Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Calderwood Press, 2010   £3.50

Reviewed by D A Prince and Hilary Menos
(the third copy went astray in the post to another reviewer and has not yet shown up again).

D A Prince:
The title is appropriate: Judith Stewart’s poems glance at casual meetings and possible relationships, or memories and anecdotes of family life, in a bleakly gentle way. She watches from the sidelines, makes observations, then moves on to another encounter. So this is a low-key collection that makes no demands on the reader; a lack of urgency and compulsion unifies the pamphlet and makes for a comfortable feeling of familiarity—and I think this is what Stewart intends.

As in the film, there are no life-changing events and sex is a minefield to back away from. The first stanza of  ‘Not what I expected’ is packed with hands-on sexual activity only to mutate into the question

.......So how is it that now
.......my life is spent making sure
.......that bills are paid on time
.......and toilet paper never runs out?

Is there a measure of irony lurking here? Probably not, given the number of husbands who die between these covers—one of a heart attack before lunch while cutting one of his slug-infested cabbages (it’s replaced with a can of peas), another whose widow calmly acknowledges mourners at his cremation—

.......Her best friend hugs her.
.......Are you OK? “Of course I am”
.......she says, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Stewart was a short-story writer before turning to poetry and it shows in these details.  ‘Birmingham grandma’—“She smelled of cigarettes, and face-powder’—is observed from a child’s-eye view; grandma dotes on her son

.......hanging on his every word
.......while my mother smiled politely
.......from somewhere close to Coventry.

Stewart doesn’t comment; she just lets the language do the work for her, as it should. And in ‘O Tempora . . .’ she hears ‘the squawk and chatter of parakeets’—a gaggle of ‘little Lolitas’, eleven-year olds checking their make-up and talking of boys. The quietness of the ending underlines the comparison—

.......At eleven, I fished for minnows,
.......and, with a white mouse in my pocket,
.......followed spies.

‘Self-assured and unpretentious’ is how the back cover describes her poetry;  exactly so.

 

Hilary Menos:
There is much to praise in this second pamphlet from Judith Stewart. She takes on a wide range of subjects with gusto and confidence, and her poems are cleanly written and free from poetic pomposity and pretension. In my favourite, 'Birmingham Grandma', she deftly and sympathetically paints a picture of a dysfunctional family, the doting grandmother gazing at her son, the poet's father,

.......while my mother smiled politely
.......from somewhere close to Coventry.

Stewart clearly likes a twist, a bit of cleverness or a neat image to close on. Sometimes it works. But too often her poems close in a pedestrian or clichéd way. 'Ancestry', a poem about her antecedents in Stafford whose name was Winkle, ends, predictably, “Do I still have kinfolk there? Could I go and winkle them out?”

'Visit to Dachau' ends with an image of tourists taking snaps against the Arbeit Macht Frei sign; an unoriginal juxtaposition. And in 'Something Strange', butterflies plotting world domination are a “gentle tyranny,/ a velvet hand in a gossamer glove”; the reference is both confused and clichéd.

Stewart's robustness in the face of major emotional trauma also seems to me disconcerting. In 'Lilies', and 'Sweetheart Cabbage', both bereaved wives respond to their husband's deaths with equanimity, one at his funeral trying not to laugh, the other opening a tin of peas. I'm not saying the death of a husband can't be a liberation. I'm just not sure this is a useful or rewarding way to explore the issue.

In the same vein, 'Not what I expected' and the entertaining 'Fubar'—(fucked up beyond all recognition)—suggest that women are better off without men, and in 'Temptation' a married woman on holiday narrowly avoids the advances of a sweet-talking Italian in a bar who turns out to be a dodgy lech. Do I detect a theme?

But Judith Stewart does have an ear for a nicely-turned phrase. 'After Troy' is narrated by an attendant of Helen of Troy who laments her dead husband, “my good man” . . . who “lies with all the others,/ a rickle of bleached bones”. I wish I'd written that.