Poet Ian McMillan on Couples, the latest collection of work from Bradford-based poet, playwright and novelist Michael Stewart.
As a writer, Michael Stewart is perhaps best known for his 2011 novel King Crow, a searingly honest and beautifully written book about a young birdwatching lad growing up in a mean and violent city.
It was compared in some quarters to Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave, but where Hines’s default mode was realism and if he tried for poetic prose you could feel the language starting to strain, Michael Stewart is a natural poet.
Couples is Stewart’s new collection of poems from the ever-enterprising Valley Press and, interestingly, his skills as a creator of fiction are evident here. The premise of the book is simple and could have been gimmicky but isn’t. Poems face each other across the page like couples in a café or on a settee; different points of view are expressed, different ways of speaking are explored.
Here’s the woman in Clean: “She scrubs the taps with Ajax,/she bleaches the bath with Domestos,/she scours the bowl with vinegar and wire.” And across the page, here’s the man in The Spring Fires: “They found him burning furniture in the back yard. /First the dining-table, faux-antique oak,/ and the chairs, with legs like varicose veins.” And by the end of Clean, the job is complete: “Her work is done, it’s over/now everything inside is clean,/no-one would know he’d ever been.”
And by the end of The Spring Fires a similar transformation has taken place: “It’s over, they said, there’s nothing left./I know, he said, and lit a cigarette.” So in two short poems we get a portrait of a relationship, of opposites not quite attracting, of different ways of thinking of the world gradually wrenching people apart.
That’s the template for much of Couples and the format gives the writer and the reader plenty of room to play. In two ingenious prose poems, one character is chalk (“I was born under deep marine conditions from a gradual accumulation of minute plates of calcite shed from tiny organisms. I’m made up of the bones of microscopic animals.”) and the other is cheese (“You are best when left to rest in a cool room. But I like you the most melted over something steaming with heat.”). Inanimate things are animated and shine with possibility, if cheese can shine.
In Your Lips the other’s recent presence is celebrated: “When I wake/you’ve dressed/and left/for work./Next to my clogged razor/your lips/on a tissue.” And Sometimes the tone across the pages is deliberately very different, to set up a linguistic meeting somewhere in the middle where the book folds; Wanted: A Husband is described as a literal translation from a classified ad on a Chinese social network site: “No smokers. No alcoholics. No Gamblers. No Virgos. No Capricorns.” The complementary poem The Earth is Moving Closer to its Sun describes those birds that follow elephants around, eating undigested seeds from their dung. The last stanza is resonant and guarded, in contrast to Wanted: A Husband: “One day I was out walking/when I came across a pile of elephant dung./As I passed, out flew one of these birds./A flash of glimmering light./You are one of these birds my love.” There’s a novel there, waiting to be written or perhaps just imagined by the person with the book in their hand.
Couples does what very good writing can: it makes you look around you, see things differently. Once I’d read the book I couldn’t take my eyes off that older pair on that bench in the park in the drizzle. Was he chalk, or cheese? Was she? Maybe, in the end, that’s what these poems do; they successfully creep inside peoples’ heads and let us know what’s going on in there. Many poems are, necessarily, written from one point of view; this book gives us another angle, another way of looking, another way of listening.
King Crow, Michael Stewart’s novel, was shortlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ which is better than not being shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
Michael is a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Huddersfield, helping to make Skelmanthorpe Sonnets and Berry Brow Books.
He’s also a playwright and has been writer in residence at the Theatre in The Mill in Bradford. He’s multi-talented – but he’s not the footballer called Michael Stewart, says Ian McMillan.
Couples by Michael Stewart, published by Yorkshire’s Valley Press is available now.