A WORLD OF NOT MINDING
Robert Selby’s poems are, as the blurb tells us, ‘love songs of England’: they set out to record and praise what’s good and will not allow themselves to get distracted. And what’s good is be found in its people. Even the war can come across as a matter of camaraderie and medals with officers thin on the ground and no real sense of conflict or an enemy, because Grandfather George Gissing (no relation to the nineteenth-century novelist of the same name) is not officer class (he turned down bombardier ‘to remain one of the lads’) and ‘conflict’ and ‘enemy’ are alien to the collection’s purposes. This is an important artistic decision on the part of the poet, and a brave one, because someone somewhere is bound to call this a volume about Roger Scruton’s England.
The Gissings are buried in a Church of England churchyard that permits Methodists to join its ‘heaped-up past’ as mourners stand, looking out on the North Sea ‘during a terse, wind-scattered prayer’. The same winds brought ‘tales of mermen / and invasion’ to the young George. It is where a ‘friendly destroyer’ mistook the village for a firing range and the special constable ‘rang up the Navy’ asking ‘please would they kindly stop’. It is the place that is now the ‘old England’ that ‘stars in colour supplements’. And the heart of Orford derives not from what is comical or violent, mythical or real, but from the ‘hearth-comfort’ that is still possible there. It is a possibility that links past to present.
Gissing works for a living, the latest in a long line of horsemen in ‘the big estates’, someone we find on one occasion ‘sheltering / from an idle wind and the Lordship’s gaze’. There is no sense that he minded his lot, however, and this collection will disappoint all manner of expectations of that kind. Instead, the reader is allowed to imagine Gissing going about his duties with expertise and in the knowledge of a job well done. The ‘big guns’ he worked on in the Royal Artillery gave him his sixty-year battle with leg ulcers. ‘Eligible for recompense / he filed for nothing’:
only from God the narrow peace in which
to see his children and grandchildren grow up
like miracle marrows to flaunt
at the County Show, however flawed.
This opening sequence displays a pleasing talent for concision: the Gissings die ‘within a tell-tale time of each other’; his daughter, the poet’s mother, recalls George straining elderflower onto a tin bath ‘turning light into wine’; ‘Memories, like poppies, are stirred by trauma’. He responds to the end of the war as if it were nothing much and certainly nothing to excuse triumphalism.
The book’s central section (entitled ‘Shadows on the Barley’ after its final poem) includes the long (three-and-a-half-page) war poem, ‘Upon the Altar Laid’, a kind of rhapsody in verse, featuring the ‘music’ of the composer, George Butterworth, who ‘fell holding Munster Alley’. ‘An Aurelian Watches His Wife’ is a fastidious lepidopterist’s monologue addressed to his unfaithful wife, a protest bursting with sexual jealousy.
The closing sequence, ‘Chevening’, is named after one of ‘the big estates’ (now a Government grace-and-favour home) and it is here we first meet the poet’s Canadian girlfriend. Pronouns are always important in relationships: ‘the train pulls you away from me / our weekend in my country.’ Where the North Sea brought Suffolk ‘word of mermen / and invasion’, Chevening provides ‘a moonlight-divined / sanctum / for illicit lovers / or a murdered governess // scanning the water / for her own reflection’ but the poet is hopeful she will yet call his home hers, too. In the graveyard
The tombs lie real as death’s day,
rearing in all our futures,
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.
At the door you leave a dollar donation.
Hers is money that ‘bears the Queen’s head but isn’t sterling.’ But it’s enough to take us back to World War II with the Canadian Army at Dieppe, Juno Beach and in Holland and to modern day ‘Ottawa parks in June, awash with tulip petals’. The poems that conclude the collection couple a wide sweep that considers the historical legacy and plight of England with the poet’s highly personal hopes for a permanent union with his Canadian friend:
Yes, England did all it could.
All of it becomes propaganda with an airmail stamp.
All of it evocable at a whiff of buddleia.
It wreathed the dead, straightened the steeple,
placed the fielders, re-glazed the red phone box.
Now I must wait for the needle
of your heart’s compass to unspin,
and see where it stops.
Selby’s is an intriguing first collection, innovatively both old-fashioned and of its time. He’s a poet looking to praise who succeeds in finding ways of doing it. If he has a bee in his bonnet about anything, then it’s parking.