Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Empire of Dirt — Thomas Stewart (Red Squirrel Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Empire of Dirt.  Thomas Stewart.  Red Squirrel Press.  Biggar, Scotland.  2019.

empire of dirt | Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart gets an awful lot accomplished in thirty-six short pages.  Empire of Dirt is both quaintly naive and brutally violent as Stewart deconstructs the world to suit his gaze.  Dead foxes and dead birds populate these poems as macabre and faintly menacing omens.  Stewart's Empire of Dirt is fecund with ominous portent.

We all know that suicide is painless, M*A*S*H taught us that, in Empire of Dirt Stewart explores various methodologies, they are explained, explored and exhausted.  Guilt and expectations are probably the real villains but in the universe Stewart's Empire of Dirt creates beware Eden's vipers and sharp as razor box-cutters.


When I smashed the conkers
and laid them out,
when I felt their broken
pieces and gathered them up,
when I smelt the vinegar
of their cracked shells
and wanted to take them home
I thought of the head boy —
red-haired Einstein
most likely to succeed
went into the woods
behind the gym one day
with only meth and a can of 7-up
and a photo of his mum
and a long rope.
Beyond the tennis courts we heard
the police shout, cut him down!
with voices like flower vases

When I left the conkers
and walked home
to pass a bridge
covered in ivy
I saw that boy
who tried to jump off the edge
but was stopped by a stranger,
I saw that dangling boy
in literal limbo
and heard the voices
of the other boys
shouting gay boy, faggot,
and when the boy abandoned
the bridge
his mother hid the pills
and all the belts
were locked
in Ikea boxes
and the house became
a safe space.
The boy found a box-cutter
when his mother
was at work.

When I walked through the park
and leaves wondered
with me
I couldn't remember
the name of the girl
that everyone forgot,
that filled herself
with her grandma's
paracetamol and sat between
the goal posts.
They found her in the morning,
a dog walker or near enough,
and the newspaper clipping
was short and un-sweet—
just kept calling her girl.

When I slept that night
on a wooden bed
I could smell the conkers
in the feathers of the
pillow, I could hear their
song in my dreams,
I could feel them broken
yet protruding
through the springs
of the mattress.


Grief hangs over Stewart's Empire of Dirt like Al Capp's Joe Btfsplk's cloud in Dogpatch, or that stinky dead bird in that old poem.  Thomas Stewart does have a sense of humour but you're probably going to have to get stung once or twice before you can really enjoy it.

Stewart may be operating with his feet in an entirely different dimension, he currently lives in Scotland but the poor man calls Wales home.  This isn't the time to call on Saint Dylan just because he's from just down the road, although Today's book of poetry did visit Swansea once.  No, as my poetry brother-in-arms Stuart Ross and I were discussing just yesterday; it's useless to make comparisons.  Except of course when a comparison is absolutely necessary.

empire of dirt

I look in the mirror
and see a stranger looking back,
maybe I see my father,
dead and young,
covered in pollen,
never dress him in yellow
he said
the bees will always come

don't dress me,
paint my skin
in a colour I do not recognize,
paint the answers to how
my desires are
not what they once were,
paint it in dirt
run my rules in muck
they've changed anyway,
throw my limits in the filth,
scrub my face with mud,

send me to the forest
to a dark wood, to a log
of fallen leaves, to a cold cave
where I can scrawl my dreams
in blood and the sap of a tree,
where I'll rub dill into my wounds
and make music only the walls

send me to find a face
to win my body back,
tell me that my body
will no longer lay mute, I remember it
like a child remembers its favourite food:
I know it exists
this body of mine,
where I do not wake to that knock
where I can simply be,
this is surely an existence that can occur,

so let me be
in the woods,
let me scream to the tallest tree
and find a fairy or a fool,
let me fall into that dirt
and smell the soil of my youth,
let me pull the flowers' roots
and plant them somewhere on the horizon, let me
tangle daisy-chains, so that I may pluck
each petal and ask if he loved me
or not

this wood is my country,
my mother tongue, my climate,
if my body will no longer speak to me
let me place it in the belly of a tree
and barefoot I will walk on.


It is the silliest of things, and I do hope Thomas Stewart will forgive Today's book of poetry an indulgence.  Believe it or not poetry babies, Today's book of poetry attended Thomas A. Stewart Secondary School.  I mentioned this to Mr. Stewart but am uncertain if he was amused.  And at that school there were teachers who taught me to love poetry so a little shout out to Don Quarrie, his lovely wife Bea and all the other teachers at T.A.S.S., a big thank you.

Today's book of poetry had our usual morning read when everyone got in to the office this morning.  The office has been a little subdued this week.  Blair Norman Sharpe, a local Ottawa painter of renown, a loved teacher, passed away after a long illness.  Blair had become a pal of ours more recently, I've been regaling the troops with Blair stories for the last year.  His bravery and killer sense of humour will not be forgotten.  Today's book of poetry sends our broken hearted hugs to his dear Brenda.

Blair didn't love all poetry but he loved the idea of it.

Today's book of poetry depends on poetry to get us through the day and Thomas Stewart's Empire of Dirt was just the tonic.  Stewart's narrator suffers, but there are also declarations that come from hard earned experience, declarations of hope, a search for joy.  That's pretty much what we are all after, isn't it.

real boy

this is a true story:

they said
you're not a real
boy until you cut
the wizard out of the tree,

it's a question
of which tree:
real boys might pick
oak, birch or beech,
and then boys
that pick alder,
elm or hawthorn
are unreal,

unreal boys hold the axe
and whisper,
cousin of Merlin,
give me some magic,

but magic
is not a boy's language,
here, in the boy's
toilets or there in the
changing rooms it is
the outstretched branch
welcoming you

to be a real boy

unreal boys, who hide
under their towels
or become black dots
on the rugby pitch

or study the mole
above their nipple,
or the drooping stomach
in the mirror

are the quietly
hungry trees
in the breeze,

if I were a tree
I'd be a white willow
by the bay, a salix
alba alone and sexless,
I would only know
the touch of my own

as I long to be
a real boy
I know I am already
a tree, made of roots,
standing in the wind,
in solitude, exposed,
displaying my chest,
made of wood,
my bushy hair
and eyebrows falling
past my chipped teeth,
across the scar on my
chin and the leaves
growing from
my hands.


Toxic masculinity is a tough battleground and Stewart attacks the beast head on.  Today's book of poetry is here to tell you all that Thomas Stewart is absolutely correct, it takes all sorts of trees to make a forest.

Today's book of poetry thought Thomas Stewart's Empire of Dirt was aces.  Every time we read it we liked it more.  We'll be looking forward to more from Stewart.

Thomas Stewart author pic

Thomas Stewart

Thomas Stewart is from Wales, he currents resides in Scotland.

‘A skilful, strong, and harshly innocent collection by one of our deftest young poets.’ 
     —David Morley, winner of the Ted Hughes Award

‘There is an edge of violence to Thomas Stewart’s poems, but it is not gratuitous. These are the cracks that open in the surface of the world under his concentrated gaze. What they disclose is a deep sadness and a tenderness, alongside the slight scent of blood.’ 
    —Philip Gross, winner of the T. S. Eliot Prize



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