Matthew Stewart’s debut collection, The Knives of Villalejo, from Eyewear Publishing was twenty years in the writing and worth the wait. It charts a life begun in suburban Surrey where “bottles chimed on the doorstep”, “clothes will wait their turn till none remain, / just those hangers drooping like empty yokes” and certain phone numbers are never forgotten.
Stewart guides you through his life – its troughs and peaks, taking you to the vineyards of Spain, letting you have a sip of his life at various stages, from a wine that deepens with age. He hangs on to “how childhood once tasted” in his family home back in England, when he still lets “some vowels tug me home”. There is tension between the two places – England and Spain, between the present and the past that never slackens and is itself “like the fine scars of unknown wounds”.
There is however the comfort of food at the beginning of the collection and wine later on. It’s as if these most basic, nurturing and everyday things are what we hold onto and the taste or smell of it sites us, strengthens our foundations and gives us a sense of being. He tells us, “Now confront the day, bite by bite”, but it often feels as if it is a life often spent in the margins, of never really belonging in the places he finds himself. In After Twenty Years Apart he’s “still in the background”, in From Farnham to Villalejo his “mother-in-law summarises/ another neighbour’s life, both of us grin./ For a moment I almost belong”. There is a sense of the “almost” like a whisper or a haunting.
I do feel throughout the collections as if I am watching Stewart watching himself as if he’s standing beside me outside his body. In my ear is this whisper: “Tremendous beauty and tremendous ugliness puts you on the outside of things” (Peter Bogdanovich) – there’s beauty in home, peace, familial love and then there is the ugliness of watching a life stripped from the body of someone we love, until, for us “there’s not a hope/ of dodging the dark suit”. And then there’s this: “What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? … He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.” (Sartre). So I can’t help but follow Stewart to see what he will be and where his poems take us.
There’s a foreboding of loss from the outset, the title of the poem, Sooner or Later foretells this and from its opening line, “For the moment it skulks/ below forgotten gifts” we suddenly feel the weave of Stewart’s veins, his life, his future. Then there’s the actual loss, of a part of himself that always seems to be in another place, the loss of family members and the need to hold on to what is precious, “I only want a single pair of hands/ to stretch my spine and open me at last”. Sometimes he can be like a delighted-foreigner with an over-sharpened life, at other times he’s a grieving son, or an alien in an alien land where “muttered stories mirror muttered stories”. But listen hard, he says, “Listen as I stroke my message out”.
I urge you to put you ear close.
“Matthew Stewart is a poet of consolidation, truth, and freshness, with a masterful sense of economy. His poems matter, and his first full collection has been too long in coming. These poems have the rare quality of resonating a long way beyond their modest physical limitations.” Rory Waterman
Matthew Stewart blogs at Rogue Strands – a site that is always worth a visit. He I lives between Extremadura, Spain, and West Sussex, England and has two previous pamphlets with HappenStance Press.
Available from Eyewear Publishing; Paperback; £10.99