The Knives of Villalejo
Eyewear Publishing, 2017
Last year I briefly corresponded with the American poet Donald Hall in the course of my research for a book on the Scottish poet Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975). Finding myself nagged by guilt at not doing enough work on said book, I found myself today trying to work on it. Inevitably, I ended up procrastinating by looking up interviews of Donald Hall, and found this piercing late piece of proseon Hall’s relationship with the Muse and his late wife Jane Kenyon. In his article, Donald Hall writes about how all poets eventually come to ‘necropoetics’ – the poetry of death, loss and elegy. Matthew Stewartis also a brilliant elegist as well as a love poet, and both drives are equally shaped and tempered by each other. (It’s rather like Hamish Henderson‘s wonderful song ‘The Flyting o Life and Daith’, where Life and Death personified bicker about who owns the world.) Every living feeling is made more acute by the fact that it is always under threat, be that Stewart’s dying father in ‘Straight from the Airport’ or a past relationship remembered with a pang:
I love to hear it tinny, caught on tape,
giving a number rather than a name,
as if you were the prisoner, not me. from ‘You’ve Reached 020…’
Stewart’s main gauge for measuring whether or not he is still in the land of the living or the land of the shades seems to be an alimentary one – food is a major source of pleasure and solace from the opening poem ‘Formica’ onwards. In this poem family experience trumps any objective, material truth, so that the wood-effect Formica is something artificial that acts as a backdrop for something very real that is taking place. Like the lino and the decor, the roles within a family can be changed, but the concept of home is never altered or bettered:
An ochre dusk through the window,
stewed apples sighing from the hob
and slippers squeaking back and forth
on the lino – Mum’s become Gran,
Son now Dad, but a boy still plays
at the same Formica table.
This kitchen’s hub, its ersatz knots
are giving off a perfect shine.
Stewart’s poems rarely, if ever, outstay their welcome. They are mostly very emotionally heightened, well-honed and pithy lyrics, seldom over-stepping the half-way point on a page. Stewart’s day job is in the wine-trade and all of his poems seem intensely curated, pored over – each one a different taste, terroir, atmosphere and distillation. In cooking terms, they are lip-smacking reductions:
While skinning and sluicing,
I’m reminded how much
I’ve come to envy
It’s easy for them
to carry ink around
and keep it safe, close
to their heart. Choco relleno from ‘Artes Culinarias’
Naturally there are plenty of oenological poems too and I know it’s a bit of a fallacy to draw too many parallels between the day job of the poet and their poems, but Stewart’s profession is interesting in the context of the poems and how economical they are with language. I imagine the wine trade is saturated with verbiage and jargon and hyperbole and blandishment but somehow Stewart’s poems escape all of that and still manage to be redolent of different flavours, from a rich jammy Rioja to something grandly austere and gravelly like a Bordeaux from Pauillac. Flavours become emotions become poems. These poems are palate cleaners to overly fatty, wordy and unctuous poems that try so hard to get you to like them. Stewart is like the knife-sharpener in the title poem ‘The Knives of Villalejo’, the keenness of his poems serving up slices of life:
House after house, they wait for his whistle
as he pushes his bike from door to door.
He knows them well and whets them in seconds,
pinging the blade with a flourish.
And so they carry on chopping up days,
carving weeks, slicing months and dicing years
until they judder halfway through a stroke
and snap like over-sharpened lives.
Stewart knows and respects the ingredients of his poems and so doesn’t muck about with them. In a culture (poetry particularly!) bogged down with marketing-ese and spiel these poems are refreshingly short and bracing draughts. Stewart is also a good European living in Spain, so these poems often discuss not only the cultural and linguistic treasures available to the émigré, but also the feelings of outsiderness, otherness and liminality that can haunt someone living abroad, where emotional and familial ties can become strained:
Until you’ve lived in a country
full of kitchens full of saucepans
that slowly creak to the boil,
a kettle won’t seem to whistle
like the owner of a loose dog
calling it back, calling it home. ‘Home Comforts’