Nov 8 2023
Poetry review – WHATEVER YOU DO, JUST DON’T: Emma Storr finds Matthew Stewart ‘s collection both entertaining and thought-provoking
Whatever you do, just don’t Matthew Stewart HappenStance Press 2023 ISBN 978-1-910131-73-2 72 pp £10
I like Matthew Stewart’s poetry very much. His writing is clear, concise and unsentimental. There are parallels between his work as a Spanish wine blender and the way he blends words together sparingly in his poems. There is no waste involved, whether he is describing the annual grape harvest, the loss of his parents, the folly of Brexit or the streets of his childhood.
Whatever you do, just don’t is Stewart’’s second collection and is divided into four sections. In the first, “Británico”, we read about the narrator’s move to Spain and his adaptation to a different pace of life. He also describes the work involved and new idioms he encounters. His use of Spanish vocabulary adds colour to the environment he is portraying. In “Hay Ropa Tendida” he explains:
‘There’s washing on the line’ is a code used only by adults at a pivotal point in the conversation,
The poem goes on to demonstrate how this phrase may suddenly be introduced to warn those gossiping to change the subject and prevent children hearing unsuitable details about the adults in their lives.
The effect of climate change is powerfully demonstrated in two poems, “July Peas” and “Calor”, The latter opens:
This isn’t heat. This is Calor; silting and clogging up the air.
When the speaker goes to work in an office it requires:
ducking any slaps of sunlight that make their way through gaps in blinds.
The surprising use of ‘slaps of sunlight’ captures the sudden assault of heat on the skin in a graphic, tactile way.
Life is not always easy for an Englander in Spain. They have to learn to drive on the right, sort out new business rules as a result of Brexit and practise difficult pronunciation. In the delightful poem “Wendsday”, the speaker admits the word and spelling used to make ‘my 8 year old tongue’ stumble:
I stumbled, too, after coming to Spain. Shook off routines and rules. Let a new language soak through me.
There is a sense of liberation as well as difficulty in this transition and adaptation to living in a new country.
The second section of the book, titled “Starting Eleven”, is a series of twelve poems about the Aldershot FC team of the 1980’s. Each individual is named and characterised in a few celebratory lines. The use of the present tense makes their appearance more vivid. Here is “Mike Ring”:
He looks like a tennis player or an import from Marbella: elegant, perma-tanned and fast.
“The Twelfth Man, i.m. Simon Stevens”, is an elegy in which football metaphors cleverly demonstrate the sadness felt by the remaining team. The poem ends:
Our winger hoists a deep cross, our striker buries his header and all of us erupt.
“Family Matters”, the third section, plays on the double meaning of the word ’matters’. The poems paint affectionate portraits of the narrator’s parents and the loss he experiences when they die. In “Paper Clip”, relevant paperwork is collected after death, perhaps by an executor or by a family member:
How it brings their things together. How neatly, temporarily, it brings them together.
The repetition of ’together’ emphasises the separation experienced by everyone involved, the dead and the living.
The theme of separation continues in the poignant poem “Heading for the Airport” when the narrator is so busy hurrying to catch his plane:
I forgot our goodbye wave while checking my flight… … No way to know I’d never see you alive again.
The final section, “Retracing Steps”, takes the narrator back to the environs of his childhood in Surrey. Some of the poem titles are place names, each linked to specific memories. In “Shortheath Road”, after visiting the Spar shop and noting the ‘freshly elderly’ in a neat queue, the narrator is relieved to go:
Back at the car, I reach for my glasses, prodding at grey that seeps through my sideburns like moisture through tissue paper. First gear and I’m away.
‘Prodding’ might refer to the glasses pressing on his sideburns but also the speaker checking the progress of grey hairs in a car mirror and prodding his temples. The inevitability and relentless process of ageing is skilfully evoked. The last line adds humour and pathos, as if driving away from the scene might guarantee perpetual youth.
In the poems “Warning” and “Foreigner”, there is a reversal of the situation in the first section of the collection. The speaker admits his accent ‘still reeks of Surrey’ but his body language such as ‘My dancing hands’ is more characteristic of a continental European. A hint of xenophobia on the part of an official checking his passport is suggested:
I wear these clues, can’t take them off like some disguise. I’m different. Are you afraid of me?
The chronology of this collection is interesting. We move back and forth in time and place easily and follow the narrator through several life-changing events: moving country, having a child, bereavement. When he revisits familiar streets where he grew up and reflects on the past, there is no hint of mawkishness, Stewart remains objective and curious but wonders in the last poem in the collection, “Sussex by the Sea”, ‘How much has / really changed? How much have I?’
Whatever you do, just don’t will raise important questions in your own mind as you read Stewart’s beautifully crafted poems. I can thoroughly recommend this collection.