Our Gothic dopplegängers suppress our unease. Conveniently externalised, Mr Hyde and Victor’s creature stalk the margins. We reassure ourselves that the monsters are beyond our thresholds and insulate ourselves from the threat without by wrapping tight in the tissue of domesticity. Thomas Hardy, never one to flinch from the truth, saw things differently. In ‘The Going’, the first of his Poems of 1912 – 13 to mourn the death of Emma Hardy, his house, Max Gate, becomes its own mystery of Udolpho: ‘Why do you make me leave the house / And think for a breath it is you I see / At the end of the alley of bending boughs / Where so often at dusk you used to be’. Hardy’s uncanny experiences acknowledge that it’s our everyday locales that are truly haunted – and our ghosts don’t need a witching hour to haunt us.
The Knives of Villalejo is Matthew Stewart’s first book length collection and it starts with a bang: poem after poem worries away at the wound of grief. The collection opener, ‘Formica’, eases us in gently:
An ochre dusk through the window,
stewed apples sighing from the hob
and slippers squeaking back and forth
on the lino – Mum’s become Gran,
Son now Dad, but a boy still plays
at the same Formica table.
Stewart’s control of sentence structure offers its own suspense and compresses time into a simultaneity. ‘Lino’ and ‘Formica’ invoke the ’50s yet, despite their archaic irrelevance – perhaps even because of it, they offer a timeless stillness as the family unit reconfigures to the beat of the music of time. Perhaps the clays of the ‘ochre’ dusk hint at mortality but their warmth, coupled with the comforting domesticity of the ‘stewed apples’ and the ‘perfect shine’ of the table’s ‘ersatz knots’ would have us believe that time can be staved off. However, the poem’s second part opens quite differently: ‘The empty chair is staring hungrily’. This is a horrifying image. In ‘The Triumph of Death’, Bruegel presents Death riding a starving horse – a metaphor for death’s insatiability. This empty chair, instated within the heart of the domestic space, eyes its next victim. In poem after poem, disconnected numbers are dialled, a lost loved one is spotted through a crowd of shoppers and, in a series called ‘Debris’, small appliances are hurled into a skip and ‘your pencil / perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife // […] racing against the tip before it blunts / and a sharpener peels your work away’.
The collection then veers away to revel in food, wine, and to explore identity. However, Stewart’s poems all share a grounded honesty, a rootedness in the material world: a world of kitchens, tables and cooking. In ‘Making Paella with David’, ‘I watch his fingers learning how / to shell langoustines, exploring / their cartoon-alien faces / and train-track bellies. He giggles at calamari tentacles’. Where ‘Formica’ presents the generations as ranks of corn facing the scythe, this poem presents the generations as united. Food, sometimes a serious topic, is viewed from the son’s perspective but the word ‘alien’ is telling. The son considers the Langoustines’ faces to be ‘cartoon-alien’ but they’re not the aliens, the boy is. The collection explores belonging with tremendous sensitivity.
I should admit here to having known Stewart since 2012. This aside, The Knives of Villalejo left me weeping, in Caffè Nero, Banbury, as I read it. I only hope some of the other customers saw that poetry pulls these sorts of punches.
Matthew Stewart blogs at Rogue Strands and tweets as @roguestrands