The Drama of History, in Poems: On Robert Selby’s “The Kentish Rebellion”
By Dan O’BrienJune 7, 2023
The Kentish Rebellion by Robert Selby
In drama, the characters are vital. “Prelude” introduces the reader to, among others, Sir Edward Dering, a Kentish member of Parliament and a writer of “moderate prose.” There is no shortage of quoted (and quotable) dialogue in these poems; notably, “IV” employs the epistolary mode as Dering writes to his wife, his “ever dear Numps,” from London where he is busy defending the religious and economic interests of his constituents against the restrictions of the Puritan majority. When Dering writes, “I will print my speeches in an edition, then leave,” the narrator interjects with the imperative: “Dering, don’t. The crows / will set about you, there’ll be no reprieve.” Dering of course cannot heed this caution from the future; he publishes his Four Speeches (1641) and is imprisoned in the Tower of London.
“VIII” poignantly conjures the voice of Anne, an orchardist who labors “to please God / under the blossom” of cherry trees. In conversational free verse, all but unpunctuated, she tells of her marriage to the “foreman’s boy” who taught her how to read: “[H]is hand guided mine across the page / he made the sounds.” She falls pregnant, just as her husband is called away to join the rebellion where “God saw it fit / to make him / stubble.” Yet Anne’s bond remains; she reads alone now, though the memory of her husband still “makes the sounds.” This kaleidoscope of perspective—from that of a politician to a seemingly omniscient narrator to an everywoman’s tale of love and loss—begins to populate a landscape of varied personae, experience, and poetic style and form.
“IX” provides the reader with a classic act-one climax. Selby resumes the narrative mode—laid out often in lockstep, staggered quatrains; in other passages, in fluid columns of justified text—as the Parliamentarian army invades the Kentish countryside, turning neighbor against neighbor and profaning local houses of worship:
The community keeps indoors
out of this army’s rapt eyes—
who relieve themselves in the fonts
so children go unbaptised.
The news that 12 Royalists have been hanged from a “presiding yew” tree in Wickhambreaux is the ghastly incitement to the carnage that ensues.
The book’s “Interlude” depicts this carnage in excruciatingly intimate detail. A self-contained one-act horror within the sweeping epic, with each poem a single stout stanza, sporadically rhymed and rhythmically erratic, these three poems tell the story of a “series of murders perpetrated by Squire Adam Sprakeling.” Typically, an interlude is a respite, a diversion, but these poems confront with their lurid intensity. Sprakeling hacks his first victim “to pig-meal” with his “left hand over the dragoon’s mouth, / his right not cutting but obliterating the throat.” The voice in his head assures him: “Sprakeling, / this is God’s work: you his man, his best knight.”
In “II,” Sprakeling murders a “pair” of Puritans and watches “trachea-bubbles ooze.” These poems are history as Grand Guignol; or are they merely and mercilessly accurate, a clear-eyed imagining of the reality of sadistic brutality? Sprakeling drags one of the bodies into a nearby church, trailing “an ascending smear” into the tower, where he pauses “to wipe crimson his smile” before heaving the body over to its “wet detonation” below. Sprakeling was himself baptized in this church, the reader learns; his depraved acts, like all violence justified by faith, invalidate his faith.
In “III,” Sprakeling arrives home, his body and clothing “blessed in the blood of three,” where his wife, “in the parlour undoing a tie / in her sewing,” asks him how he “came to be / so disarrayed.” In a flash, he interprets her “convincing innocence” as evidence of her “artfulness as a liar, / a Puritan, the Devil’s mistress,” and he pushes “in his blade, stickily, often, / until she convulses foul ink over him.” The murder of his wife inspires in Sprakeling a “wave of righteousness” that portends further atrocities, but a constable intervenes, and the killer is sent manacled to Sandwich and “the scaffold’s ignominy.” The Sprakeling poems are thrilling, simultaneously repulsive and engrossing because of the unflinching precision of the poet’s language.
The book’s next section is our third act, the main event, the titular “Kentish Rebellion.” The reader is introduced to the Puritan general Thomas Fairfax who, leading “six thousand men, crosses the Rubicon” into Kent. “II” is a bravura set piece of action and dialogue as Fairfax, approaching his enemy along a suspiciously unbarred bridge, shouts to the unseen rebel leader Lord Norwich: “Can we not meet halfway, Norwich, / as men do?” and “What do you want, Norwich?” But Norwich and his men want nothing less than the restoration of the king and the freedom to worship as they wish. Fairfax and his soldiers advance “to get it done before nightfall,” but the bridge’s “loosened struts give way and, in the murk, / his men and the bridge are no longer there.” The reader is left with a Dantean image of chaos—“white faces, writhing in surfeit / like Hell’s orgy amid a purging flood.”
“IV” is a poem of reflection from a church where Fairfax shelters in a storm with his soldiers. Three interlaid “choric songs” lament the many hindrances to their progress: impassably muddy roads, futile attempts at foraging, fugitive horses, and floods that disgorge corpses from churchyards. In the voice of the common man, the soldiers reveal their fear: “[T]he bones of the dead are riding the horses to us / they have come to take us down into the terrible places.”
“V” and “VI” take the reader down into the terrible places where subsequent battles occur, until Fairfax, in “VII,” calls for the cornered rebels to surrender. The response from the Royalist Sir William Brockman, that “[t]he hope of the country / is in the countryside,” confuses even his own soldiers, and the rebellion’s collapse has begun; the men of Kent are “led / single-file from the south into clemency’s rain.”
Considering The Kentish Rebellion in theatrical terms, a reader may wonder: who is the protagonist? The poetic sequence spirals and coils like an ensemble tale, the conflicts of many characters intertwining in the trellis of the overwhelming conflict of war. But the collection’s “Postlude” suggests a better possibility: the narrator is the protagonist and has been all along. In this final poem, an apostrophe in the present day, the narrator visits Leeds Castle near Maidstone (“where black swans preen on morning’s mirror”) and addresses Fairfax—or rather Fairfax’s buff-leather coat, displayed behind glass. The victorious Puritan general is a figure of “dust, a dummy torso,” but the “Public Fraud” of the Boris Johnson regime inhabits his costume now; the austerity, incompetence, and corruption of the United Kingdom in the age of Brexit, in the narrator’s opinion, “stokes hydra heads of rebellion” that cannot be stamped out.
If the protagonist is the narrator, and if I may conflate to some degree the narrator and the poet, then what has been our hero’s objective? What fire has sustained this poetry collection’s research and composition, what question is meant to consume the reader? Selby is on record stating in an interview that his intention was to write of the overlooked history and submerged identity of his native Kent. But clearly the reader is meant to reflect on the civil strife of modern life as well.
This is the deadly serious justification for the poet’s use of anachronism throughout. The untitled poem that opens the collection, a prelude to “Prelude,” functions like a “cold open” in TV drama. We are interrupted in our usual preoccupations—reading the usual poems, streaming the usual shows—and blended brusquely into the pandemonium of an insurrection nearly four centuries concluded:
“We interrupt this programme.” A helmeted
reporter crouches behind a wall, finger to earpiece.
Tickertape: Flames in Kent. Many dead;
fierce house-to-house fighting; bodies in the street.
To many readers in the United States, The Kentish Rebellion will be an education. But the book’s theme of civil conflict—its justifications versus its repercussions—is an immediate and pressing question to these same readers. Having weathered a failed insurrection in 2021, it is unclear if we are existing in an interlude with worse violence to come. Does this collection offer any answers? Robert Selby’s time-traveling poems are not only a revivification of history but also a salvaging of communal trauma in search of wisdom. Perhaps there is no greater wisdom than a warning from the outbreak of the rebellion—this implied plea for reason and restraint before it’s too late:
We are living in a time when all things sacred
are throughout the nation demolished
We all must submit to a militant virtue
as stifling as the sin at which it is aimed.
In 2021, Dan O’Brien published A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, and Other Traumas (Dalkey Archive Press and CB Editions) and Our Cancers: A Chronicle in Poems (Acre Books). He lives in Los Angeles.
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