Review: The Knives of Villalejo by Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart, The Knives of Villalejo, Eyewear Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-911335-63-4. £10.99.


The Knives of Villalejo is Matthew Stewart’s first collection and was twenty years in the making. This book is fascinating in that in brings together the poet’s experiences in the wine trade and his time living in both West Sussex and Extremadura, Spain. I was drawn strongly to this collection for its sense of being ‘the other’ between two cultures and also the at once, homely and exotic found in the everyday experiences which fill its pages.

My favourite poems are those which consider memory and change as in “From Farnham to Villalejo” in which the poet asks, ‘How many summers did I take/ to map the paths that skulk/ behind a fence or privet hedge?’ before coming to the present in Spain which the poet notes that his new home has, ‘… lent me routines and even a hint/ of a shared past.’ The reader feels as if he or she is on a journey with the poet, through the backstreets of his childhood to the present day as he navigates his sense of being the other in both of his home countries. When returning to Oxford in “Twenty Years Apart”:


            Muttered stories mirror muttered stories.

            I’m still in the background.


The poet finds comfort in his passion for cooking and wine which flourish with rich descriptions. At times, the poet hints at hope and change found in the destruction of food for the purpose of cooking a nourishing meal, for example in “Artes Culinarias”:


chopping up breasts and rubbing flesh

from the neck, then scooping the heart.

A Sunday task, it absorbs me

till I find the flimsy wishbone.


In the title poem, “The Knives of Villalejo”, the sharpening of knives day after day is likened to that of a life lived, perhaps with too much purpose and a suggestion to live our days with pleasure and delight:


… they carry on chopping up days,

carving weeks, slicing months and dicing years

until they judder half way through a stroke

and snap like over-sharpened knives.


Where the poet really takes pleasure in the moment is clear in Gran Reserva in the poem “Dos Vinos”:


            You saved me from the local merchant’s shelf

            A whole decanterful of crispy air,

            and I was born for this: a pair of mouths

            to roll me across their tongues and share me.


At times, a few of the poems feel like they provide simple descriptions which apart from relating what is a tender moment between father and son, offer little more. For example in “Al Anochecer”: ‘David’s still on the roundabout, / swaying joyfully up and down, / peeling paint with his fingernails.’ Several of the poems about fatherhood however hint at the young boy’s growing sense of independence and the father’s pride at sharing these precious moments  as in “Making Paella with David”:


            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.


I feel a strong connection with this collection with its exploration of making a home abroad, fatherhood and delicious adventures with wine and food. The hopeful and melancholic aspects of this book mirror the experience of a life in another land and culture. Its final lines in “Epilogue” led me to read them over and over, to think how one can make the most of each day, to find the balance between working towards a purpose and at the same time enjoying each moment:


            You’ll never quite remember what

            you forgot, but you’ll remember

            you forgot.


I shall look forward very much to reading future work by this poet.


Jack Little



You can buy The Knives of Villalejo here.

Jack Little is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City. He is the author of Elsewhere (Eyewear, 2015) and is the founding editor of The Ofi Press.

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