, details), i.e. bricolage (from bricoleur, which means ‘to tinker’). This tinkering leads to ‘troublingly sticky’ jump cuts and juxtapositions throughout, revealing the speaker’s feelings (on purpose) no matter how much she fragments the lyric voice: ‘I was hiding my seriousness and glitched’.

But enough serious thematising, because there are loads of funny moments, too, such as:

‘who is Santa what is his sexuality’
‘I wrecked my personality / at book club’
‘phone turns Woolf to wooof’
‘temperamentally yrs x’
‘it’s all too droll’

and it is, and I like it like that. We need humour in poetry, especially droll humour, which, in Stewart’s work is possibly the influence of poets like Pam Brown, Gig Ryan and joanne burns, among others. But if there’s one thing to take away from the poems, it is, again, what they say about themselves: ‘I’ve come this way / by honest means / snapping to make fluorescent’.

When you read the lines in Stewart’s poems they become active – ‘lean lively linear’ – they snap into and out of place with a sharp affect (a little bit witty, a little bit toey); they become fluorescent – highlighting their commentary on the moment, the event, the emotionality, the real, but at the same time highlighting their thingness, their notionality, their bright construction.

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