AUGUST 6, 2020
ROBERT SELBY’S DEBUT collection, The Coming-Down Time, turns back the clock to the major themes of 20th-century English poetry. The World Wars, industrialization, and the public and private realms of love are woven through the book’s three sections with a formal elegance that reminds how a close attention to lineation and stanzaic structure can produce as much surprise and playfulness as the oft-lauded “experimental” approach. It would even be fair to say that these poems programmatically eschew many of the traits en vogue in contemporary poetry — ironic distance is countered with an intimacy willing to risk sentimentality, while historical skepticism is replaced with a subtle form of patriotism, the kind Cecil Day-Lewis associated with Virgil:
the natural piety, the heightened sense of the genius of place, the passion to praise and protect one’s roots, or to put down roots somewhere while there is still time, which it takes a seismic event such as war to reveal to most of us rootless moderns.
The praising of forebears, the close attention to both the human and natural history of place, and the putting down of roots are what provide the collection with a hint of narrative arc across its triptych framework. The opening section, “East of Ipswich,” is a sequence that follows the life of Selby’s grandfather, an Orford man of county Suffolk who grew up during the interwar period. The descendent of “a long line of men who worked / now-extinct equine trades,” he, instead, “cycles many dawn miles / to work the big estates” as he awaits some greater calling, an ominous sentiment on what we know to be the brink of World War II. And although war does play a significant, almost mythological role in the recounting of this familial history — we stumble upon “protuberant hubcaps recalling […] Brodie helmets still ploughed-up in Flanders,” and even a Saturday morning football match has sides lining-up in “[t]he old battle formation” — the seismic event that gives root to this tale is not so much one of duty and trauma as of a love. It is love that governs the action, that sees Selby’s grandfather move with his bride to her family home in Kent, where they would live for “seven decades, until death took them / within a tell-tale short time of each other.”
As with most first collections, one of the joys in reading The Coming-Down Time is the sense of eavesdropping on the poet as he discovers his subject, watching him play off various influences and explore different forms and styles. The book’s back cover promises an eclectic mix of dramatic monologues, portraits, and personae and in memoriam poems, many of which appear in the second section. These provide Selby with an opportunity to demonstrate his range and to give occasional tips-of-the-hat to his poetic lineage. There are balladic rhythms and rhymes found in poems like “Brunswick, Maine” and “The Sycamore” that seem to pay homage to the late poet and critic Mick Imlah, whose Selected Prose Selby co-edited in 2015. And as one might expect from a young English poet writing on nationhood and war, we find hints of the knotted syntax and high rhetoric of Geoffrey Hill, one highlight being the opening lines of “Upon the Altar Laid” with its dizzying mix of temporal and spatial indicators:
Left over from a sovereign’s entry into
nonagenarianism, Union Jack
bunting flicks in a light easterly, this evening
before men move one hundred years ago
forward into the unbarbed ground between us.
There is something gleefully sinister in the poet landing his reader on “unbarbed ground” after running them through the concertina wire of that sentence.
However, as enjoyable as it is to see Selby twist a phrase, it is when he shakes off his influences and shifts to his most stripped-down and clear-eyed style that he truly excels. The sequence “The Galilean Moons” is a standout for its measured directness and sudden implication of the reader, who is stared down by a herd of cattle from the bank of the River Stour — “When the gate is pulled to / they turn and watch you, / eyes the cataracted / marble of Europa” — and for a brief instance you feel what it means to be rooted to this of all places, where lifelong love once flourished. What soon becomes evident is that love is in fact Selby’s true subject, not in the style of florid songs of praise, but in the unearthing of all its frailties and complications, how it grows and withers and is subject to sudden, catastrophic blows as is any natural thing. When a wild cherry tree is bent to the point of breaking and Selby writes, “No, we couldn’t let that tree fall,” we know it’s not the tree itself that is at stake.
It is only fitting then that the collection’s final section, “Chevening,” traces the speaker’s own path toward love, which, like stepping back into the historical, is a movement into the known unknown — “Will you enter / the maze with me? / Do you trust me to find the // way / to the centre of things?” For Selby, the strongest emotions are inextricably linked to place, so there is a deep intimacy in following this couple as they tour the Kentish landscape in their courtship, whether they’re walking among goose shit while circling an ornamental lake or kissing against a brick wall under palms in the arboretum. Here, the speaker is on home turf, and although England does at times barge in with her elbows out — “The tombs lie real as death’s day, / rearing in all our futures, / except England’s” — when he eventually does stop to ask, “Do you want to reset your watch to the toll of here?” we get the sense there is more than enough reason to say yes.
Country Music is the anticipated debut of another English poet, Will Burns, and much like the musical genre itself, with its ties to blues and American folk, the poems of this slender volume have a way of elegizing the present moment, unveiling subjects simultaneously bereft of and overwhelmed with meaning, wallowing yet ready to be changed. There is something of the living afterlife that runs through Burns’s collection, or the “second life” as he would have it, which can only begin once everything thought permanent has been “sold off in car boot / fields, piece by piece,” and you are forced to see the world and your place in it with a sobering but potentially liberating clarity. Think, for instance, of Pete Seeger’s rendition of that Dust Bowl–era classic, “My Oklahoma Home (It Blowed Away),” in which the spare yet upbeat vocals emphasize an ability to both hold on to tragedy and begin anew — a “roamin’ Oklahoman” who finds “wherever dust is whirled / some is from [his] Oklahoma home.” Whether it’s an American strip bar, a Chinese restaurant, the French seaside, or the countryside of his native Buckinghamshire, Burns has a knack for seeing “a regality of sorts” hidden among “the trash of living things.”
But life on this precipice of ruin and renewal is a precarious one, and in Country Music we find it inextricably linked with that age-old question: is all great art born out of suffering? The collection features a number of poems that pay homage to musicians who died before their time, including “The World’s First Ghost,” a personal recollection of moments spent with Jason Molina in the lead-up to his death in 2013, rich with biographical detail that humanizes the person beyond their cult figure status as an artist — “gifts like that firework, / the Merle Haggard Songbook, / an old Pendleton shirt / (still unworn — after all, he stood five six…), / a favourite book of poems (Marvin Bell).” This poem alone is worth the cost of admission for any Molina fan, but what readers will quickly realize is that, wherever Burns turns his attention, he does so with the honesty and directness of one who has himself stared into the abyss and thought, “[t]his kind of deep dark is all I will ever earn,” only to come out the other side knowing “[t]he agony, finally, is not changing.”
And as is often the case in country music and poetry alike, many of Burns’s speakers turn to the natural world for solace and for a model of life, whether it’s trout fishing in Zion National Park or watching goats run in the rain through a field of wildflowers. There is also a fascination with birds, which recalls their symbolic role in the poetry of Robinson Jeffers — “Two ravens on the edge of a sink left out / by an old barn. // They wouldn’t know or care — / they wouldn’t think or remember.” Like Jeffers’s own poetic representations of his philosophy of inhumanism, these instances are stark reminders of humanity’s decentered place in the universe. But it is in his exploration of Buckinghamshire’s edgelands that Burns’s naturalism feels most at home. The suite of sonnets named after different types of service tree — “Bastard Service,” “True Service,” “Wild Service” — poignantly portrays how the proliferation of “the bloody mess of individuals” has become seemingly inescapable, and even losing yourself under a wild service tree as the thunder rolls in calls to mind “no more than domestic grief and headaches — / broken bricks and roof tiles, shattered timber.”
Perhaps what is most impressive about Burns’s poetry, though, is his gift for subtly emoting both the allures and dangers of nostalgia, a quality made all the more relevant by the increasing need to look critically at the past. A number of lines that crop up in the collection, appearing at first almost commonplace but on a second read becoming suddenly providential — “The falsehood is that there is little left / for us to know”; “Old meant good, and not necessarily valuable”; “By god they could talk about the past, / as if it were a waste of time to be there when we were.” Such statements can feel inauthentic or forced when deployed in poems, but there is a frank sincerity to Burns’s voice, a tell-it-to-you-straight demeanor that inspires a deeper level of trust. It moves us to reach out a hand when asked “[i]f given all that old chaos — we should still try?”
Tarn MacArthur is a George Buchanan PhD scholar at the University of St Andrews. He is the recipient of a grant from the Québec Council of Arts and Letters, and the Walter and Nancy Kidd Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon. His poetry has most recently appeared in print and online in the New Statesman, Oxford Poetry, Poetry London, and the Times Literary Supplement.