Valley Press, 2013 £6.00
Reviewed by D A Prince, Maria Taylor and Matthew Stewart
D A Prince:
A simple idea, and very effective: twelve pairs of poems, facing each other as ‘couples’. They can reflect, argue, give alternatives – just as partners do in real life. This gives Stewart the opportunity to explore twelve sets of the innumerable tensions within adult relationships, or what the blurb describes as “co-dependency”. Even the contents list is set out across an opening – (Left) Contents : Contents (Right) – mirroring each other. They could be glaring across the breakfast table.
Although the first pairing is ‘He’ and ‘She’ – a bleak tale of suicide (‘He’ has taken an overdose, ‘She’ comes home “too late for 999”) – Stewart shifts the next pairing to a different way of splitting up: she (on the left side, thus avoiding any risk of predictable consistency) cleans until “no one would know he’d even been” while he systematically burns all the furniture. Two facing prose poems – ‘Me’ and ‘You’ –manage to use the idea of chalk and cheese without actually using those words. They are followed by ‘Cam and Shaft’ and ‘Hook and Clasp’ which look at coupledom, and how differences are not irreconcilable –
The last time they went on a date
the number one song was Hard Day’s Night.
He wanted to watch The Pink Panther,
she fancied The Strangler.
To this day they’ve never seen either.
But something has kept them together:
love, company, custom. The weather.
Rhyme makes a rare appearance here, and the obviousness of this full rhyme draws attention to the lack of rational explanation: exactly why many couples stay together is beyond reason. The prose poem ‘The Longest Married Couple’ ends with a nod to both Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan –
‘When asked what the secret was of such a long marriage Ralph looked puzzled but then said ‘she goes her way and I go mine’.
So why a collection of poems rather than a self-help manual for those seeking to stick together? Because through compression of language and image these snapshots of tottering relationships can show us so much more. Stewart’s poems use colloquial rhythms, the details of twenty-first century domesticity, a free verse that looks deceptively easy, and wit – that, above all. He marvels at difference: how it’s always a part of any lasting relationship, and how although nothing is ever perfect, it can still work. Inexplicably. Like poetry. This is a collection to relish, and to share.
‘Couples’ is Michael Stewart’s first book of poems and my initial impression was that this is a very cohesive and well-considered collection. The front cover features a photo of a middle-aged man and woman staring out of a café window, reminiscent of those striking Martin Parr images of couples where neither partner seems very happy and the prognosis for the future is bleak. This sets a reader up for what’s to come. The twenty-four poems here are themselves couples, facing each other across the page, left-aligned on the verso page and traditionally right-aligned on the recto page. They engage in a form of dialogue with each other. This patterning is broken up by the presence of six prose poems which keeps the ordering fresh.
The poems eschew a more conventional reliance on simile and metaphor and state things as they are, often going for the jugular. I sometimes felt that the poems functioned like compacted prose narratives because of this. The collection opens with a suicide in ‘He’, in which a man paints everything in his kitchen blue before turning to ‘five hundred pills’ of valium for relief. The poem ‘She’ which answers this on the facing recto page deals with the partner’s loss in a matter of fact way which focuses on the concrete details but hints at something deeper and more disturbing:
She came home to the mess he’d made,
the paint still wet,
the kitchen stinking of paint.
The directness of tone saves the poem from falling into mawkishness or sentiment. In general this is a notable skill employed throughout the collection by Stewart. There is also a great deal of humour in the poetry, albeit twisted and scarred. One of my favourite poems in the pamphlet was ‘The Meaning of Love’ which has a quirky conversational feel: ‘she tapped into Google: What is love?’ When the answers return, they are flat, factual and are laced with the absurd: ‘a 1993 dance track by Haddaway / which was used in the trailer for the film Monkey Trouble’. Stewart can make black comedy out of anything, it seems, in particular a disintegrating relationship. In ‘Still’ a cigarette lighter engraved with the couple’s names is kept by an ex, not out of fondness but out of a queer practicality:
So that I still think of you
every time I set fire to something.
The title of Michael Stewart’s pamphlet makes it premise clear: the subject matter is Couples and the poems are set out as such. In other words, they are presented in pairs on opposing pages.
Stewart invites comparisons and contrasts between them in each case. When this invitation is made explicitly, the readers can sometimes feel constricted, as if being instructed how to react. Nevertheless, when things are left implicit, the results are more successful.
In ‘He’ and ‘She’, for example, the two poems complement each other by filling in their respective narrative gaps, letting the reader build up a picture of the characters by piecing together what is left unsaid as much as what’s actually described. As a consequence, the poem acquires greater texture and capacity to hook the reader.
In ‘Him’ and ‘Her’, however, we’re presented with:
he only felt loved
after sex sex for him
was his lover giving
herself to him and
proving her feelings [ . . . ]
[ . . . ] she would only have
sex if she felt loved [ . . . ]
[ . . . ] they went to therapy sessions and read self-help manuals
talking until dawn
now he lives in a caravan in Sidcup and she lives with a potter
in a kibbutz
Stewart’s nod towards self-help manuals might be knowing in terms of cliché and pigeon-holing, but it’s still narrative shorthand, as are many of the lines around it. The poem consequently lapses into the expected.
This collection’s core weakness is its lack of surprises or revelations. In other words, most of the narrative, characters and scenes in Couples (although the quality of writing, observation and construction is good) remind me too much of a story I’ve read or a film I’ve seen, without turning that recognition on its head.