Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
1:02 AM 11th November 2023

The B Word : Whatever You Do, Just Don’t By Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart says no more than he needs to. Taking a synoptic compositional approach almost as an axiom – poetry is supposed to be a distilled arrangement of words – his poems carry as much weight as he wants to divulge. And his instinctive resistance to length or complexity is a refreshing leitmotif, as though pressing the reset button might actuate a momentous clarification of thought.

Not that we should equate Stewart’s proclivity for simplification with a lack of heft: all of the poems in his handsome new collection are well-wrought, formally adept and located in a larger nucleus, like interdependent atoms. And all are grounded in a sense of place, as is illustrated by the maps of Extramadura and Surrey that decorate the inside and outside covers of Whatever You Do, Just Don’t. The maps are well-placed: Matthew Stewart shares his time between the Home Counties and the far West of Spain as a wine blender and exporter, and the significance of both places to his experience, and to his sense of direction and belonging, make a fine corroboration of besieged European bonds. Several poems here make that connection explicit and it is significant, I think, that they sit on either side of a divot - a selection of poems about the strange, all-consuming love we, and certainly the Spanish, share for football.

For the ‘B word’, as Stewart calls it, looms over the wider narrative like a depressing promissory, making his job, his life, more difficult, and casting him adrift between two, increasingly extraneous cultures whose former entanglements are now unravelling owing to the self-inflicted damage of 2016. As we find most pressingly in a poem of injunctions, addressed, we suppose, to the narrator’s loved one, who is encouraged to keep an Iberian trap shut for fear of causing offence to hair-trigger xenophobic sentiments:

‘Just don’t raise your voice if speaking
Spanish while on a bus or train.’ (‘Warning’)

The poem might be funny were it not so mortally infected by the stink of nationalistic loathing. Stewart’s business is overwhelmed by the plethora of new bureaucratic rules that attend the separation; rules that are routinely, if astonishingly, ascribed to EU vindictiveness by the Brits, and met with not unreasonable alarm by Spanish warehousemen: ‘I’m the one to blame now, / of course, británico, says the embattled ‘reluctant spokesman’ (‘The Pallets’). Poet and narrator are entirely aligned as the latter gives a resigned shrug on the back of the referendum result, in a poem that is as shot through with sadness and foreboding as Ralph Dartford’s on a similar theme in Hidden Music:

‘I tell myself nothing’s changed,
remind myself nothing’s wrong.
Everything’s changed. Everything’s wrong.’ (‘After the Referendum’)

But the feeling of a centre not holding is elsewhere mitigated by the humour, the wit and the wisdom in reflection that are characteristics of Stewart’s tone. The opening section of his collection is set in Extramadura and embodies a learning process, a bildungsroman of cultural assimilation that is accepted with palpable humility. If the formal pentameters of ‘Los Domingos’ measure the order of a Spanish Sunday’s routine in a languorous rhythmical drip accompanying ‘the slow, shared sliding-by of minutes’, then the trimeters of the first quatrain of ‘Renovation Project’ break just as a sense of direction falters at the midway pivot of the second, and the house dissolves into an arbor for emotional re-engagement:

‘the building’s lost stories

finding a voice again,
blending old plots with new.
Like my story with yours.
And yours with mine.’ (‘Renovation Project’)

A similar suggestion of love finds its way through the heat of a Spanish summer in ‘Calor’, whose persuasive use of metaphor in the rendering of clammy afternoons is a prelude to another kind of fruitful nexus, as ‘A breeze ruffles the leaves. Grapes sway. / Our hesitant fingers meet.’ Language, its dispositions and misunderstandings, its ministry to connection-making and capacity for creating division, is celebrated fulsomely in this opening selection of poems, not least in the figure of a child, David, whose presence is the fulcrum for the narrator’s contemplation, and whose easeful bilingual assimilation is counterpointed by the latter’s inability to shape nuance, como nativo :

‘my tongue an exhausted flag,
stateless, buffeted, falling
short of the perfect roll.’ (‘Rolling My ‘R’s)

The difference is telling: a microcosmic subtext to Brexit’s wider cultural damage, the poems are also a joy to read – paternal affection is the supervening emotion, to which all others are subordinated.

And affection is the primary driver of ‘Starting Eleven’, a collection of poems dedicated to a group of Aldershot FC’s players of the Eighties. Witty and convincing portrayals of old-fashioned defenders who wouldn’t venture beyond their ‘border’ of the halfway line (‘Ian Phillips’), and stand-in centre-halves (‘an inch too short to dominate / his striker when a cross comes in’ – ‘Mark Ogley’), Stewart’s players are visions in hyperbole, storied memories of invested meaning to the beholder, like football cards of the Sixties. Speaking to and for football fans of all stripes, these pared back poems strip the game’s denizens down to their dramatic basics – the turn on a tanner, the snapshot, the inch-perfect pass – to make of them, stylistic archetypes: the suave faux-Latino, and the no-nonsense tackler with the no-nonsense haircut, ‘One of us’ (‘Paul Shrubb’). And best of all, the velocitous super-sub we all recognise, who never plays a full 90 but comes on in the 88th to grab an equalizer. Every team has one, including my own, and it is unlikely that Matthew Stewart will forget Mike Ring, who…

‘looks like a tennis player
or an import from Marbella:
elegant, perma-tanned and fast.’

The litany of peaks and troughs, though mostly troughs in an arena of money-takes-all, is part and parcel of football loyalty; we all get cheated in the end. But nothing weakens the hold, and in Stewart’s case that hold is one colour in a spectrum of variegated loyalties. The final section of his collection – ‘Retracing Steps’ - embodies an urge to recapture the past through a sense of place, rather than to reinvent it through the halcyon refractions of sentiment, yet the title need not set limits on the poet’s abstract affiliation, if only because the retracing of steps necessarily includes family.

And ‘Family Matters’ are the drivers of the preceding section, whose humdrum title ironically underplays the significance of connection, of the knitting of bonds, to the making of a poet. For here, we infer the character of the narrator through the idiosyncrasies, the demeanour and sometimes the occupations of those forbears who built him. The easy trimeters of ‘Full Circle’ give rhythmical credence to the gentle hand of influence, as the father figure re-emerges on the terrace and in the home:

‘I’m shocked to catch myself
singing the same jingles
and terrace chants as him,

imitating his tone,
adopting his cadence.’

The sense of a completion of a circle is fully realised throughout this small selection of poems, and there are shades of Tony Harrison in the warmth and simple generosity of a debt being repaid, especially to absent parents. The effect is both consolatory and invigorating. In the three uncomplicated tercets of ‘Paper Clip’, and through the medium of a mother’s taste for order and propriety, Stewart conveys an inclusivity of family connection, a desire to make wholes, that powerfully transcends the poem’s quotidian:

‘How it brings their things together.
How neatly, temporarily,
it brings them together.’

The steps that Matthew Stewart retraces are on paths that lead into the present. Presentiments of earlier times, of looks and smiles and ice cream daubings, of peeling paintwork and muddy foreshores whose glory evanesced even in the several decades of hindsight that separate narrator from his sense of home, are everywhere conspicuous. In the Larkinesque ‘Sussex by the Sea’, a desiccated seafront becomes a conduit to the backseat of a ‘Cortina GL’ of an earlier incarnation, whose memory prompts a coda as uncertain as an ill-defined and badly appointed prom: ‘How much has / really changed? How much have I’.

But best of all in a collection that is fully conscious of echoes, of footprints and of our transient place in the landscape, is an intense poem of change. Amongst the beautifully crafted images of a rural backwater, we find figures who shadow their predecessors’ presence unknowingly, content in the illusion of permanence:

‘Here’s another mother getting supper
in Neil’s kitchen. Here’s another father
parking his car in Adrian’s driveway.
They go about their family routines
as if they’ll never be replaced.’ (‘Aveley Lane’)

Whatever You Do, Just Don’t is published by Happenstance (2023). More information here