Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

"The Knives of Villalejo" by Matthew Stewart (Eyewear Publishing, 2017)

Poems from Ambit, London Magazine, New Walk, The Rialto, Under the Radar, Atrium Poetry, his earlier leaflets, etc - 42 pages of poetry, some prizewinners amongst them. We have a few things in common, though he's done more of all of them - a HappenStance leaflet, a comprehensive school education, an Oxbridge connection, bilingual family, and a long, respectable record of magazine appearances. In an interview with Paul Stephenson he makes these points -

  • Foreign languages enabled me to play characters, try out a persona and work out who I was
  • When I started out in the mid-90s, I felt hugely alone in my poetic tastes, as anthologies and magazines at that time were full of poetry that was anathema to me
  • Brevity, meanwhile, is a defect or a quality that’s accompanied me throughout my life
  • I’m a small-town boy in both the U.K. and Spain, and that’s reflected in my poetry

I can see how all these might have impacted on the poems here.

Outsiderness and place

Several of the poems feature moments of arrival or departure. There's a theme of displacement, of being never fully naturalised, of feeling that your children will be more native than you - "For a moment I almost belong" (p.24); "Where is home?" (p.46). In "Extranjero" his accent reminds him "of who I am or was or was or am". But that outsider feel was there in Oxford when he was a student ("Twenty Years Apart") - incidentally, "imposter syndrome" is common amongst Oxbridge students.

Location and time become interlocked. In his case, returning to England means returning to the past, to aging parents. The kitchen symbolises family. In "Home comforts" the whistle of a kettle remembered from childhood is like an owner calling a lost dog home. In "Instructions for coming home", kitchens and arrival combine. More than one poem feature being alone in a kitchen - a situation which accentuates isolation from family.

Brevity

The poems are trimmed, clipped and manicured - cooked, not raw. Ian Hamilton's style comes to mind. Less so Imagism - compare "La trashumancia (nf)" - "On two Sundays a year, Madrid/ seethes with countless migrating sheep/ walking the streets unthinkingly/ like Monday's flock of commuters" - with the compacted "In A Station of the Metro".

The risk is purifying the poem to within an inch of its life, or reducing stylistic variation - brevity is at odds with certain styles and/or voices. But just as FC Barcelona doesn't need a plan B, nor does a poet.

Syllabics

Each word counts. In fact each syllable does - syllabics abound. Examples include p.11 - five-lined stanzas with a 7/10/10/10/10 syllabic count, p.12 - 10/10/10/10 stanzas, p.13 has 6/6/6/6/6/6/6 stanzas, p.14 - 6/6/6/6 stanzas, p.43 - 8/8/8, 7/7/7, ... 1/1/1.I have to consciously count the syllables. To the poet, I believe it's a more natural sense. The syllabics are unobtrusive, though they might have contributed to the "hugely alone" feeling. Claire Crowther in PN Review (May/Jun 2016) wrote "My impression is that contemporary syllabics ... never was and still isn’t popular ... Peter Groves has listed the judgments of anti-syllabicists including Basil Bunting (‘silly’), Michael Hamburger (‘cannot see the point’), Adrian Henri (‘redundant’), Peter Levi (‘uninteresting’), and John Heath-Stubbs (‘totally spurious’)". To me, syllabics don't enhance the reader experience because the possibility of defying expectation isn't available unless readers innately count syllables as they read or listen. For the writer they may well help to impose self-discipline while drafting.

Generally

There are hints of mortality - "I read the night away/ in time to your wretched breaths" (p.13) ... "There's not a hope/ of dodging the dark suit" (p.14) ... "you'll never quite remember what/ you forgot, but you'll remember/ you forgot" (p.50)

There's much imagery to like - e.g. "shrugs blouses on to hangers ... dropping like empty yokes" (p.20). I like "Learning the language", though I send pieces like that to prose magazines nowadays (yes I know the lines are 8-syllabled). I like "In the wine trade (ii)". I like the poems that turn out to be analogies, though "Final blend" is a mite too telegraphed.

Other reviews

  • Patrick Kurp
  • Abegail Morley (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,)
  • John Field (poem after poem worries away at the wound of grief ... Stewart’s poems all share a grounded honesty, a rootedness in the material world ... The collection explores belonging with tremendous sensitivity.)
  • Emma Lee (straddles two countries and two cultures, offering snapshots of life from childhood to adulthood yet contain a hint at resistance to change ... At face value, these are gentle poems that wear their craft lightly; but a second look reveals their identifiable truths.)
  • Sheenagh Pugh (It's nearly always good news when a poet has a career completely divorced from poetry; it provides a whole hinterland of language and imagery plus that sense, for the reader, of assurance with the material, of listening to someone who knows what he's talking about, and indeed some of my favourites in this collection are the short sequences "Dos Vinos" and "In the Wine Trade".)
  • Richie McCaffery (Stewart’s poems rarely, if ever, outstay their welcome. They are mostly very emotionally heightened, well-honed and pithy lyrics)

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