Christopher James reviews Whatever You Do, Just Don’t by Matthew Stewart (HappenStance Press, 2023)
Matthew Stewart tackles big themes in his frequently moving, and occasionally startling, second collection. Family, aging and death all loom large, and the book is haunted by memories and ghosts. There’s a warmth and humanity to these poems that make them accessible and relatable, with enough depth and bite to reward repeated visits.
Stewart has been patient – it’s been six years since his debut collection, The Knives of Villalejo, came out. This patience – along with a finely honed craft and remarkable sensibility to cadence – also runs through these accomplished, graceful and at times deceptively simple poems. It’s there in the lugubrious opening poem, ‘Los Domingos’, where the poet sips coffee one long Sunday afternoon with his wife and his Spanish in-laws:
You’ve taught me to relish silence
in the slow, shared sliding by of minutes
This is a superbly crafted line that works on both a micro and macro level. It describes a moment in time, but it could just as well be a philosophy for life.
Humility and self-awareness is characteristic of Stewart’s thoughtful and slightly rueful poetic voice. He is adept at recognising the significance of the fleeting thought, or the seemingly innocuous detail. In ‘Numbers’ he’s woken by the “combinations for bike locks” or “the reg on Mum’s old Escort”. At first glance these look like the misfiring of an idle mind. But in this poet’s hands, these details take on significance. They become codes to the past, unlocking personal memories. We each have our own versions of these numbers – we’re reminded of our childhood landline number, perhaps, and even our parent’s voice answering the phone – and it is this that makes the poem so relatable. Numbers can take on an incantatory power and meaning beyond themselves; they can evoke a whole life that is now lost to us. Here, Stewart uses them to slow time and tide:
I whisper them to myself,
let their echoes flow through my head,
holding on against the ebb.
One of my favourite poems here is the memorably named: ‘The Aristocrat of Pipe Tobacco,’ the slogan emblazoned across an old Gold Block tobacco tin. It speaks to familiar themes of ageing and the passing-on of cherished items from one generation to the next. The poet’s grandfather used it for his tobacco, his father used it to store “discarded Allen keys” and “dried-out biros”. In turn, the poet himself stores his “memory sticks” (the choice of object is not accidental, you feel) but has already spotted his son David “eyeing it up”. The tin becomes a link between past and future; a time capsule loaded with emotional freight.
Matthew Stewart tackles big themes in his frequently moving, and occasionally startling, second collection
‘Heading for the Airport’ is one of the collection’s most potent pieces. It’s a sonnet in disguise, and covers plenty of ground in its 14 short lines. It begins in a whirl, with the poet flustered and distracted, his cab to the airport “twenty-seven minutes late / after my ten frantic calls”. What he misses, caught up in the minutiae of clock watching and phone checking, is the “dressing-gowned silhouette” of his mother (or grandmother?) “hovering on the balcony with a halo of wispy hair”. The clue’s there: she’s already nearly angel, or ghost. In his haste he forgets “our goodbye wave”. All of Stewart’s poetic gifts are at work here: the filmic scene setting which throws us immediately into the drama, the vivid specificity, the lurch from prosaic specificity into lyricism, and the dramatic shift of emotional tone. The percussive sound effects are also brilliantly composed:
My suitcase thrown in the boot,
doors slammed, the driver crunching gears
You hear those three distinct sounds in quick succession. It’s brilliantly evocative. Then there’s Stewart’s trademark pay-off, the slide into focus that knocks you sideways: “No way to know / I’d never see you alive again.”
‘Touch Typing’ is a moving portrait of his mother, and a pitch perfect study of what time does to our dignity, and our ability to keep up with a world that insists on moving forward, whether we can keep up or not. It contains this joyful, musical line: “Her fingers danced to rhythms / of rattles and pings”. There’s a grace and an empathy at work here that make these poems slip deep into the heart, the mind and the memory.
Stewart thinks as carefully about form as language. ‘Paper Clip’ is as neatly ordered on the page as is its subject matter: how a paperclip appears to tidy up the vital parts of a life – the “birth and marriage certificates”. The key word is hidden in plain sight: “How neatly, temporarily / it brings them together.” That prosaic ‘temporarily’ is devastating. It is an acute emotional understatement, a reflection on how we maintain the illusion of order and permanence in the face of our mortality. A counterpoint to ‘Paper Clip’ is ‘Drinks Cabinet’ which is arranged as haphazardly as the dusty bottles it contains. Piecing together the chronology, we realise that the cabinet is an unwanted family bequest following the death of a family member. It contains family history, as well as the cocktail ingredients, cold remedies and “inappropriate leaving presents”. Stewart injects a note of sadness and regret; the bottles are “queuing up / for landmark-laden toasts / we never made. // Never will.” It’s a skilful dismount.
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t is a poetic memory box, as evocative as a rediscovered childhood football sticker album. And Stewart, clever-headed fellow that he is, even gives us one of those
Whatever You Do, Just Don’t is a poetic memory box, as evocative as a rediscovered childhood football sticker album. And Stewart, clever-headed fellow that he is, even gives us one of those. The eleven poems in the second section, Starting Eleven, are a football team’s worth of adroit, slightly bathetic, pencil sketches of Aldershot FC footballers from the 1980s. They constitute an unexpected interlude in the collection, rather like a team mascot wandering on at half time in the middle of an emotionally charged cup-tie. These are lighter fare than the other poems in the book – it’s arguably a pamphlet that’s snuck into a collection – but the poems are no less well constructed. ‘Dale Banton’ opens with a Roy of the Rovers-style vignette:
The first season I went,
he scored hat-tricks for fun,
less running than dancing
The poem is arranged into three five-line stanzas, mirroring Dale’s hat-trick, each stanza a single fluid sentence, weaving skilfully to the goal of its full stop. Each stanza ends on a back-of-the-net rhyme: ‘aplomb,’ ‘song’ and ’gone’. It charts the decline of a career, and speaks, like ‘Touch Typing’, to themes of ageing, the loss of youth, and the waning of the bright lights in our lives.
A significant portion of the book is, like The Knives of Villalejo, dedicated to the tribulations of a life lived between England and Spain. Stewart is blender and export manager for the Spanish wine co-operative Viñaoliva, selling their Zaleo vintages globally, and Brexit presented him with both emotional and logistical challenges. ‘Carnet de Conducir’ recounts a simple (but unwanted) transaction – exchanging a UK driving licence for a Spanish one. This provokes a visceral reaction in the poet, tipping him off balance; he “tilted and swayed”. The layout of the poem illustrates the break:
poised for decades
between two countries
now reduced to one.
These poems convey sadness, barely concealed anger, and, occasionally, guilt. In ‘David’ Stewart confesses, “I agonised for months over your name”, searching for something that could work in both languages. In fact, he admits, this resulted in “neither of us belonging anywhere”, “Me by choice. You by my choice.”
Throughout Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, Stewart is consistently sure-footed while navigating rocky emotional landscapes
The final section of the book, Retracing Steps, is a meditation on the past, the brevity of our lives, and how quickly our place in the world will be filled. ‘Aveley Lane’ is postcard from suburbia in “the dusk that lingers over hedges / and scrubland bordering Langhams Rec.” Its opening line, “Lights turned on but the curtains not yet drawn”, surely carries another meaning: how long before the curtain draws across our own lives? The poet walks the streets of his childhood, thinking of friends long since grown up, seeing the past and the present side by side in his mind’s eye: “Here’s another father / parking his car in Adrian’s driveway.” The final two lines really hit home: “They go about their family routines / as if they’ll never be replaced.”
There’s much to savour in Whatever You Do, Just Don’t, not least the conversations between the poems themselves, which reflect and respond to each other, casting each other in different lights. There is a lively energy generated by this interplay. Each poem works as a star striker or defender, but together they’re a formidable team and more than the sum of their parts. Stewart is consistently sure-footed while navigating rocky emotional landscapes. He shows a craftsman’s touch for form, deft handling of syntax, and an ear for half-heard rhythms and cadence. You cannot help but be moved by the honesty and emotion of these poems, and you cannot fail to admire the craft. And the stitching is always invisible.
Christopher James won the National Poetry Competition in 2008. His latest pamphlet is The Storm in the Piano (Maytree Press, 2022).