In the family album there’s a snap of a tiny boy pressing his gift of a Matchbox car into the romper-suited torso of his new baby brother. The picture appears to wear the cool halo of Instagram chic but it doesn’t; it’s just from the 1970s when, believe it or not, all photos had a dodgy palette. I distinctly remember my brother’s arrival from hospital but I have no other memories from the age of two. The gift was not just a Matchbox, it was a Pontiac Firebird, surely proving that this memory was the real thing. However, the car in the pic is easily identifiable as a specific model, making me wonder whether the whole memory was manufactured from it. Philip K Dick was right: androids really do dream of electric sheep. However, we do too. Memory and truth are nowhere near as trustworthy, or as objective as we like to suppose that they are.
In Inventing Truth, Matthew Stewart memorably plunders memory, including those from childhood. The first stanza of Everything Else, the second poem in the collection, creates a sense of calm and connectedness as the boy ‘stills the conker’s sway / young skin against young skin. / A knot’s jammed underneath, / tied and tightened by Dad; / string leads up to his fist’. The understated but dramatic stanza break highlights the contrast between this three-way moment of bonding between conker, boy and father, and the violence of the game, as the other conker, ‘now a pin-point right hook,’ comes smashing down with a ‘sneering laugh’. The final couplet is troublingly suggestive: ‘Although his fist stays clenched, / everything else has changed’. Was dad the corner man, or the opposing combatant?
Many of Stewart’s poems have this pleasurably slippy quality, like the best fresh ingredients dressed in olive oil. In Formica, an economical couple of lines evokes the smell and sound of a kitchen where ‘Mum’s become Gran, / Son now Dad, but a boy still plays / at the same Formica table’. This is really beautiful writing. Again, Stewart gently suggests the passage of time whilst acknowledging the still point at the centre of things. There’s a sense of truth in details like the ‘Formica table’ too: Stewart’s universal truths grow from these like the swelling Bomba paella rice encountered elsewhere in the collection. You need a bit of patience to cook a decent paella but Stewart can do it just as gently in eight lines.
There’s a pleasing observational quality to the poems in the collection. In Milko, we are treated to the sounds of the ’70s and ’80s, specifically through the milk float. ‘Bottles chimed like a clock on the doorstep / […] Your float’s low hum was the routine soundtrack / to Ready break, wonky ties and dull dawns’. Specific nostalgia quickly gives way to more general musing, as the vanished milk float becomes ‘my generation’s pie and mash, / a tale suffered by countless grandchildren / while something else is also dying out / and patiently rehearsing for your role’. I had to run a French oral examination a couple of years ago and I’d been asked to put a personal cassette player and a tape on each desk. The kids were bewildered, as I explained to the class what the strange device was and showed practically every candidate how to insert a cassette. Poetry often treats us to Marvell‘s ‘Wingéd chariot’ and it’s refreshing to meet an implacable force that torments grandchildren and creates nostalgia for a change.
As the collection progresses, the tone darkens somewhat, the reader experiencing time tugging at the émigré’s sense of identity and the lonely rhythms of Saturdy’s night train, echoing with a young man’s botched dance moves, as it slides away from the glamour of the big smoke and back into the suburbs. Death’s presence is finally felt in Family Visit’s empty house. Here, Gothic menace is realised by the memorable: ‘Rosaries / lie coiled on a sunlit table / like dozing, sated rattlesnakes’. Audit completed and ‘I lock up and head home, / humming fiercely to wrestle off / the creeping, ransacking silence’. Matthew Stewart has plenty of range and he can do heavy.
Inventing Truth demonstrates a consistent eye for a memorable mise en scène: the past and the domestic have a satisfying sense of physicality and trustworthiness which are deftly realised by language at work with silent economy. The poems offer refreshing perspectives and, like a good cook, Stewart trusts his ingredients to do the talking, rather than obfuscating matters with flashy style. Time’s the real star here, shifting yet still, leaving doubts and uncertainties in the silent spaces of the page.