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15 March 2018 @ 10:28 am
Review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart, pub. Eyewear 2018  
This is a first full collection by a poet who divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade as a blender and export manager. 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". In the last section of the latter, "Final blend", I like the playfulness of the unforced comparison:
I pour and sniff, line up bottles
and row after row of glasses -
50/50, 60/40
80/20,90/10,
playing percentages for keeps.

When they're blended, neither can leave:
one lends smoothness, one offers bite,
their bodies meshing and lifting.
I know this couple's right.

Most of the poems are short, some very short, and a lot of them hinge on an object or incident being used to be emblematic of more than itself, perhaps because many concern loss, memory or change. This is a technique that can work well if you hit the exact right note, the one your readers will recognise from similar times in their own lives. In "3B", the second poem of the sequence "Debris", the object is a pencil which belonged to a dead father (I am interpreting here because he never actually says so, but I think the inference here and in other poems is reasonable).
Thoughts are unloading when the pen conks out,
but a dark rummage locates your pencil
perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife,

and words have scampered across the paper,
racing against the tip before it blunts
and a sharpener peels your work away.

Here it is not even precisely the object that becomes emblematic of loss and change, but rather the way it was used; the difference in the method of sharpening. The phrase "your work" elevates the father's act of paring the pencil-point to a kind of creativity in its own right, now, ironically enough, erased in the service of the son's creative impulse.

One peril of epigrammatic imagistic brevity is that the shorter the poem, the stronger every word needs to be. In "La trashumancia", (about the sheep parade in Madrid), the migrating sheep are "walking the streets unthinkingly/like Monday's flock of commuters", and I thought that likeness too predictable, indeed close to cliché. There were also a few "so what?" poems that didn't seem to me to go beyond observation: maybe I'm missing something, but "El Castillo de Villalejo" seemed to me to amount to "I climbed a hill", and even at only 8 lines that's a bit over-extended unless one can make something else of it.

But more often he does manage to catch whatever it is in an incident or object that goes beyond itself. In "Making Paella With David", we have a child growing up and a parent attempting to let him, without interfering out of pardonable anxiety:
Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It's time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.
That middle sentence, "It's time to let ingredients/become a dish" is so succinct, and so perfect. Many will know Stewart from his lively and thoughtful poetry blog, Rogue Strands. I hope it isn't his work on that which has caused this collection to be twenty years in the making, because I would like to think we shall see another collection of his own work, especially if he writes more about his rather fascinating profession.