Robert Wood reviews Knocks by Emily Stewart
by Emily Stewart
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
There has been an important groundswell of recent feminist poetries and poetics in Australia. As Siobhan Hodge wrote in her review of Bonny Cassidy and Jessica Wilkinson’s anthology Contemporary Feminist Poetry, there is:
…a subtle, cresting sense of activism.
It is there too in Emily Stewart’s Knocks, through its critical, engaged and optimistic hopes that are expressed in specific poems, which together convey a notion of intersectionality conscious of gender. As Hodge herself said of the anthology:
‘There is a reassuring note of solidarity throughout the collection, but a simultaneous celebration of diversity in style, tone, theme and foci.’
One can suggest something similar in Stewart’s collection and which has been noted in different ways by Pam Brown’s launch speech in linked deletions, Amelia Dale’s commentary in Jacket2, and Melody Paloma’s review in Cordite. This dialectical relationship between acute critique and joyful celebration suggests not only that the whole of life is attended to, but also that one can oscillate, converse, play with the variety and possibility of ‘Poetry’ writ large. So what is Stewart railing against and what is she heralding? And, perhaps importantly, where is this leading us and what does it suggest?
To answer those questions is difficult, and it may be more apt to give a summary of what the collection is about in order to gesture at but never arrive at a full understanding of Stewart’s collection. Her voice is multiple, layered, various – there are erasure poems (section two); poems of multiple voices; poems in ordinary plain speech; remixed poems of heightened experiment (section three); poems of repetition (‘Today’). The references are Aussie kitsch, global pop cultural, resolutely local, Anglophonic culture industrial, fun too. This eclecticism of tone, style and reference keeps the volume entertaining, engaging, active. What that means for a reader is that one is being tested and flexed and exercised from page to page in a worthy movement from A to D to Z to B to U and back again all over and through.
There are, of course, personal favourites; poems that resonate, which each reader will find on their own. Needless to say, there are jewels in there that I like too. For example, I responded to ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’, which is a wry listing of commodities, objects, items that could be catalogued from Bunnings or Home Hardware or Mitre Ten. The poem begins:
fencestone, pavers, coloured spit rock
face blocks, colonial cornices, artificial
stone, aluminium step treads, hardwood (18)
Far from being a simple list poem, in Stewart’s hands, it becomes a rapturous sonic apprehension, not a dull rote thing but an event with music in it – ‘fencestone’ goes well with ‘face blocks’, and later on there is ‘urbanite’ with ‘expansion joints’, ‘marble veneer island bench’ with ‘brass compress’. The ordering is such that it makes it plain speech rhapsodic. And of course, one can read into it a post-conceptual politics that would take a found object, retype it and yet slantly embody it with ideological awareness – the phrasing to dwell on in the excerpt above is, of course, ‘coloured spit rock’ with ‘colonial cornices’ and so here and now, we glimpse the shadows of anachronistic Indigenous terms and the images of James Cook, which both come back to haunt the settling mode of the everyday do it yourself brigade. The last line of this poem is ‘how to fix a picket fence’ which not only circles back to the opening word (fencestone) but also allows the reader into a commentary of suburban dreams.
When read with a regard for Knocks as a whole, one notices that Stewart is an adept and able observer of contemporary life in Australia from the criticality of the mundane through to the implications of being here truly. This last sense comes through in the poem, ‘Animal Hands’, that directly follows ‘Australia’s Largest DIY’ though it is there in other, tender if welcomingly ambivalent pieces. Nevertheless it provides a direct counterpoint here, a kind of contrapuntal puncturing of the suburban critique in ‘DIY’. In ‘Animal Hands’, Stewarts writes:
I’ve been unwinding wire
along the serrated edge
of these paddocks for a
long time, pulling it tight (19)
It gives us a sense of engagement with boundaries, with borders, with aging, with process, with education, with tension, and this apparent everyday thinks through feminism, anxiety, and ecology of being with nods to history, emotion and birds. The poem ends with a libidinal and touching, though never sentimental, line:
all I want is your mouth on my neck, wordless and dumb under chilly stars
That is, the knowing poet assures us, all that ‘I’ want – the mouth, object of speech, home of tongue, at the neck, vampiric, teenage, hickies and loving, while the stars, this time chilled not burning balls of gas millions of miles away witness such complicated tenderness. It suggests what might be possible by looking at our immediate surrounds.
I responded to how her gaze falls on the ordinary, the suburban, the quotidian in these poems. This is not the domestic or the everyday or the taken-for-granted, but rather the momentary interruptions of frame against a poetic that is grand, posturing, arrogant. Those moments of defamiliarisation mean we are asked to see the normal anew and that is an important task in bringing to consciousness that which is poetic in the first place. This would seem to be a possibility that Stewart herself is constantly exploring from her writing to her social media, especially her Instagram [link to it – https://www.instagram.com/emstew__/], and which offers one line of productive inquiry that I am very much looking forward to. For this keen reader, the next collection cannot come soon enough.
- Siobhan Hodge review of Contemporary Feminist Poetry Ed Jessica Wilkinson and Bonny Cassidy Cordite
ROBERT WOOD has degrees from University of Western Australia, Australian National University and University of Pennsylvania. In 2017–2018, He will be an Endeavour Research Fellow and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, and a Copyright Agency Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books.