Swept Away With Them

Robert Selby, The Kentish Rebellion

Shoestring Press, 53pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781912524860

reviewed by Ben Leubner

Our general sense of ourselves in relation to time has us moving along an x-axis, horizontal, linear, and elongated. To look back into the past is to turn one’s head around, squint, and test one’s power of vision to its fullest, especially if one is trying to discern events from almost 400 years ago.

Yet this isn’t the conception of ourselves in relation to time that Robert Selby is working with in his second book, The Kentish Rebellion. Reading these poems, one gets the feeling that time isn’t plotted along an x-axis, horizontally, but along a y-axis, vertically. We are not so much floating downstream as standing in place on a frozen body of water, the ice of which just keeps growing thicker. In this model, looking backwards in time is, in fact, looking downwards, through the clear ice, to what is immediately beneath, not behind, us. Nor is time in this picture elongated; it is, instead, condensed, each passing century only a foot of transparent ice, say. The past is much nearer than we think.

In recounting select events that took place in his home county of Kent in the mid-17th century, in time of civil war, Selby occasionally adds a detail here and there to remind us that these events are, in an important way, almost coterminous with the events of today; they’re just beneath the ice. The volume begins in May 1648, when Kentish royalists to Charles I rose up against the newly established parliamentarian government that would execute that king just half a year later. Selby, however, imagines the hostilities as though they were being broadcast on the BBC: ‘“We interrupt this program.” A helmeted / reporter crouches behind a wall, finger to earpiece. / Tickertape: Flames in Kent. Many dead’. Sir William Brockman, a leader of the Kentish rebels, is ‘from the Downs’ southern lip / above Eurotunnel’s freight check-in’. He learns about the movements of General Fairfax’s parliamentarian army ‘at HQ in the High Street, / above the Carphone Warehouse, first floor’.

These touches on Selby’s part aren’t a gimmick; he doesn’t set this conflict from the Second English Civil War in the present day. For the most part, the poems in The Kentish Rebellion are historical and firmly fixed in the century in which they took place. But in beginning the volume as he does, and by occasionally adding additional details concerning the present like those above, Selby reminds his readers of the unsettling proximity of the past to the present. Kentish parishioners, exiting a church service and gossiping about the turmoil in the land, go suddenly silent in a conspiratorial manner at the motion-based triggering of a security light; a dragoon relieves himself ‘into a ditch he cannot know will become the A299’; and the reader is given directions to the chapel in Maidstone from which Fairfax oversaw the suppression of the rebellion: ‘Keep going down Week Street, all the way / to KFC, turn left past Poundland // into another century’.

Such anachronistic details are few and far between in The Kentish Rebellion, to great effect. They hold the past close to the present without obliterating it in the present’s favour. Too many of them and the book would be about the present day, which it certainly is not. It is decidedly about what took place in Kent in the mid-17th century. Figuring prominently in it aside from Brockman are the Earl of Norwich, who commanded the Kentish forces against Fairfax, and Sir Edward Dering, the Kentish antiquary and politician who died four years before the rebellion but who was instrumental in creating the conditions that gave rise to it. Fairfax himself might be said to be the main character of the book, its closing poem not only a meditation on his coat, kept behind glass at Leeds Castle, but also a final shot taken at him by Kent’s own, Selby himself: ‘your infamy in arms through Europe rang. / Now eyes undaunted pass over your swanky doublet / in search of café or shop, maze or shell grotto’. The lines diminish Fairfax (whom Milton, among others, had lionised) even as they critique those who fail to take an interest in him. The past, despite its disquieting proximity to the present, holds little grip on it, or if it does, it does so in spite of the present’s indifference to it. The book’s first epigraph confirms this; it’s pulled from Tristram Hunt’s 2011 study of the English Civil War: ‘In Britain the collective memory of the revolutionary decades seems to have been totally jettisoned.’

Selby’s endeavour in The Kentish Rebellion is to revive that collective memory, but not by transposing it onto the present in a facile or reductive manner. Instead, the book is historical in its focus, only with those occasional reminders concerning the fact that the past, far from being distant, is in fact right beneath our feet. The past is not even past, as Faulkner said.

In addition to its characters of historical import, Selby’s book is also filled with the voices of the Kentish populace, whether imagined by Selby himself or culled from historical research. There is a clothier who recalls the death of his Dutch neighbour; and a persecuted Protestant carpenter who at the moment of his death is afforded, like Aeneas in the underworld, a vision of the future, of ‘Your outsized descendants / from the world’s far side . . . posing by illegible gravestones’. There’s a woman named Anne whose royalist husband died at Marston Moor and who honors his legacy by continuing to read, a skill he taught her. Selby’s deft and innovative formal verse, his brilliance and subtlety with rhyme (‘riverine’ and ‘reverend’, ‘incapable’ and ‘table’), vivify both his characters and his scenes, continuing the work of his first volume, The Coming-Down Time. That volume, too, was concerned with England in general and Kent in particular, with the past and its relationship to the present. But The Kentish Rebellion is more tightly focused on a single event and reads less like a collection of lyrics than a single, sustained poetic effort that must be read in its entirety, and read more than once, to be adequately grasped.

Published in 2022, one hundred years after The Waste Land (itself a poem that lingers over the past’s fragments and considers their relationship to the ruins of the present), Selby’s book nods towards Eliot:

And when the wood is cleared and the soil washed
away, there will be the wasteland
they desired: all level, each equal with each,
equal in possessing nothing and equally damned
for disinheriting the unborn—an unforgivable breach.

The barren terrain left in the wake of civil war evokes Eliot’s poem’s own stony rubbish. The italics here are important. In this particular poem, which concludes the first of the book’s three main sections, we find the invading parliamentarian army acting rudely as it makes its way into Kent to suppress the rebellion. ‘They use Lady Sackville as a serving maid / to their carousals’ at Knole; ‘They sequester our houses and our woods’. But the ‘they’ referred to in italics above cannot so easily be reduced to the members of the parliamentarian army indicated by the non-italicized ‘they’ of these passages, for all that the aim of this army was indeed to ‘level’ the distinctions between persons and bring the king low. Rather, the ‘they’ in the italicized passage would seem to indicate any and all members on either — on any—side who were, or are, given to rash violence, or to the rude diminishment of what others hold sacred, or to the unreflective dismissal of a life’s worth.

The Kentish Rebellion is politically unsettling, as it is no doubt meant to be. To an American reader (like this one), its sympathies with the local rebellion of a county bent on maintaining its liberties in the face of change and aggression from outside its borders might evoke thoughts of everything from the American Civil War to present-day acts of local recalcitrance and even insurrection. Clearly, Selby has an allegiance to the county he still calls home, and perhaps a nostalgia, too, for ‘the England of a confederacy of shires’ that sadly capitulated at Maidstone and elsewhere, paving the way for a more nationally unified England. The word ‘confederacy’ here is bound to be problematic, at least for an American, and might call to mind a poem like Allen Tate’s ‘Ode to the Confederate Dead’. And when the Earl of Norwich, calling across a gulf to Fairfax, heroically speaks of the Kentish people as ‘one soul’ rising ‘to the redemption / of their expiring liberties’, one might think of today’s libertarian bands who feel their own ‘freedoms’ threatened by the onset of change, or perhaps of those who enthusiastically voted ‘Leave’ in 2016 in a desperate attempt to preserve what they felt to be their expiring liberties. But however this may be, to read The Kentish Rebellion in such a manner, as though trying to decode its allegorical key and ferret out its author’s politics, is to read it in the facile and reductive manner mentioned above, an act that Selby clearly and rightly discourages. He does so in many ways, even offsetting of his own Kentish sympathies by devoting the entire middle section of the book to its most violent character, Adam Sprakeling, a Kentian royalist whose gruesome murder of three Protestants and his own wife is described in vivid detail across a trio of roughly sonnet-length poems. Again, ‘they’ are not limited to one side.

‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. The famous quip implies that the events of the present can only ever in part be overlaid on top of the past. The fit will never be perfect; the present is never an allegory of the past. No doubt Selby wants us to be making the kinds of unsettling connections indicated just above, asking who the Kentish rebels of 1648 have most in common with today, but without foreclosing on any possible answers as if they made for perfect fits. Such facile and reductive foreclosure might be the dish du jour in much contemporary media, but it is precisely what poetry itself exists to combat. When Fairfax orders his men to advance across the Medway at Halling, and the bridge, having been rigged by the Kentish rebels beforehand, gives way under them, he suddenly finds himself staring, amid the deluge and the flood of an unseasonably rainy spring, at the place where they just were but are no longer. Now he can see in the storm’s din:

only their screams that lightning exposes as black

caves in momentary white faces, writhing in surfeit
like Hell’s orgy amid a purging flood,
like whalers clinging to the leviathan
that has wrecked them.

In dwelling on the imagery here, itself an amalgam of Lear and Moby-Dick, our inclination to rashly judge one way or the other gives way no less surely than the bridge beneath the soldiers’ feet, and we are swept away with them.

Ben Leubner lives and teaches literature in Bozeman, Montana.