Knives out: a review of The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

I’ve been looking forward to reviewing Matthew Stewart’s long overdue debut collection. With a title like a 1950s crime fiction potboiler, and a blood-red cover, there’s the promise of mystery and mortality in store.

Those elements are certainly present in this fine book, but the set-up is something of a ruse. The themes, in fact, are squarely domestic. Family, home and work are the chief preoccupations of this honest, absorbing sequence, and yet each is explored with an astonishing intimacy.


The Knives of Villalejo

Stewart divides his time between England and Spain and works in the wine trade. And if some of these poems have been slow in gestation, then like a good wine, they have aged well. The book is full of polarities: between work and home, past and present, England and Spain, life and death, appearance and reality and these opposing currents provide the book with its emotional tension.

Stewart creates unpredictable landscapes. Often, innocuous, domestic scenes can lurch into something much darker. Sooner or Later begins in a ‘spare-room wardrobe’ where something lives amongst ‘forgotten gifts/ and out-of-favour shirts.’

Maybe tonight, maybe

next year, a sudden call

will bring it centre stage,

rushed to the dry cleaners.

It’s structured like an Anglo-Saxon riddle; then comes the pay-off: ‘There’s not a hope/of dodging the dark suit.’

This ability to wrong foot the reader, to lull them into a sense of quiet domesticity, only to pull the rug with a dramatic turn or arresting image, is Stewart’s trump card. And yet there is a never a sense of smugness or conceit in this. It’s a reminder that this is what life is like – light can give way to dark in a matter of moments; banality can slide into tragedy, bliss into despair.

There is a feeling here of life intensely lived; a sense sharpened by the certainty of death. Rather than something to be feared, however, our mortality appears to enhance each pleasure: each sip of wine and each carefully prepared meal. Stewart shares something of Larkin’s acute awareness of death (‘All streets in time are visited’) but without the same paranoid sense of self-preservation.

Stewart is especially adept in the kitchen. There is a ritualistic delight in Artes Culinarias: the ‘skinning and sluicing’ and the lamb stew for which ‘you peeled, you scraped, you sliced all morning long.’ Yet this isn’t Saturday Kitchen; in Stewart’s spry, multi-layered poems, there’s always something else going on. Here there’s a sense of the poet reflecting while these rituals are enacted – memories, worries and temptations reveal themselves. I especially liked the pay off in the final section: Guisantes al vino tinto, where an exquisite dish is meticulously prepared with ‘a long dollop of wine and just-shucked peas’. It appears to be an act of love and generosity. In fact, there are

memories of an old lover stirring:

This is still her dish and far more daring

than sly rummages for battered photos

especially now I’m serving it for you.

There is a clear link between sexuality, sensuality, food and wine, and yet it is never explicitly made. It’s a book full of allusions, hints and shadows. There’s as much left unsaid in the sparseness of the language.

The poem The 23rd is as heart-breaking as it is brief. A single stanza long, it is a dignified tribute to a loved one, and says everything about how grief must necessarily live in a world that carries on regardless. The date ‘casually loiters in the fourth line of April, pretending not to stalk me.’ The personification of death, sly and insidious, is brutally effective. So too is the caesura in the final line where there is a fear that the poet might forget: ‘As if I ever could.’ The fact I’ve written more in this paragraph and said so much less than the poem itself, tells you just how good Stewart is. I’ve only resisted reproducing the whole poem to encourage you to read the book for yourself.

Stewart’s poems are as precisely measured as the dishes themselves. The language has a deceptively simplicity, a distilled clarity, just as the most delicious food and drink relies on simple ingredients.

But Stewart has a gift too for the original simile and metaphor and it’s in these moments when you feel a re-invigoration of language and re-imagining of a familiar world:

….two rosaries

lie coiled on a sunlit table

like dozing, sated rattlesnakes.

This is as good as anything that’s being written right now. Aside from the freshness of the image itself, there’s a subtext of religion, culture and guilt all at play. Elsewhere, a pencil is ‘perfectly wigwammed by a Stanley knife.’

The title poem is one of the finest pieces in the book, and again plays into the themes of domesticity, ritual and mortality. The Knives of Villalejo are put to work each day in every kitchen, and are ‘blunted by the cloying dough of fresh bread.’ This magnificent iambic line, with its layers of clinging consonants and springy vowels, sets up a densely worked piece. Over time, the blades become ‘speckled with rust’ while the handles become ‘darkened.’ Then comes the village grinder, like the reaper himself, who ‘pushes his bike from door to door/he knows them well and whets them in seconds.’ But nothing lasts forever (not least our ourselves) until one day:

…they judder halfway through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened lives.’

There’s a sense of danger, and an intimation of death but the poem is also a rich celebration of life.

Finally, it would wrong not to mention Last chance, part of a longer sequence called Speech Recognition. The voice is that of a neglected book, gathering dust in a charity shop:

I’m stick on a wonky trestle table

between a video tape of the Smurfs

and the 1989 Good Food Guide

The book has a simple plea: ‘I only want a single pair of hands/to stretch my spine and open me at last.’ Let this not be the fate of this important book.

It’s a flawless performance, at once funny, elegiac and deeply felt; and totally representative of this spare, deeply enjoyable collection that does not pretend to offer answers, but only questions and consolations. This is a generous and accomplished collection at once refreshing in its simplicity, nourishing in its intensity, and intoxicating in its emotional pitch. Enjoy with a glass of Rioja.