Daniel Bennett on Robert Selby: Tagging the Maze

Robert selby PaulLigasPhotography cropped Photo by Paul Ligas

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Robert Selby’s debut collection, The Coming-Down Time, was published by Shoestring Press in 2020. The Kentish Rebellion, a book-length sequence set during the English Civil War, is forthcoming in 2022. He works as a freelance writer and edits the online poetry journal Wild Court.

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                     selby book             kentish

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Essay by Daniel BennettPoems by Robert Selby

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 The Coming Down Time by Robert Selby.  Shoestring Press. £10. ISBN: 978-1-912524-51-8

Sometime in the late nineties, I found myself working in a library, the first in what you might think of as white collar opportunities after I finished my degree in American and English Literature. I’d specialised in poetry (writing it and writing about it) but the years after my degree had been rootless, and the job represented the first time I’d given myself a bit of direction. In bored moments between tasks, I launched myself into internet poetry. It didn’t take me long to find Angel Exhaust, the journal of avant-garde poetry loosely associated with the later poets of the British Poetry Revival. I knew some of the names in Angel Exhaust from Conductors of Chaos, the Iain Sinclair-edited anthology from the mid-nineties. I didn’t always understand what I read, but I stuck with it as I felt it represented a logical conclusion to the work I’d pursued through my university career. You’re young: you choose a fork in the path.

The editor of Angel Exhaust, Andrew Duncan would sooner or later rail against ‘The Georgians.’ Prolix, combative, incandescent, boring, petty, revolutionary, a Duncan editorial was an experience you endured as much as read. I was never really sure who Duncan meant by The Georgians, although I understand that they represented an oppressor of the kind of work on display in Angel Exhaust. All that has changed in the current poetry world, as, in some ways, Angel Exhaust has set the agenda for the last ten or so years of British Poetry, or that element of poetry defined by the anthology Dear World And Everyone In It anthology published by Bloodaxe, which itself resembles is an upstart version of Conductors of Chaos.

I mention all of this, because of an odd interrogation of influences I experienced while reading The Coming Down Time, an excellent debut collection by Robert Selby. Although I’m sure he’s read very well throughout all contemporary poetry, there is little evidence that Selby has been influenced by the current trends defined by Dear World And Everyone In It. The work is personal, and the style is neither slangy or experimental; instead Selby is rather precise, and sometimes a little aloof. If you wanted an example of Ezra Pound’s maxim that ‘Poetry should be as well-written as prose’ then you’d find it here. The most contemporary poem in terms of theme is ‘The Burning of the Clocks’, named, cleverly, after the modern winter solstice festival held in Brighton since 1993. The poem begins, as poems often do in this collection, on a train:

My train slows into the same old town:
The illumined copper spire of St Mary’s church;
The bronze warrior’s sodium-lit vigil

The poem charts a journey towards a reunion between the poet and and old flame, during the course of which the narrator admits: ‘Ten years from having held you/ I sit on this train reading online/ What you did ten minutes ago.’ It’s one of the rare times the modern world, with all of its joys, seems to feature in a collection that remains in its own time zone, the clocks burned, the wider world and its demands kept out of arms’ reach.

Nowhere is that focus on time more evident than in the first section of the book ‘East of Ipswich’, an affecting portrait of Selby’s grandfather. ‘He came from a long line of men who worked/ Now-extinct equine trades: wheelwright, ostler,/ Coachman, horseman’ (‘I: In God’s Prevenient Grace’). This low-key, personal subject, the quiet biography of an essentially unknowable man, follows war and courtships, funerals and football matches. The focus is on vanishing worlds of a largely rural community, on how much things change within a generation, how tasks that seem to be so important disappear, and are replaced, and how old knowledge and stories become dissipated over time:

against the undying winds that buffet the grassy tombs

of the long-quashed kings
of the East Angles; against the fen demons
that, retold by flame, may burst over the threshold,
into the real…’ (II: Orford)

The grandfather becomes the epitome of the vanishing world, and despite (or perhaps, because of) his humbleness, he becomes an agent of contrast to the narrator of the poems, looming as a taciturn figure of power and influence:

Blood up with boredom,
Eager to change minds, I’d foray out, slide in,
And miss. He’s still there, on the touchline,
Waiting for me to do something to make him proud’
(XV: Saturday Morning Football)

You grow up with elder relatives, understanding their age, and, even on an unconscious level, realising that they won’t be with you for very long. What you can fail to realise is that by losing them an essential part of your identity disappears (‘a family with two members un-there,’ as Selby writes at one point). The places you once visited regularly lose their orbit; you don’t go home again:

I don’t visit him in hospital,
Preferring my last memory of him to be
The strength in his goodbye handshake
His gauntness belies
(XVI: The Peace that Passes Human Understanding)

The final sequence of the book, ‘Chevening’, taking as its focus a walk around the titular stately home in Kent, drawing on its gardens and maze for its thematic and, in the opening section (in a rare moment of exploration of poetic space) formal qualities.

‘Will you enter
xxxxxxxthe maze with me
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxdo you trust me to find the

way
xxxxxxxTo the centre of things?’

Landscape is a big thing for Selby. It’s a quiet type of landscape writing, controlled as you’d expect from such a careful poet. That’s not to say that Selby is a hermit, or somehow removed the world, but if he’s a flaneur, he’s a mercifully low-key one, interested in place but not inclined to labour some of the increasing clichés of psychogeography:

The train pulls you away from me,
Our weekend in my country.
You speed through lavender and chalk
Toward a London whose dusk
Will echo to you treading Downs dust
And pollen into its pavements

That sense of separation between places in ‘East OF Ipswich’ is also on display in ‘Chevening’, the long sequence finishing the collection. It follows a day trip by a couple through that perfectly controlled landscape: the grounds of an English stately home, and there is a heightened sense of Anglicanism in the piece, beginning with the epigraph from Eliot ‘History is now and England.’ The past of the house, with its tombs, heraldry and family, is contrasted against the relationship between the narrator and a woman, possibly of a foreign background, (‘Your money bears the Queen’s head but isn’t sterling’) which heightens the sense of meaning about the nature of place and, as a consequence, nation. The narrator goes on to ask:

This is the real England, I say, so what do you think?
It’s a place of trees; of apple, pear, cherry and plum

As the seventies novelist Derek Marlow once wrote, ‘Do You Remember England’? It’s hard to think of a poet caring about ‘England’ for a good many years now, maybe as long ago as Philip Larkin, and even he tended to hate it. Maybe that has been the ‘centre’ for Selby all along. ‘The railway came, but the speed it gave the world/ Entangled in this bracken and broomy darkness,/ Life here is at the pace a picnic blanket unfurls.’ The line here teeters on the edge of cliche, but there’s something defiant about it too. So what do you think?

It’s a tendency amongst poets, any poets, to consider themselves marginalised. Selby is hardly suffering, at least within the currency of the poetry world. He’s the editor of a very good online magazine, Wild Court, and his roster of magazine publications is accomplished. Still, there is publication and then there is acclaim, and in the currency of the poetry world, for better or worse, that means featuring in the lists of the prizes. Selby is entitled to feel disappointed that more hasn’t happened for The Coming Down Time, but there’s a cost to be had from going against the grain.

Why do I write about this now? It’s now mid-2021 and The Coming Down Time came out in 2020, the year you might have heard about because of its impact on the poetry world. As reviews go this is a little late. Perhaps I’ve always liked things that don’t tend to fit. Back when I was reading Angel Exhaust and you’d shown me a Selby poem, I might have wanted something weirder, but these days I find a refreshing clarity, and purpose to the writing; faced with wall-to-wall Simpsonwave, anyone might fancy a folk song. Perhaps it’s also because, I found odd echoes of my own life throughout the collection. The train journeys, the encounters with past loves, the arguments outside art galleries. Most of all, I was struck by Selby’s care and dedication when it comes to writing about family. I come from a line of Welsh Methodists, who crossed the border into Shropshire and worked the land. Not exactly the same as Selby’s Suffolk ostlers, but close enough. Most of all, I wondered why I’ve never had the same kind of loyalty to family history that Selby shows here. I gave up on poetry for quite a while, becoming a little misdirected by that fork in the path represented by some of my earlier influences; maybe, along the way, I also lost a sense of history. Sometimes, you don’t get to the centre of the maze.

Daniel Bennett was born in Shropshire and lives in London. His poem ‘Clickbait’ was commended in the 2020 National Poetry Competition and his work has been published in a variety of places, including: Wild CourtThe Manchester Review, The HIgh Window and The Best New British and Irish Poets 2017. His first collection West South North, North South East was published in 2019.

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Robert Selby: Two Poems from The Coming Down Time

WHEN THAT WHICH IS PERFECT IS COME

He married Doll in Orford. Lea,
her real name, was shed like the mixed tears
and confetti on the waving platform.
They sat back hand-in-hand and wove away
from the ness, crossing the Stour
to Kent, the terrace house she was born in,
grew up in. There they lived together
seven decades, until death took them
within a tell-tale short time of each other.

Her maiden name, the name
of the most famous Kentish beer hop,
was gone; so too, eventually, were the hops,
the green rows blackening with Verticulum
Wilt, one-by-one, until the kells cooled.

(previously published in The Spectator)

THE QUEEN’S OWN ROYAL WEST KENTS

‘Invicta’ on their caps: undefeated – meaning England’s
only people unconquered by the Norman invader,
reprised at Neuve Chapelle by the 1st Battalion
which stood firm, losing half its number.

Their four hundred names in stone west of the Medway
do not change in towns they would half-recognise.
Enterprise centres stand where they mowed their hay,
new homes oust the shade they took bait in, at ease.

Still horses though: the white stallion breeze-rampant
in his red field, flying from obscure prefabs by the railway line,
council offices, and from other points less permanent:
Cricket Week marquee, pop-up library. Divine

is the sun’s countenance on the august wheat,
on the cut lavender, the flags, the fallen’s roundabout.
They live. Back lanes are dusted by their returning feet,
murmur to the bawdy songs of their mustering out.

They move into the field-sweet air; the women turn
from sheaving, rush disbelieving to their dearest ones
who kiss them, lead them into the shade, the fern.
Their names our fathers bore, then us; now our sons.

Robert Selby: Poem from The Kentish Rebellion

VI

As opposing sets of hooligans, abroad,
tanked on summer tournament’s lager and sun,
sunder café culture by chucking chairs
at each other, taunt, surge and kick out
in tight formation – the ultimate no-no
isolation – before the water cannon
sends the front ranks somersaulting, the columns
split and give way, and they fall back (except
the beer-bellied champion, in floppy hat,
polo, three-quarter length trousers and Classics,
steadfast, arms outstretched, drinking the jet’s
hard gallons like it’s the cold shower he needs)

xxxxxxxso Fairfax’s men, funnelling up Gabriel’s
xxxxxxxHill, wet with rain and enfilading lead,
xxxxxxxare minced by canister shot careering down
xxxxxxxfrom Brockman’s two cannon at the top,
xxxxxxxforcing them into doorways, panting,
xxxxxxxbleeding out or awaiting the reload
xxxxxxxto dart to the next door up, glimpsing – across
xxxxxxxslick cobbles – the cannons’ breath flame
xxxxxxxin the eyes of brother Saints doing the same
xxxxxxx(and walking uphill between, gouty, with a cane,
xxxxxxxBlack Tom untouched, as if lead was water,
xxxxxxxshouting ‘By Authority of Parliament!’).

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