Couples by Michael Stewart
Valley Press, £6

Couples is a chapbook or pamphlet of poems by Thornton-based writer Michael Stewart, his first published venture in this style of writing.

Until now, he was better known for the Not The Booker Award he won last year for his much-praised debut novel King Crow, his theatre work, his broadcast plays for BBC Radio 4 and his editorial work for Huddersfield University’s enterprising Grist publications.

This little book, attractively produced by Jamie McGarry’s Valley Press in Scarborough, could change that for the 42-year-old Stewart.

It was published at a Valentine’s Day evening event at Thornton’s New Inn. In the restaurant, real-life couples tucked into heart-shaped savouries and desserts while in an adjacent room, before an audience, Stewart got stuck in to what he amiably called his “antidote to romance”.

Oscar Wilde wittily and perhaps somewhat sadly defined romance as a form of deception that starts with the self and extends to others. Stewart referred to this quotation at the start of his reading and should consider including it in the next edition of Couples.

As can be seen in the title piece reproduced here, the subject of these 12 pairs of complementary poems is the love-hate relationship that binds most couples either in fact or in memory. And this theme is explored in contrasting, dramatised monologues that remind me of George and Ira Gershwin’s number Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.

But in these poems, couples aren’t at odds over how to annunciate ‘potatoes’ and ‘tomatoes’. Chalk and cheese differences, represented by two poems called Me and You are compiled from accumulations of ordinary data, likes and dislikes, habits and seemingly incompatible tastes.

These couples shouldn’t be together but they are, “rubbing together/ until they stick”, he says at the end of Cam and Shaft.

Love, Stewart implies, is stranger than fiction and in reality is a damn sight more interesting and funny than how romance is commonly portrayed and celebrated.

But don’t conclude that Couples is heavy-going, precious or despairing. The poems Michael Stewart read out on Thursday night were marked by wryness, warmth and sympathy.

The audience, largely made up of couples, laughed loudly. It was the laughter of recognition, for nothing delights like the recognition of being truly and wittily observed without malice aforethought.

Couples is clever without showing off and is accessible to everyone, not just to the writers of poetry; it could be read with profit in either a university cafe-bar or a works canteen. And, indeed, next month Stewart will be reading from Couples at Bradford University’s Theatre in the Mill.

At the end of The Longest Married Couple, Ralph Tarrant is asked the secret of his 77-year marriage to Phyllis – a real life couple. “She goes her way and I go mine,” he replies.

That’s what couples do, one way or another.