Review by Andrew Neilson
Robert Selby, editor of the online journal Wild Court, has produced an arresting debut in The Coming-Down Time (Shoestring, 2020), one marked by a number of pleasingly unfashionable concerns. We are aware of an unusual approach from the very off, as the opening poem glides into view beneath its eye-catching title, ‘In God’s Prevenient Grace’:
He left two-dozen books, one a schoolboy
adventure story: Every Inch a Briton.
Its cover: a boy in bowtie, waistcoat,
plus-fours, raising his straw boater.
Inside, inscribed by his Sunday school teacher,
dated January 1934,
Ecclesiastes 12:1: Remember
now thy Creator in the days of thy youth.
Themes of the past, religion, nationhood – the sort of poetic concerns that can get all sorts of negative labels thrown around on social media – are presented without apology and refreshingly free of irony (‘Every Inch a Briton’). It is one of the insights implicit in Selby’s work that simply ironising the past (in essence, judging the past by the values of the present) is both dangerously smug (we are hardly so perfect ourselves) but also, in an important sense, somewhat unforgiving of a reality which is, ultimately, lost to us – ‘all gone into the world of light’, as Henry Vaughan would have it. Selby is accordingly less interested in distancing himself from the past, or sniggering at it, than attempting to recover some sense of what is lost.
The first section of this collection is a sequence tracing the life of Selby’s grandfather George (the subject of ‘In God’s Prevenient Grace’), recovering what it must have been like to grow up in Suffolk between the wars, when one could say ‘Away? The next village, the next set of fields’ (‘Elysium’). The sequence gently undulates between Selby’s own memories of his grandparents with those he reconstructs, in particular George’s service in World War II and the relationship he forms with Selby’s grandmother, Doll. Just as one poem describes the family unpotting the couple’s “intimate grit” after they pass away, so Selby sifts through memories to bring particular moments into intimate focus. In ‘Hellfire Corner’ different time frames are deftly conjured as George and Doll are at a bus stop ‘when the V-bomb came over, its low growl/forged deep within Hell’s foundry’:
He pulled her down, throwing himself on top of her.
‘Any excuse!’ we quipped
to lighten her funeral reception—
she a munitions girl
who became a doting wife and mother, grandmother,
whom he couldn’t shield with his body
the final time.
This opening section of The Coming-Down Time is a powerful and affecting deployment of Robert Selby’s interest in place and the past and it’s fair to say these concerns operate best when anchored to his own family’s story. The work is less strong when his interest in these themes is a little more abstracted and less sustained. Almost inevitably, The Coming-Down Time touches on the First World War, reminding us once again how Ypres and the Somme cast a shadow over much of English poetry. Writing as a Scot who can count many relatives lost to the trenches, I am still slightly bemused as to why this period carries such a particular grip on English poets even now, and despite a broad sympathy with Selby’s prospectus, his handling of such material teeters on parody:
and what exactly they are—like England,
still here as a flag, station stops, the Household Division
shouldering arms at the chimes of Big Ben,
cow parsley in the wheat, and the Glorious Dead,
if that is England. At the end,
a place to stand beyond,
like some lambkin, undone.
Selby might allow that all-important if in ‘if that is England’ at the close of ‘Upon the Altar Laid’, but it’s hard to avoid observing that his verse is making the most of all that familiar English bric-a-brac. Undone lambkins will not be to everyone’s taste. But then, who wants to write poetry that suits everyone?
As The Coming-Down Time progresses, we do find a style which strays at times into the overly contrived – something Selby owns up to in the poem ‘Acting’, where love can only be declared through an elaborate set-up involving the poem’s speaker playing Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers in an amateur dramatic staging of Notre-Dame de Paris. The poem is better than my summary allows, but still far from the main event. Selby’s love poetry is more successful when he allows a winningly gauche treatment of infatuation to shine through. In particular, see the direct and self-lacerating ‘Exterior with a Young Woman Upset’ and the closing sequence ‘Chevening’, where outlining a romance with a Canadian woman visiting England allows Selby to re-engage with his themes of place and the past through the lens of that developing relationship. The contrivance occasionally found elsewhere is gloriously cast aside:
Your tread around the ornamental lake
was comically unsure,
your pumps picking with balletic care
where to come down
among the green goose shit.
Where might Selby himself come down next? Hidden away within the miscellaneous poems in The Coming-Down Time’s second section is a short sequence, ‘The Galilean Moons’, which trades longer lines and the aforementioned English bric-a-brac for something more minimalist and striking. Whether this sequence is earlier work retained for the debut, or indicative of something newly blooming, ‘The Galilean Moons’ point to a different Robert Selby, one who handles the mythic material with real authority:
Jupiter, disguised as Diana,
coaxed Callisto to his lair.
Orbits aligned, sped and tightened.
She became a bear,
pregnant and frightened,
setting among the stars,
a moon without resonance
renouncing Jupiter’s dominance—
she wears the scars.
A somewhat looser Selby is present in ‘The Firecrests’, which describes a bout of amorous birdwatching with delicate lyricism:
When you lean in to borrow my sightline
up my outstretched arm and finger
the weight against my shoulder
is one of a possible future,
as a sweet wrapper snagged in a tree.
The Coming-Down Time stands out from the field in its willingness to tackle unfashionable themes and stand squarely within its interest in the past, but it is also a collection which presents some genuine lovely moments unencumbered by these wider considerations. A debut collection worth getting a hold of.
Andrew Neilson was born in Edinburgh and now lives and works in London. His poems, essays and reviews have appeared in a number of journals in both the UK and the United States. He is Vice Chair of The Poetry Society.