Melody Paloma Reviews Emily Stewart

13 February 2017

Within the erasures, the first poem ‘him or’, sets a definite lovesick tone. Split into three sections, it is permeated by lack or absence of the beloved. However, perhaps in reaction to this, ‘him or’ is defiant and active. We see this combative mode in the first of the three sections in which the speaker takes the reigns: refusing to submit to the lack brought about by desire, she chants, ‘I am / I can / I have / I’m going / I call’. Despite this, desire and lack are inseparable, as section two hands back the control to the beloved: ‘he’s not / his apartment / his – no’ and ‘he says / he’ll call’. More so than the beloved, the poem is about holding onto agency within desire and a propensity to create one’s own rules when it comes to that desire, a battle that begins with the poem’s title (him or … nothing?) and continues until the poem’s last line: ‘busy restless angry anger anger love love’. Thinking about the act of Erasure more broadly, I can’t help but feel that there’s something erotic in the form itself. In covering up or erasing parts of a text, the author instills in the reader a strong desire to see what’s underneath, to look under the text. For the author of the erasure, to create involves a removal of particular attire, an undressing.

This erotic potential, in combination with the cheek of these erasures, works towards constructing the ratbaggish energy that skulks through this collection, or, when considering their engagement in the gurlesque, the poems’ commitment to a savage and urbane girlery. Any act of homage comes with the will to reinvent, to make something better, or at least as good as, its original source. Stewart places her work among the rankings of Davis, Woolf, Garner, Ackerman, Sontag and Lispector; she takes an aerosol can to the work of her heroines, feeling, as Oulipian Francios Le Lionnais would have it, ‘the need to improve it through a little judicious retouching’.

Within the relationship between appropriation and theft, Stewart’s is the loveable kind of theft – the nicking-a-block-of-Grana-Padano-from-Woolies kind of theft. In her essay ‘Ratbag Polemic’ (2013) Astrid Lorange marks theft as key to ratbaggery, citing Michel Serres’s The Parasite. Lorange writes:

When a rat turns up in your kitchen, you are each other’s guests: just as the rat is canny at thieving morsels of bread and rind, so too is the rat canny at crafting a home from a network of theft. A rat’s interference makes you an intruder.

Like Lorange’s rat, Stewart’s erasures work to make their source’s authors intruders among their own art. Of course, this is not to say that Stewart’s intent is malicious, nor do I think ratbags are malicious. It’s easy to imagine these texts sitting over-leafed on Stewart’s bookshelf, remembering too that good erasures require very close reading, the kind of reading that is mathematical as well as intuitive, locking on to both sides of the brain simultaneously; erasures need to be insightful and clever to be good. These poems are Stewart’s re-workings of worshipped prose, boiled down so it might be used as rocket fuel, for ‘the rat antics of the poets against the drone state’.

It’s not just the act of erasure that flaunts this cheek. The form these poems adopt are often loose. ‘No genius’ is a rambling gem: ‘a riot hardly confined’, its varying line lengths and disjointed sentiments are even reckless, but like all good ratbags, Stewart manages to remain totally charming. ‘No genius’ is an ode to poetry and poets, ‘writing poetry is writing prose but it is the margin’, Stewart tells us, and it is these margins that Stewart celebrates – the ideas at the back of the mind, the edge of the mind, those curious and appealing delights like ‘the wretched / present dancing’. Stewart’s devotion doesn’t exclude or ostracise her reader, there’s no soapbox appeal; rather she encourages us to join in, to ‘Collect poems, produce superior poems’ that defend ‘radical difference’ within our own personal ‘province of the difficult’.

There’s plenty about these poems that locate Stewart, not just as an Australian poet, but as a poet with Australian concerns. There are the cloying markers of locality, like ‘potoroos’, ‘brumbies’, ‘the ways a kookaburra / can split the air’), and ‘State of Origin’ – a poem constructed out of footy commentary. But Stewart marks all of these symbols with an awareness of kitsch and the empty sign; she uses these to work towards building a critical concern for the Australian condition, one that notes settler Australia’s obsession with home improvement (see ‘Australia’s largest DIY’) as a colonial artefact void of cultural value, contributing to a lack of sacred culture that ‘keeps the adults dumb in / the pool’ and fosters political conscience that ‘slops in one / direction’.

The poem ‘Blue’ builds an association between the colour blue and Sydney, which Brown aptly recognises in ‘the cliched association of exaggeration of ‘harbour’ blue in, in my opinion, ghastly Brett Whiteley paintings’. Stewart implies a disassociation between ‘blue’ as signifier and blue as signified, and as result, ‘Sydney’ as signifier as disassociated with Sydney as signified. ‘Sydney’ by now, like Whiteley’s harbour blue, is void of meaning, ‘Blue’s meaning is blacked / out’.

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