The best of 2018: February. Ian Parks and Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart

“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

 The four poems he sent me were 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.

Kim commented:

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. 

The 23rd

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.

Ian Parks

The Great Divide

Ian  is the only poet to have his work published in the Morning Star and the Times Literary Supplement on the same day. Born in 1959, the son of a miner, he went on to teach creative writing at the universities of Sheffield, Hull, Oxford, and Leeds. His collections include Shell Island, The Landing Stage, Love Poems 1979-2009,  [uz can be loving as well as funny] The Exile’s House and, most recently, Citizens. He is the editor of Versions of the North: Contemporary Yorkshire Poetry, was writer in residence at Gladstone’s Library in 2012, and Writing Fellow at De Montfort University Leicester from 2012-2014. He currently runs the Read to Write project in Doncaster.  His versions of the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, If Possible, will be published by Calder Valley Poetry in 2018. What a track record! Let’s start with a poem I asked him for after I heard him read it recently in Huddersfield. The title’s apt.

 She looked at me and saw the bitter streets

where I was born – the valley floor that offered

no escape, the Chartist cobbles hard rain

rained upon – and everywhere a sense of failing light,

streaking the uplands, making a theatre of them as it did:

the unrelenting grimness of the north,

its chapels, pit-heads, slag heaps, union halls,

processions through the darkness, millstone grit.

A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf

fought-over, misbegotten, stratified.

She looked straight through me to my father’s eyes

black-rimmed and smiling after a long shift

and as she gazed a cross the great divide

I let the balance of the landscape strain and give

as if the world itself was undermined

and felt – not pity at the thought of it – but anger first, then pride.

[from Shell Island (Waywiser 2006)]

It’s a poem that has all the elements that well-meaning folk have tried to steer me away from; there’s one line in particular that might be seized on and waved at me as a warning

the unrelenting grimness of the north (and all its standard accoutrements).

But that would be to ignore the passionate, almost biblical, vision of:

A great red furnace blazing from the Humber to the Sheaf

That’s the moment that pulls me in, because it’s not just ‘visionary’ ( a great red furnace of struggle and immense creativity, a mighty forging) but also, in my memory, a real landscape that you might have seen from Pennine gritstone edges where Chartists and other early socialists would meet, the valleys and plains of Lancashire and of the West Riding, all in a fume, and the failing light streaking the uplands ‘making a theatre of them‘. It’s real and a dream simultaneously, a poem where resentful anger and pride tug in different directions. And it’s a poem about love.

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