full of kitchens full of saucepans
that slowly creak to the boil,
a kettle won’t seem to whistle
like the owner of a loose dog
calling it back, calling it home.”
If Texas qualifies as a foreign country in the United States, I will always remain a visitor – accepted, content, grateful, mostly shed of illusions, but different, not a Texan. For some of us, that’s a comfortable state, not much of a stretch. Every day I hear Spanish spoken and, at work, Mandarin and Hindi, not to mention a dozen Texan accents. Languages I don’t speak are my Muzak. I have an office in Finnegans Wake. Matthew Stewart dwells in a similar but more exotic place. Born in England, he has lived for much of the last twenty years or so in Extremadura, in region in southwestern Spain at the heart of a triangle formed by Madrid, Seville and Lisbon. He works “in the Spanish wine trade” – what an evocative job description that sounds almost like a euphemism. In an interview he elaborates: “In my day job, I’m the blender and export manager for the Spanish wine co-operative Viñaoliva, selling their wine all over the world. I write the back labels, brochures and website copy, as well as, of course, the tasting notes [the title of an earlier pamphlet by Stewart].”
The poem above, “Home Comforts,” is included in his first collection, The Knives of Villajejo (Eyewear Publishing, 2017). On the cover is a photograph of a hand holding a bunch of grapes. Stewart’s best poems are set not in England but in Spain. The terrain and culture, and especially the language, seem to invigorate his senses. In his preface to The Selected Poems of Janet Lewis (2000), R.L. Barth describes Lewis as a “domestic poet,” citing her frequent references to “gardens, housework, children, domesticated animals.” The same might be said of Stewart and his work. He writes often of gardens, food and wine. “Dos Vinos” is a four-part poem with a proverb for an epigraph: “Buy on apples, sell on cheese.” Here is the fourth part, titled “Final blend”:
“I pour and sniff, line up bottles
and row after row of glasses -
playing percentages for keeps.
“When they’re blended, neither can leave:
one lends smoothness, one offers bite,
their bodies meshing and lifting.
I know this couple’s right.”
And here is a father-and-son tableaux, “Making Paella with David,” that suggests more than it makes explicit:
“I watch his fingers learning how
to shell langoustines, exploring
their cartoon-alien faces
and train-track bellies. He giggles
at calamari tentacles,
snaps the glassy spines in half.
“Just now he slung an apron on
and told me he’d help. Bell peppers
are staining the blade of his knife.
It’s time to let ingredients
become a dish. He taps my arm.
Together we spark the gas.”
The Spanish poems remind me of another writer who loved a nearby part of the world.
In one of his best books, Provence: From Minstrels to the Machine (1935), Ford Madox Ford writes: “There are in this world only two earthly Paradises . . . Provence . . . and the Reading Room of the British Museum.” Ford’s female companion of that time, Stella Bowen, writes in her memoir Drawn from Life (1941) of the particular charm of Provence: “It is something to do with the light, I suppose, and the airiness and bareness and frugality of life in the Midi, which induces a simplicity of thought, and a kind of whittling to the bone whatever may be the matter in hand.” In the first stanza of the second part of “From Farnham to Villalejo,” Stewart writes:
“This is the only place I could live now.
It’s lent me routines and even the hint
of a shared past. Aprils come with garlic,
Junes with peas. Shutters screech at dawn and dusk,
the clock tower dividing our days.”