Matthew Stewart reviews The Kentish Rebellion by Robert Selby (Shoestring, 2022)
Why do we study History? This question might be an old chestnut and many of us would claim to know the answer off by heart, but it appears certain politicians and fellow citizens could do with a reminder every now and then in light of the forthcoming Bonfire of the Humanities at schools, colleges and universities. And that’s without mentioning the daily invoking and twisting of terms such as the Blitz on social and mass media. In other words, if critics or readers wish to question the relevance of Robert Selby’s new book, The Kentish Rebellion, due to the fact it largely devotes its pages to the portrayal of a series of distant events from the English Civil War, they’ll be hugely mistaken.
To start with, the book’s title offers a set of pivotal implicit questions, using the specific to take the reader into the universal. On the one hand, what did the word ‘rebellion’ mean in the past, and what does it mean in 2022; what were its ramifications then, and what are they now? And on the other hand, what did it mean to be Kentish? What separate identity did that term invoke? And what does it entail nowadays?
Selby sets about addressing the above questions via the use of clever juxtaposition. In linguistic terms, he pits different registers against each other, while the themes are explored through anachronisms so as to invite comparisons and contrasts with the present. One excellent example of this technique can be found in the opening lines to ‘VII’:
Keep going down Week Street, all the way
to KFC, turn left past Poundland
into another century. A chapel
gallant on a green, dedicated to a girl
of Aquitaine the Romans barbecued
for her faith, used by the Dutch till Laud,
some of the boards across its vacant windows
knocked off from inside,
and Fairfax stepping
into the gunsights peeping through,
one hand upraised, clutching white truce
soaked in the still-teeming rain that bedims him [ … ]
Beyond the clear shifts in his narrative’s timeline, Selby’s use of language is especially interesting in this extract. He takes the term ‘gallant’, for instance, which was once loaded with societal connotations, follows it up with the jarringly contemporary, slang-infused invocation of a person being ‘barbecued’, and then finishes off with ‘upraised’ and ‘bedims’, two words that feel far more connected with the language of the past than of the present. Via these juxtapositions, he blurs temporal differences, bringing the separate periods together.
Selby hints at the presence of decline, at the role of that decline in generating rebellion and confrontation, at how leaders attempt to manipulate the masses, and how this issue pervades both the past and the present
Moreover, in the above quote’s allusion to KFC and Poundland, Selby hints at the presence of decline, at the role of that decline in generating rebellion and confrontation, at how leaders attempt to manipulate the masses, and how this issue pervades both the past and the present. In this context, the collection’s closing poem, ‘On the Lord General Fairfax’s Coat at Leeds Castle, Maidstone’, becomes pivotal:
For a few sand grains of your transience,
your infamy in arms through Europe rang.
Now eyes undaunted pass over your swanky doublet
in search of café or shop, maze or grotto.
outlasting you—who are dust, a dummy torso—
is not your name but a sartorial vanity, up-lit,
while Public Fraud, in new clothes that always fit,
stokes hydra heads of rebellions you cannot quell.
The sentence structures here are complex, almost old-fashioned, yet placed alongside terms with contemporary connotations such as ‘swanky’. And then the ‘doublet’, an anachronistic term in itself, is juxtaposed with the present-day shops that visitors browse.
However, the poem’s crux, and that of the collection itself as a whole, lies in the invocation of hydra heads of rebellion. The reader is invited to consider not only the Kentish Rebellion itself, but also more modern social and political unrest. Brexit, for instance, comes to mind through the mention of Europe, all in the implicit awareness that Kent was a key leave-voting county.
The reader is invited to consider not only the Kentish Rebellion itself, but also more modern social and political unrest
In light of the above, it’s worth asking a couple of pretty much rhetorical questions. How many contemporary UK poets actively and regularly engage with history as a subject matter in their poetry? Of course, the answer would be that very few do so, and for that reason alone, Robert Selby’s collection immediately acquires significance.
Nevertheless, its importance grows further once the reader starts to worry away at their own consequent doubts over the nature of authority and power over society, accompanied by further questions about identity, about what it means to be European, British, English or even Kentish. In other words, while The Kentish Rebellion might seem only to focus on events that took place centuries ago, its ramifications reach into the present and then into the future. We ignore them at our peril.
Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura and West Sussex. Following two pamphlets with HappenStancePress, his first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, was published in 2017. More recent poems have featured in The Spectator, The New European and Wild Court. Read Matthew Stewart’s blog Rogue Strands here.