Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

HappenStance Press, 2011    £4.00

Reviewed by Marcia Menter, Charlotte Gann and Richie McCaffery:

 

Marcia Menter:

Perhaps Matthew Stewart has also written poems about his job as a blender and exporter of wines, and if so, I’d like to read them, because he’s clearly keen on tastes and smells and does some of his best work in the kitchen. This collection, though, is largely about being an expat—not just in the literal, physical sense of being an Englishman in Spain, but in the temporal sense of being exiled from his own past. It’s an ordinary past, he seems to be saying, but the sensation of time passing is extraordinary. In ‘Tennis’,

we feel it rushing by:

.......Dad’s standing on the other side
.......of the net and feeding me balls
.......to my forehand.

Within three short lines,

.......And here I am, feeding you balls
.......to your forehand, my face on Dad’s
.......and yours on mine.

Not that this is a new idea. But the poem’s economy jams the two moments together. Stewart’s past is in the here and now, accessible by physical means. In ‘Instructions for coming home’, he begins,

.......Your fingers will have to trespass
.......through umpteen kitchen drawers. Let them.
.......The gas rings will purr. That’s their sound.

This is clearly his childhood home, and memory a form of trespass—until he fries a couple of eggs, clearly in the present, “the spatula/ no less a tool than any spade” for unearthing the past.

Stewart has lived in Spain for fifteen years, and one poem indicates that he entered the work force in 1990, just as Europe was becoming one economic community. So he can’t possibly go home to the world he grew up in, and his sense of that runs deep. In one poem he makes paella with his son; in another, he lusts after ‘Real chips’. Will either of those dishes be the same by the time the boy is grown? “My accent// seeps away,” he writes in ‘Extranjero’. “Every few minutes/ I let some vowels tug me back home.”

Charlotte Gann:
I do like Matthew Stewart’s poems, especially for their restraint: there’s so much less bother than often in poetry. Nostalgic, humorous, idiosyncratic and refreshingly short, these poems draw out a history, while satisfying the intriguing title of Inventing truth.

Stewart shares things he remembers from childhood, and then, too, the echoes that run through the whole experience of oneself becoming a parent. He has a talent for touching universals, writing with confidence that readers will pick up on his often very English references (‘jumpers for goalposts’, as The Fast Show coined it).

The first poem in Stewart’s pamphlet, ‘Instructions for coming home’, starts:

.......Your fingers will have to trespass
.......through umpteen kitchen drawers. Let them.
.......The gas rings will purr. That’s their sound.
.......Hack at a spud. Defy its eyes
.......with your knife. Crack eggs and watch them
.......splutter.

So many of us will recognise all of this—the smell of the fry-up. Stewart’s keen focus perhaps comes from his ex-pat’s perspective? Take ‘Milko’. “Your float’s low hum was the routine soundtrack/ to Ready brek, wonky ties and dull dawns”, he reminisces, before concluding rather more politically: “Undercut by another out-of-town,/ you’ll be my generation’s pie ’n mash”.

Exceptionally fun, these poems mark a certain time and place, and very much a boyhood too. I like that about them—the poem ‘Tennis’, for instance, brings together three generations of males. The archetypal competitive dad stands on the touchline coaching his son, and Stewart somehow manages to capture the immense, palpable almost physical pleasure in all that maleness: “There’s one coming,/ time to sear it back down the line./ Nearly! the three of us call out.”

‘Family visit’ was one poem I found especially touching. It describes a dutiful visit to the now-empty home of his parents-in-law:

............................Rosaries
.......lie coiled on the sunlit table
.......like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.
.......It’s time to rehearse my report.
.......Everything’s still where your mother
.......kept it.

I love these lines. But perhaps my very favourite moment in the pamphlet is when Stewart takes what is, presumably, his old home phone number as the title for a poem: 01252 722698. So personal and yet so universal – I too have a similar number etched deep inside me – this seems to strike at the heart of Stewart’s project. I like the way he delves inside himself, sifting the most basic of memories, to tease meaning – invent truth – from his own very personal history.


Richie McCaffery:

.......I love to hear it tinny, caught on tape,
.......giving a number rather than a name,
.......as if you were the prisoner, not me.
..............(‘You’ve reached 020 . . .’ )

 

This is a collection laden with emotional freight but lightened by its consistently stripped-down frankness and its frequent sense of joie-de-vivre. The title Inventing truth is fitting and double-edged: it suggests both artful lies and a brilliantly terse description of poetry that draws from a reservoir of hard and painfully won experience.

Matthew Stewart’s first collection is caught in a fascinating interstice between raw disclosure and laconic pulling-back and concealment. This does not produce a closed-off collection but instead a series of crystalline domestic vignettes and distillations of loves present and lost, framed with pathos and moments of coruscating imagery, such as in the post-mortem tone of ‘Family Visit’ where at “my in-laws place” “rosaries/ lie coiled on a sunlit table/ like dozing, sated rattlesnakes”.

There are elegiac pangs here but it would be wrong to say this is all Inventing truth offers, for it is much more prismatic and vivacious than that. Apart from poems like ‘You’ve reached 020 . . .’, which are so impactful as to stop the reader in their tracks, the only bitterness is the zest of lemons that occurs multiple times. Indeed in pieces such as ‘Paella’, ‘Real Chips’ and ‘Alchemies’, where the onlooker’s wanton gaze is whipped with yolk to “become cream”, there is the gastronome’s love of good food and the family bonding it brings in its preparation, something that underpins this collection. A handful of poems also offer resounding insights into the cyclical patterns of closely-knit families, as in ‘Formica’ where 

..............Mum’s become Gran,
.......son now Dad, but a boy still plays.
.......This kitchen’s hub, its ersatz knots
.......are giving off a perfect shine.

 

Inventing truth is a remarkable collection of pithy poems that open up to panoramas of love, family, regret and longing, and linger, flourishing in the mind long after reading.