This still from Werner Herzog’s ‘Encounters at the end of the world’ has been called ‘one of the great existential moments of modern cinema’. It’s one that has me in tears. For some reason this one penguin has has left the tribe (according to wikipedia , a group of penguins on land is called a waddle. Other collective nouns for penguins include: rookery, colony, and huddle. None of them seem to credit their air of social purpose. I’ll stay with tribe). The others are purposefully plodding seaward, towards food and salvation. This one is equally purposefully heading inland to a certain death. The camera pulls back, and goes on pulling back until the penguin is microscopic in an infinity of white. Herzog’s voice-over speculates that the only reason for this behaviour is that the penguin has become insane. It’s heartbreaking.
I should say that I’ve spent the last couple of days in bed, feeling physically done in. A bit like the early symptoms of flu, without the coughing and sneezing. Just very tired and achey. So this post post might be more incoherent than usual. Still. Press on. Basically I’ve been thinking about how to introduce today’s guest poet, who happens to write short poems…not necessarily lyric, but short. I’m very conscious that I don’t do short, and admire poets who do, mainly because I think it takes more confidence and craft and discipline than I have. I suspect I’m afraid of white space, because, essentially, it leaves no hiding place. Every word is exposed, and has to justify itself
Here’s a bit of one of my writing workshop notebooks. You don’t need to read it to see that it fills the page, edge to edge. No line breaks, no white space except for that between the words and the lines. If I ever try to write a first draft that looks like a poem I get stuck, because I start looking at words and phrases and I start thinking, and stop writing. It’s the way I am. It’s just easier to write a lot without stopping and worrying. I’ll leave that idea there, because I fancy writing some posts about how some of my poems came about, and this extract will feature. But you see what I mean. I hope.
Let’s try another tack. How about a one-line poem…say, from Blake’s Proverbs of hell.
the cut worm forgives the plough
The space around it invites you to consider it as significant, and it’s instantly vulnerable to scrutiny. If it works at all it’s because it yields up layers of meaning or significance. Ask yourself where the stresses go. If the stress falls on cut then it invites you to think of what the alternatives might be. crushed? slain? Why cut? Is it that if it’s a slight wound, it can bring itself to ‘forgive’. Just an accident..no worries. What if the stress is on worm. What if it was dog or wolf or…After all ‘worm’ can imply weakness, moral, spiritual, physical. But what if there’s an implied unspoken qualifier? Even the cut worm. Hmm. What if the stress is on plough. Do we understand that the plough may be forgiven but not the ploughman. It turns out that it looks like one short line, but it’s powerfully ambiguous and complicated. Who knows what Blake intended. We might even want to read the line in the light of everything else he wrote. You see what I mean. Short poems surrounded by lots of white space need to do a lot more work than lines in a long poem where they can hide in the forward push of rhythm or rhetoric or emotion. I can’t write them…or, at least, very rarely, and when I do they’re not much good. Which is why I admire those who can, which brings me to our Polished Gem for today; Matthew Stewart.
I met, and heard, Matthew for the first time about a month ago when he read at The Albert Poets in Huddersfield. I knew his poetry blog, Rogue Strands,and I’d read about him in posts by Paul Stephenson and Abigail Morley.
You can check those posts out via these links….worth reading, and save me some time while I’m feeling muddy-headed.
I liked the poems a lot. I liked their urbanity, their layeredness. I like the way he told them, and the way they were robust enough to stand up for themselves when they had to compete with non-poetry chatter at the other end of the room. One reviewer, Rory Waterman puts it better: “Matthew Stewart is a poet of consolidation, truth, and freshness, with a masterful sense of economy. His poems matter, and his first full collection has been too long in coming. These poems have the rare quality of resonating a long way beyond their modest physical limitations.” Exactly
So I asked him to be guest, and here he is. The biog he sent me is brief, succinct, and somehow just right as an introduction for a poet unafraid of white space.
“Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura and West Sussex. Following two pamphlets with HappenStance Press, both now sold out, he has recently published his first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, with Eyewear Books. He blogs at http://roguestrands.blogspot.com.
The four poems he’s sent me to share are all from The knives of Villalego, and they make me think of a phrase I’ve used before in my posts. Dark watcher. The point of view of the unseen observer, or at least the overlooked observer who can see what’s going on but can’t affect or change what happens. Maybe it has something to do with the fact of his living in and between two countries and two languages. It’s something that Kim Moore picked out in one of her Sunday Poem blogs when she posted one of his poems : Twenty years apart
Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English,
back streets of Villalejo for Oxford.
Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.
I’m still in the background.
the outsider is always an outsider, whether in Villalejo or Oxford. When the speaker in the poem urges the reader to ‘Ignore the smells, swap Spanish for English’ the reader starts to realise the speaker is an outsider where ever he goes.Yes. It’s that quiet understatement, a sort of self deprecatory quality, a rueful one, but a truthfully observed one too. There’s more than that in the collection, though. Enjoy this selection. I’d love to sit and tell you why I enjoy them as well as telling you I do. But this bug, whatever it is, is asserting itself. Maybe I’ll come back in a couple of days with a clear head and finish the job properly. But I promised our guest he’d be featured today and a promise is a promise. Here we go.
i.m. George Stewart
It casually loiters in the fourth line
of April, pretending not to stalk me,
the expiry date on David’s passport
and the start of a trade fair in Brussels.
It knows full well you chose your namesake’s day
to die, as if you were somehow afraid
I might forget. As if I ever could.
You’ve reached 020…
I dial and dial, never leave a message.
What I dread is your picking up one day
and your voice turning unpredictable.
I love to hear it tinny, caught on tape,
giving a number rather than a name,
as if you were the prisoner, not me.
Sooner or later
For the moment it skulks
below forgotten gifts
and out-of-favour shirts
in the spare-room wardrobe.
Maybe tonight, maybe
next year, a sudden call
will bring it centre stage,
rushed to the dry cleaners.
They’ll hanger it. Shoulders
will thrust like instructions
for use. There’s not a hope
of dodging the dark suit.
Let me finish for the time being, though, in the kind of place you’d be happy to be a visitor. You might feel like an outsider in some Spanish village cafes and bars, but the smell of hot oil and frying dough, and chocolate (and, possibly, caporal tobacco) speaks a universal language. I’ll take it for my comfort this evening.
Chocolate con churros
The vat of oil must haze the air,
the batter sticky but slick.
He pipes it gently through the nozzle.
Spatulas dance as it ripples
in ring after fizzing gold ring.
Just after dawn his café steams.
Hunters, half-cut teenagers
and widows all hunch over cups
in the hubbub of the churros
being dunked in chocolate.
Thank you, Matthew Stewart, for poems unafraid of white space, that prove that when it’s done right, less is more.