Quickdraw Review of Robert Selby’s ‘The Coming-Down Time’

41kqq0VBdRLRobert Selby’s debut collection is fronted by a wood cut engraving by Clare Leighton, titled ‘Planting Trees’. Two flat-capped workmen labour to bed in a sapling. A wind-bent tree stands nearby; on the gusty skyline, at the top of a hill, a dark copse. It’s like something out of a Thomas Hardy poem, or an Edward Thomas one, and it’s well-chosen as these are the forebears The Coming-Down Time often explicitly acknowledges. Launched into a poetry world dominated by so many books addressing environmental, gender, race and identity issues, this collection (depending on your viewpoint) is either timeless or behind the times. Selby’s careful organisation of the poems makes it clear he knows what he’s doing and he will do it his way.

His main subjects are historical time, England and romantic love. The first of three sections, ‘East of Ipswich’, is a tribute to his grandparents, George and Lea Gissing. George “came from a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades”. These are true ‘salt of the earth’ Englishmen. Enquiries as to who they were (questions of identity, we might now say) are answered with confidence, if not belligerence: “We’re Orford men, and that’s enough”. But time passes even on the edges of Suffolk. The concluding lines of ‘The End of the Horse Age’ catch a glimpse of encroaching change in the shape of a tractor:

 

. . . he sees an unblinkered beast

braying smoke in the top field, light

from its side-lamps shining off makers’ plates

cast from melted down horse brasses.

 

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Robert Selby

If this is sounding like a man’s world, well, it was and Selby rolls with that. In marriage, Lea sheds her given, christian name for Doll and her maiden name also, “was gone”. There is no obvious meta-comment; Selby’s poem is more intent on celebrating the marriage of his grandparents than exploring Lea’s thoughts on these matters of gender and nomenclature. Perhaps they were not questioned at the time, but I’m uneasy at the silence surrounding such moments, given the poem is a contemporary one. Selby has perhaps inherited the “Suffolk reserve” of his grandfather, for whom “words are weeds that don’t fall to the hoe”. The wish not to (over-)dramatize seems very strong; the end of the Second World War is marked by the grandfather in terms of the cigarettes, chocolate and tea cakes at the NAAFI more than its global import.

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The Brig o’Turk sycamore – handlebars embedded!

Indeed, like Edward Thomas’ work, these are poems about small things. The evocation of the (seldom used) front room at his grandparents’ house is vivid and (for those of us of a certain vintage) very familiar. The sequence takes us to the funerals of the older generation via the understanding that their children (Selby’s father specifically) have already moved away from traditional lives. The father is “one of the suited men / who’ll step off the evening train”. The tone is mostly one of gentle regret at the passing of a way of life (part of which was a closeness to the environment). “How easily people forget things”, opens ‘The Winter Wood’. That same poem ends as a sort of “testament to the losing habit”. The sycamore at Brig o’Turk, in the Trossachs, which has grown around a bicycle once leant against it, is a good image for Selby’s concerns: the past remains but is inevitably absorbed and changed.

graffiti-on-shop-shuttersSelby’s use of language and form is likewise pretty traditional. It’s not just a result of the subject matter that the book is frequented by words such as smithy, shire, lambkin, deer-stalker, and lush-toned phrases such as “blossom-moted”. The flip side of this is that details of 2020 UK are often treated with a distaste, an alienated distance. Later in the book, a friend returns from the dust and pollen of the English countryside into London: “its tagged shutters and sick-flecked stops, / its scaffolding like the lies / propping up your peeling hopes”. The friend is female and (I think) Canadian. Another poem’s narrator tries to persuade her that “[t]his is the real England [. . .] It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum”. There is more to be said here about the meaning of ‘real’ and it’s hard to tell if the narrator’s invitation is meant to have a deathly ring to it. He asks, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?”

brain-compass-e1552934724594The import of this question forms the emotional and dramatic context of the later poems in the collection which trace an on/off relationship. The narrator is left wondering: “I must wait for the needle / of your heart’s compass to unspin, / and see where it stops”. In reading that I’m reminded of Lea and – what seemed to be – her relative lack of choice in the earlier years of the twentieth century. There is a good deal of unalloyed nostalgia in The Coming-Down Time for an England of the mind, if it was ever part of any actual century. I find the female figures in the book suffer because of this: most of them do not achieve a specific, particular life in the poems. I’d like Selby to go on to explore the irony in two images: the masculine arms in “rolled up sleeves” that may or may not be “strong enough” and the closing lines just quoted, in which the desired woman bides her time, knowingly possessed of strength, of the agency of decision.

Guillemot Press book launch (November 2017)

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Last Saturday I packed my bags for a brief stopover in Devon. The train from Paddington retraced my steps (no – that’s not right; what do you say?) – re-rolled its wheels along the same route I’d travelled a couple of weeks ago to the Torbay Poetry Festival. But instead of changing at Newton Abbot, I stayed on board and we swerved inland and skirted the southern edge of Dartmoor to Plymouth, then further west to Bodmin. I was met at Bodmin Parkway by Luke Thompson who runs the Guillemot Press. Guillemot is barely a couple of years old but is already building a great reputation for the outstanding quality of its books. Luke and his partner Sarah are the driving forces behind the press and it is based in Cornwall with strong links to Falmouth University. We drove across an already dark Bodmin moor to the village of Altarnun where Luke was launching three new Guillemot titles at the Terre Verte Gallery, run by Richard Sharland.

Besides my own O. at the Edge of the Gorge, the books being launched were Nic Stringer’s first, A Day That You Happen to Know, and Andrew McNeillie’s new collection, Making Ends Meet. Both my own and Nic’s book are examples of Guillemot’s interest in combining poetry and illustration (if that’s the right word for images which respond to and add to the text rather than being merely illustrative). The two artists were at the event as well and it was wonderful to meet up and chat with Phyllida Bluemel who created the images to accompany my crown of sonnets. Her delicate, analytical yet natural images – produced only from a reading of the poems, no input from me – seem to me extraordinarily apt and, having learned of her background in philosophy as much as fine art, I’m not surprised. She and I have discussed the shaping of the whole book on the Guillemot blog.

Nic read first. Her poem, ‘Laocoon in the Vatican’, describes an image of human agony as a father defends himself and his sons from attack by serpents:

 

Chest curving towards his gods,

he speaks of what lies beneath devotion, where wrestler

is the same as family. But in the end he is a man

petrified [. . .]

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‘Icebergs in Ilulissat’ is more of an Arctic landscape poem: “In Disko Bay the growlers and the bergy bits / crack their knuckles”. ‘Sisters’ is a fascinating 10 part sequence of poems dedicated to three Medieval Christian female mystics, ending with this exquisite lyric:

 

Like the Earth

I have given up

everything but God

 

will find a hole

to fall towards

turning without a body

 

to sleep

separating self

from silence

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Nic’s work is various and intriguing – her Guillemot image-maker is Lucy Kerr, whose enigmatic, colourful images are almost visual riddles – and I’m looking forward to reading the whole book more slowly.

Before I read my sequence straight through without additional comments, I explained its form: a crown of 14 sonnets – the final line of each poem repeated as the opening line of the next; the opening and closing lines of the whole sequence also meant to be the same. I wanted the connectivity this creates – though the connections in this case are approximate – deliberately so, as I wanted to suggest a forward movement or progression of understanding. Much of the detail of the poem is of landscape – the Marche region of Italy – bees, buzzards, hunting dogs, trees, thistles, Classical ruins put to more modern use, hilltop villages, church towers, rocky hillsides, deep gorges. The O. of the title is an Orpheus figure, the singer, or poet. There is no narrative to the sequence, but it does allude to Orpheus’ journey to the underworld in search of Eurydice and his loss of her when he looks back. That sense of loss also explains allusions to Dante’s Paradiso, Book 16, where he refers to the ancient towns of Luni and Urbesaglia, for him, vivid images of transience.

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After the interval, Andrew McNeillie read from his collection. Andrew is both a poet and an editor at OUP, Archipelago magazine and he runs Clutag PressMaking Ends Meet is a full collection of almost 100 pages, including a new version of the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon. At the other end of the scale, Andrew threw us an opening, squiby couplet titled ‘A Poet: 21st century: “A redundant lighthouse-keeper / striking a match in a storm”. One such match illuminating the darkness is his sonnet ‘I see Orion’, moving from a vivid evocation of star-gazing on a cold night in March to reflections on natural beauty and the passage of time. That same sense of summation, or the counting of blessings, was evident in the title poem too, which evokes an earlier time of easy creativity:

 

The early worm

already turning in a bird’s gut

like the one thought in my head

of lines to set and bait to put

a poem on my plate by evening.

 

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And you could feel the whole audience warm to Andrew’s ‘Lunch with Seamus’, recording a meeting between the poet and Clutag editor, both “uncertain how lunch might pass”. But it passes well, the poem portraying a warmth and closeness, a shared love of poetry, the intimacy drawing from Heaney something of a confession:

 

‘I got the Nobel Prize too soon,’ he said.

‘It nearly did for me, you know, the fame.

It stops the clock and steals your time’

 

The poem is full of delicate allusions to Heaney’s work, the final lines affirming a real meeting of minds as well as echoing Heaney’s own parting from the ghost of James Joyce at the end of ‘Station Island’:

 

We parted and I watched him disappear

As if I’d dreamt the whole affair

But knowing I hadn’t. I’d seen the man.

 

This three-book launch was a marvellously affirmative evening about the power of poetry too. Our heads full of images, and words, natural landscape, the material, the spiritual, distant Italian sunshine and rocky Irish coastlines, I drove with friends through the November rainy darkness back to the town of Tavistock, perched on the edge of Dartmoor itself. And there was still time enough to eat and raise a glass of wine.

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