Both Idea and Entity

Robert Selby, The Coming-Down Time

Shoestring Press, 86pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781912524518

reviewed by Ben Leubner

Robert Selby’s debut collection of poems, The Coming-Down Time, is a marvellous volume of lyrics the main subjects of which are family legacies, history, love, England, and poetry. The volume is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are numbered sequences. East of Ipswich opens the volume and is a sequence of 20 lyrics in memory of Selby’s maternal grandparents, the main focus being on his grandfather, who served in the Second World War as an artillery man. The poems are poignant, nostalgic, interrogative, and formally exquisite, where form itself serves as a kind of umbrella underneath which all of the subjects listed above remain huddled throughout Selby’s collection: the forms that history takes, or that a life takes, or a relationship; the shape of a nation, or of a family legacy, or a poem.

The middle section of the book, Shadows on the Barley, serves as a kind of bridge between the two sequences, and consists of seventeen poems that are as various in their forms as they are in their subjects: four septets about a trip to Maine; twelve tercets on the Brighton tradition of Burning the Clocks (Selby is especially good with tercets); a dramatic monologue in five sonnets spoken by a woman in the aftermath of the Great War. And the volume closes with a 12-poem sequence, Chevening, where if the first sequence is primarily historical in nature, but with attention paid to the manner in which love is woven into the fabric of history, then these poems take love as their primary subject, but with attention paid to the manner in which history is woven into that fabric.

Throughout The Coming-Down Time Selby engages with the tradition of Anglophone poetry, the formation of its canon having run rather neatly — and disturbingly — alongside the formation of empire, where in the recent past and, still, in the present moment the dismantling of both have resulted in a number of complicated legacies and problematic politics: destabilisations, uncertainties, and open futures the contention for which has been ongoing and fraught with consequence. How, then, if you’re a poet, to not only engage with the tradition of Anglophone poetry, but to even participate in and honour it, too, but without seeming as though one is longing for the days of empire, for a return to a narrowly conceived, past English glory? How to affirm a history while simultaneously interrogating its shape? Can form and freedom be pursued simultaneously? In poetry, in history, in love?

The Coming-Down Time features epigraphs from Shakespeare, Marvell, Eliot, and Ivor Gurney. There are frequent evocations of and direct allusions to Keats, Hardy, and Yeats, and Frost, too, in its pages. Wilfred Owen and Philip Larkin seem to always be there, and not just on the margins, but close to the words of the poems themselves if not actually inhabiting them. But the poet who most persistently hovers over and dwells within and speaks through the volume, I found, is, most strikingly, Rupert Brooke.

Perhaps no other English poem of the 20th century has been as wildly celebrated and praised and fiercely condemned and castigated as Brooke’s 1914 sonnet, ‘The Soldier’. There’s perhaps a sense, today, with respect to Brexit, that praising the poem would correspond to taking the Leave position, while condemning it would correspond to Remain. Of course, though, it can’t actually be and isn’t this simple, as Selby’s book makes clear. Brooke’s poem, his poetry, and his person might all need to be praised and condemned, the history he and his work are a part of both celebrated and lamented. Reductive polarisation has little place in good poetry. And if Brooke had not been buried in a foreign field on the island of Skyros in 1915, age 27, who knows, he might have eventually joined poets like Owen and Gurney in their fierce wars against the War, a comrade to instead of a convenient target for them. Even as things are, though, or rather, as they were, one needn’t be Team Brooke or Team Owen. Selby certainly isn’t. In the antepenultimate poem of The Coming-Down Time, he tries to convince his Canadian partner that the English countryside of Kent, as opposed to London, ‘is the real England’, pastoral and idyllic.

The poem takes the form of a Shakespearean sonnet, and its focus on Englishness unmistakably evokes Brooke as well, even if the sestets of Brooke’s 1914 sequence are more often Petrarchan than Shakespearean. Selby, though, fresh off of lavishing such praise on England as ‘a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum,’ then imagines a future in which both he and his partner have perished, and writes of their meager remains in a fashion that seems to mute both Shakespeare and Brooke: ‘All that’ll be left: two glasses filled with morning,/your silk scarf over one of the two empty chairs;/two lit candles in the church for us, if anyone cares.’ So much for a glorious posthumous existence. Larkin takes over here, one might say, and so finds himself cohabiting a poem with Brooke, a pairing the oddness of which is surpassed only by the amount of sense it makes upon closer inspection.

Why not combine a fondness for and devotion to England, both idea and entity, with an exquisite, insouciant self-deprecation, and a 21st-century irony in which England has ceased to be the head and centre of empire and become instead a small, negligible island wherein the longing for a return to past greatness can only climb so far from being pathetic, and that’s not very far at all, really? One might have titled a biography of Brooke Every Inch a Briton, the title of one of the two dozen books Selby’s grandfather left behind after his death in 2007, the kind of children’s adventure story that so readily facilitated the process of sending young men to their graves in the World Wars — or that, viewed from only a slightly different angle, bred heroes. Neither viewpoint should be held at the expense of the other. Brooke’s own death from a mosquito bite that brought on sepsis was equal parts heroic sacrifice and paltry waste.

Contemplating the interior of an English church, Selby writes, ‘The tombs lie real as death’s day,/rearing in all our futures,/except England’s.’ Here is Brooke again, in the affirmation of an England that is forever, or at least comparatively so next to our own short lives. ‘They died in childbirth and of the plague,/they died in their beds and on the veldt,/on Salient and Somme,/and here, as lit candles, live on.’ A vast host of individual deaths is no match for an engine of ongoing collective identity; the soldier, among others, lives on, under an English heaven. The sense of continuity inherent in such conceptions is so overwhelming as to diminish into all but inexistence its manufactured quality. This is the laboratory of great national glory. And if this poem, the sixth of the Chevening sequence, ended with those lit candles, it would be almost impossible to not dismiss it as oblivious, somehow ignorant, whether wilfully or no, of the fact that Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, and Graves made it all but impossible, a full century ago now, to say such things without one’s tongue at least somewhat in one’s cheek. But Selby’s poem still has one more line to go, a line that completes its fourth and final quintain, and in which he notes a gesture made by his partner: ‘At the door you leave a dollar donation.’

Thus we are transported from Brooke to Larkin once again, to ‘Church Going’ in particular, where that dollar (a Canadian one, I think) brings to mind the ‘Irish sixpence’ that Larkin leaves behind before reflecting that ‘the place was not worth stopping for.’ Still, the last line of Selby’s poem seems not quite a complete ironic undercutting of the lines that come before it but more the expressions of something that is somehow intimate with them even as it renders them a bit hollow. If one squints, one can see how those candles might be lit precisely as a result of that one-dollar donation and in such a way that the causal mechanism at work between donation and the lighting of the candles could be proven without a doubt, and all resultant suspicion concerning the misappropriation of funds therefore abolished. If one squints. Otherwise the donation does indeed seem more a mechanical gesture than the initiation of a causal mechanism that guarantees charity over greed. It is a gesture both mindless and heartfelt.

While he never sounds the exact tone of poems like ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ or even ‘Going, Going’, Selby, like Larkin, does take note of the commercialisation of England in the late 20th century, and seems conflicted in the face of the resultant material shallowness: this isn’t good, this can’t be good, and yet it is what replaced centuries of overt imperial exploitation and subjugation — and a different kind of commercialisation — so it must at least be better if not good, right? But there is something irreparably sad about the fact that ‘the Crown & Castle has become a high-end hotel/and restaurant owned by a TV personality,’ and there is something sad, too, about the image of an old World War Two veteran sitting in a chair listening to music on a CD player, ‘with headphones on.’ Instead of mourning, there is tourism; instead of consummation, consumerism; and now ‘Even here has a coffee franchise,’ where those first two words, ‘Even here,’ would seem to indicate the poet’s feeling that there ought to be some places in the world where the connection to history, to tradition, is strong enough to safeguard against the encroachment of the relentlessly commercial. Did such a possibility die with Brooke, buried on the island where Achilles was reputedly born? The quality of Selby’s lyrics, where love and history meet as they have often done before in poetry, suggest, in a manner as insistent as it is complicated, otherwise.

Ben Leubner lives and teaches literature in Bozeman, Montana.