James Peake reviews Robert Selby

The Coming-Down Time published by Shoestring Press (2020)

RS Thomas once told The Guardian that there wasn’t much great poetry from young people in the English-speaking tradition. Poetry, he said, “needs time to mature”. This belief is almost comically at odds with today’s poetic culture and while he did acknowledge exceptions – most obviously Keats to his reflexively canonical mind set – it’s an interesting experiment to think which poetic careers would’ve benefited from a longer initial silence or indeed what, if anything, might unite those poets of record who waited to publish. RS Thomas was himself over forty before his first trade collection appeared. Amy Clampitt’s astonishing debut came when she was in her fifties. Many significant talents have waited, and perhaps one unifier might be a profound attention to form, a preference – more akin to trust, perhaps – in work that has slowly accrued. While Robert Selby is by any measure a young poet, he is also an accruer, and readers of The Coming-Down Time, his first full-length collection, would be forgiven for thinking they were reading the author’s second or third book.

Selby’s first pamphlet appeared in the exemplary ‘Five Poems’ series from Clutag Press in 2017, where it held its own amidst some very distinguished company. The acknowledgements to The Coming-Down Time are a litany of fortified periodicals, one or two of which are virtually a closed shop to any but the established names, let alone a poet without a full-length collection to their name. So how has Selby established such enviable foundations? The answer is an unmistakeable gift of fitness of language, an unforced rapport between content and form. In his love poems this ability to meet the “resistance of the form” (Derek Mahon) pushes the narrator to a depth of romantic self-examination, and in elegiac mode it enables the poet to produce honed and unpretentious poems for figures who would never seek memorialisation for themselves.

The Coming-Down Time is divided into three sections: ‘East of Ipswich’, which commemorates Selby’s maternal grandparents, and takes in their courtship, war experience, post-war and then posthumous life with their children and grandchildren; ‘Shadows on the Barley’, a cohesive collection of standalone lyrics; and finally ‘Chevening’, the story of a relationship as it arrives at a point of ultimate decision. All three contain memorable eidetic detail (“The elms nod their heads in a blue realm”, I loved), as well as revealing a capacious imagination, one in search of meetings rather than allegiances:

                                                 “…but we were friends
                                                 because my life so differed from yours.”

There’s an entire ethos resting on that quietly assertive “because”. Elsewhere some admirably risky technical strategies are undertaken. Selby introduces knots into his syntax to suggest a tremor of distrust in his own fluency as well as to exhilarate by a sudden imaginative collapse of linear time:

                                                 “…this evening
                                                 before men move one hundred years ago
                                                 forward into the unbarbed ground between us.”

We see this again later, but less successfully, in a love poem: “I lie in the strangeness of after you being here”. Likewise he’s unafraid to repeat identical words and phrases (while Browning warned against homophones specifically, any such techniques runs the risk of distraction). He does so to elegise the passing of his grandparents (“…the next village, the next set of fields…the next life, the next set of fields”, which also recalls train travel), but in another mode entirely to show us cows in the Stour:

                                                 “watching their faces in the water –
                                                 as if they can command
                                                 the countenance of water”

The formal conservatism of The Coming-Down Time will not suit all tastes, but it might constitute a more serious attempt at imaginative resistance in the desolate era in which we find ourselves – one of destructively misapplied language, rhetorical volume, myriad social injustices and environmental damage of an existential intensity. Traditional poetics can be unhelpfully (and, yes, unjustifiably) opaque but they will always be open to an interested reader’s investigation in a way that many digital poetics cannot be. And I’m not the first to point out that varieties of imitative, improvised or solely digitally determined form don’t constitute the break with previous ways of making that can so easily be assumed. I remember Don Paterson on Radio 3’s call-back to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, saying (with memorable dismay), “your poem looks like somebody spilled it”. Meaning what exactly? That there’s no shortcut to being able to write poems as proficient as those in The Coming-Down Time.

Owing to its confidence with closed forms, then, its decorous tone, as well as the firmly established names it draws on for its epigraphs (Shakespeare, Hardy, TS Eliot, Gurney), it may be that some readers are put off by The Coming-Down Time’s seemingly overt commitment to traditionalism. They may consider some of its subject matter, England haunted by WWI, say, to be almost as dangerously well-trodden as the battlefields themselves. But this would be to miss Selby’s core achievement, and why, as in the later work of Michael Longley, such forms and subjects are demonstrably not exhausted. They are a balancing means to celebrate lives other than our own –without being sentimental or derogatory – bringing difference and sameness into a communicable ratio. In this way we’re encouraged to look more generously at, for example, a degree of provincialism in an older generation – aversion to travel (“Only conscription could put him on a train”), frugality, a culture in which objects are enriched by previous ownership rather than devalued by it. A reader picks up on the instructive implication that these may very well be potential solutions (or future obligations) to the mass consumption and wastage of the post-war era.

Selby is certainly aware of the dangers of nostalgia, and perhaps even anticipates the accusation in the book’s final poem (a telling placement in any collection). After three stanzas imagining what English details an absent Canadian lover might remember, “All of it [England] becomes propaganda with an airmail stamp”. The deeper contextualising here might be with the poet’s identity as a Kentish poet by birth and by choice, and a clue to Selby’s own future poetic development as he deepens and enriches his understanding of that county. Already he has praised its orchards (“apple, pear, cherry and plum”), set its motto Invicta (meaning “undefeated”) into unforgettably tender relation to a regiment halved by fatalities, and even written admiringly of its historical claim to gavelkind: “No primogeniture: an equality/on earth, as it is in heaven”. The mature poet may have found in that county his unifying subject.

Selby’s quiet measures, his ability to pattern with no interruption to the plain run-on of speech is remarkable. The example of Geoffrey Hill is strong here, in the moral commitment to factual accuracy (see the martial detail of ‘Upon the Altar Laid’) and the ability to juxtapose differing times and spaces in mutually illuminating ways. The Coming-Down Time will most strongly appeal to readers who already favour craft and a comprehensible continuity in their poetics, a reader who might, for example, look up from one of the poems in this book (‘Dear Ralph Crozier’, perhaps, or ‘East of Ipswich, IV: Elysium’, both of which I think will prove very durable indeed), and suspect that the very hardest poetic task of all might really be to say unadorned, meant things in a way that is expressive, beautiful and sincere:

                                                 “They found him in the belfry.
                                                 They said he’d go up there when a lad
                                                 To see as far as Capel St Andrew,
                                                 Ipswich beyond. On a clear day, the world.”

James Peake lives in London with his wife and son. He has worked in trade publishing for several years, predominantly for the large conglomerates, but also for leading independents and literary agencies. He’s been a reader and editor for small literary magazines in the UK and US, and his own poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. His first collection, Reaction Time of Glass, was published in 2019 by Two Rivers Press.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on email

Related Posts