The White Line of Language by Deb Stewart, Ginninderra Press 2019, was launched by Amelia Walker at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, on 15 June 2019.
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the character Helmholtz Watson muses: “Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced”¹. Deb Stewart’s The White Line of Language is full of words that do just this. Honed words, skilfully arranged into just the right orders, creating just the right shapes for ears as eyes, aloud as on the page. Words that press hard against silence and space, against one another, language, limits, the unsayable and still-to-be-said. Words that sing and cry and hope and ache and wonder, unfolding always into more – and more. Words to read again and again, always and endlessly for the very first time.
Put simply, this is a tour de force. Each poem is expertly crafted, expressing volumes through its slightest syllable – as through letters, line breaks, punctuation and, yes, even typeless sections of page. This same care is evident with the book as a whole, which features not only poems but stunning photographic art. Through her careful selection and ordering of both visual and verbal works, Stewart curates a rich nexus of themes, motifs, echoes and connections that collectively form what can, in its own way, be considered another kind of poem – that is, the book, its construction, as poetry. Stewart’s photographs speak to and of her poems, weaving a cross-medium dialogue that reminds us, if a picture is worth a thousand words, and poetry already words forming pictures – or maybe sculptures, words chiselled to their finest – the placement of one against the other opens another space yet again: a space that is both words and pictures, yet neither words nor pictures; a space of thought, of dreams, of the things words and pictures reach for but never reach; a space of possibility; a space of beyond; a space of that which might be.
Hints of the subtle depths this understated collection bears are evident from the first poem, ‘Automatic (life) writing’, which opens the collection with the humorous yet poignant “…begin anywhere, accept whatever comes”. This unfolds into a kind of ars poetica in which Stewart pays tribute to influences, particularly Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues², and hints at aspects of lived experience that perhaps helped shape later poems in the collection. I say perhaps because as Stewart’s absolutely spot ‘A Poet’s Self-defence’ reminds us, the “I” of a poem is something quite separate from the person writing. Shifts of voice, perspective and what I will for want of a better word call character are indeed among the joys of this collection, which glides between first, second and third person – from “I” to “we” to “you”, “he”, “she”, “they” and then at other times no pronouns or personas at all, merely washes of imagery and perceptions into which we as readers may imagine or omit a perceiving subject. Where pronouns are used it is clear across poems that the same pronoun stands for different figures in different instances. The “I” of ‘Argument’ who remembers not the argument – ‘just moist black soil / scattered terracotta fragments’ – is clearly different from that of ‘Penelope Sailing’, a gutsy re-telling of The Odyssey³. Yet both understand anger. Both have known love and the ache when love goes wrong. These themes – love, loss and anger – are among the connecting threads that weave throughout the collection, knitting differing voices, characters and scenes together in ways that remind us, powerfully, how fragile we all are and how connected, even in times of isolation, or indeed even through our isolation – through fear and loneliness, through our vulnerable yearnings to belong.
A reader may wonder whether the couple in ‘Hail’ who struggle to rekindle a flame in the midst of addiction and “a world shattered” might be the same he and she of ‘Red’, whom we find “tearing at cloth; at hair and skin, / drawing each other’s animal blood”. In truth, it does not matter. The point is that a connection exists – between the poems, yes, and the experiences of the figures in the poems, but more crucially, with real issues rife in our world right now: difficult and important issues too often hushed over; issues Stewart bravely brings to the surface for us to see in their starkness, prompting us to question how things are and wonder how else they could be.
Hashtag: Me. Fucking. Too.4
But the collection is not all darkness and rage. There is sensuality, too – and music. Singing patterns of sound and metre harmonise with recurrent allusions to rhythm, melody and instruments – for instance, the body-as-guitar in the poem, ‘Guitar’, which treats the soul as ‘a sound box’ that ‘draws in the songs of birds, / pulsations of insects, / gentle movements of breezes’. In these ways, The White Line of Language reverberates sonorously with Stewart’s passions as a singer-songwriter, adding another thread yet again to the dialogue of poems and images, and offering insights into what seems reciprocal relationships between her multiple creative pursuits.
Striking, also, about The White Line of Language is Stewart’s keen sense of metaphor and the inventive ways in which she turns a phrase, often achieving that thing the Russian Formalist critics prized so highly – making the world new again through language, or in other words, making us re-see commonplace things as though for the first time, compelling awe in the ordinary.5. For instance, Stewart writes of scars as “the post it notes of pain” (‘Scars’) and captures how thought may “speed” like cars on a hot bitumen road, “seeking the right exit / sometimes seeing red” (‘Road Poem’). She paints for us the shy girl who “enters the room but never the crowd” (‘The Shy Girl’), and brings us to ponder what it might mean to give birth to oneself (‘Baptism’).
Another strength yet again is that of the poems’ layouts. Some, such as ‘Zen and the Art of Cleaning’ and ‘Hawkesbury River Visit’, explicitly present themselves in concrete form, that is, using words to create shapes, layering additional context and interpretative scope into that of the words by themselves. Other poems are laced with gaps or use enjambment in ways that invite us to ponder what the white space might signal as possible words, phrases and ideas yet-unsaid. All are beautiful, on the page as aloud. All offer something special and deserve our careful reflection.
The themes of beginning and continuing, raised in the opening poem, resurge periodically throughout the collection, most obviously in the poem titled ‘This is Where it Begins’ – on page eighty-five. The final poem, winkingly titled, ‘The End’, likewise speaks back to this theme, noting, “It will seem odd to sing of the end from where I hope is the middle.” Which aptly comes a kind of full-circle and simultaneously re-opens the cycle, that is, signals beginning all over afresh.
This ending-as-beginning leaves me hopeful, for the only gripe I could raise with The White Line of Language is that I didn’t want it to end. Stewart’s poetry is so compelling, I could have read and read and read. Yet I take the final poem as a promise (and Deb, I’ll hold you to it) that this certainly isn’t the last we’ll be hearing. I’m already waiting in keen anticipation for the next collection. In the meantime, however, let’s celebrate and enjoy this one. Please, join me in raising a charged glass:
To The White Line of Language.
Now… I could close with something cheesy about following the line and it being worth the journey… But the real point is, get your arse to that sales table and your hands on a copy.
Footnotes and Citations
¹ Huxley, Aldous 1931  Brave New World, Vintage Classics, London, p. 60
² Kerouac, Jack 1959 Mexico City Blues (242 Choruses), Grove Press, New York
³ Verity, Anthony (trans.) 2016, Homer’s The Odyssey, Oxford University Press, Oxford
4 Bennet, Jessica 2018 ‘The #MeToo Movement: Art Inspired by the Reckoning’, New York Times, Jan 12/18, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/12/us/reader-art-inspired-by-the-metoo-moment-sexual-harassment.html
5 Shklovsky, Victor 1919  Art, as Device, trans. Alexandra Berlina, Poetics Today, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 151-174
– Amelia Walker
Amelia Walker has published four poetry collections, most recently Dreamday (Campbelltown ArtHouse 2017). She holds a PhD in Creative Writing and is current secretary of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP). Amelia co-edits the book reviews section for TEXT (www.textjournal.com.au) and is also on the editing team for Writing From Below (www.writingfrombelow.org).
The White Line of Language is available for online purchase from Ginninderra Press (www.ginninderrapress.com.au). Those interested in Deb Stewart’s electronically-accessible music, audio poetry, videos and ongoing poetry publications may stay updated via her social media author page (https://www.facebook.com/debstewartpoet/).
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