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BETWEEN RIVERS AUTUMN 2023: A SELECTION OF POEMS BY DAVID SELZER – ALAN HORNE

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BETWEEN RIVERS is a quarterly series edited by Alan Horne. It is focused on the area bounded by the rivers Alyn, Dee and Gowy, on the border between England and Wales in Flintshire and Cheshire. You can read about the background to Between Rivers in the Introduction.

 

The time has come for us to look at some more of David Selzer’s poems which relate to the Between Rivers area. The selections for this edition are by no means the only poems by David which relate to the area. They are chosen more as an introduction to the breadth of David’s writing about the locality. Some have probably received less attention than they deserve, and this is a chance to consider their value.

The first selection does not, however, fall into that category. It is probably essential that we start with A Short History, first published in Life Lines: Poems from the Cheshire Prize for Literature edited by Ashley Chantler (Cheshire Academic Press, 2005), also published on David’s site in April 2009, and the poem which starts his 2011 collection A Jar of Sticklebacks. It is interesting to compare this poem with the expansive poems, full of politics, history, and human and natural details which are now available on this site in the 50th anniversary publication of his 1973 collection, Elsewhere. In the present poem, the same concerns are subject to a quite astonishing process of concentration. It would take longer to describe this quality than to read the poem which is also, as far as I can discover, the only entrance into literature of the River Gowy; a neglect which Between Rivers exists to rectify. A Short History was originally published as a graphic and is reproduced in that form here.

 

A completely different style is adopted in The Optimism of Engineers, first published on this site in March 2013. This meditation on the town of Fflint and its surroundings proceeds in an almost conversational manner from  Richard II and Bolingbroke, in conflict in 1399, to two unruly teenagers in the present day.

 

The Optimism of Engineers

For John Huddart

Whichever way you approach the town of Fflint,

on the coast road east or west, down Halkyn

Mountain, from the Dee Estuary, you see

the towers first – Richard, Bolingbroke and Castle

Heights, three 1960s, multi-storey

social housing blocks – not the castle.

 

Richard Plantagenet, Richard of Bordeaux,

King of England, surrendered to his cousin

and childhood friend, Henry of Bolingbroke,

in the inner bailey of the castle,

nearly seven hundred years ago.

Richard’s great grandfather had it built –

by engineers, carpenters, charcoal burners,

diggers, dykers, masons, smiths, woodmen

from the counties of Chester, Lancaster,

Leicester, Lincoln, Salop, Stafford, Warwick –

based on a French model. Logistically –

being merely a day’s ride from Chester

and having the estuary lap its walls –

it was well placed to punish the Welsh.

 

In the ‘70s, as well as the Heights,

Courtaulds dominated the town, its mills

employing ten thousand. Now there is

MacDonalds, Sainsbury’s, a Polski Sklep.

The castle’s ruins have been preserved, of course,

made accessible, and its setting landscaped.

Across the wide river are the white houses

of Parkgate, where the packets to Ireland

would moor offshore in the roads.

Canalising the Dee to keep Chester

a port for sea-going fly boats and cutters

silted that side of the estuary,

transformed Liverpool and the Mersey.

 

A purpose-made barge passes, Afon

Dyfrdwy, taking an A380 wing

from Airbus at Broughton to the port

at Mostyn, some twenty miles, for shipment,

by purpose-made ferries, to Bordeaux.

As if on cue, a Beluga, an Airbus

Super Transporter, its nose like the fish’s

head, banks south east for Airbus at Toulouse.

 

The castle was closed for a time because of

vandalism and under age drinking.

Two teenage youths, wielding a six-pack each

of Sainsbury’s St Cervois lager,  pass

beneath the curtain wall. Laughing,

they offer the cans to two elderly

anglers returning from the river,

who decline, embarrassed, and move on.  It is

one o’clock on a weekday. The two lads,

both opening a can and showering

each other, run towards the shore, cursing.

 

This and several other of David’s poems take up a perspective, literal and metaphorical, on the Dee estuary. For those unfamiliar with the area, this is a wide area of marshland produced by canalising the river, its perimeter industrialised and then de-industrialised, leaving a wide expanse of grassy mudflats, grazed by sheep and subject to occasional inundation by high tides. Although popular with migrating birds, it is not conventionally attractive. There is a significant amount of writing about the Dee, but most of it avoids this part. The Same Shared Ground, first published on this site in July 2009, sees it on an almost geological timescale.

The Same Shared Ground

Larks and herons rise from the same shared ground –

a salt-marsh sprinkled with scurvy grass

like early snow. A navigable channel

is impossibly distant, far-off as

childhood’s spring tides. Silt obscured endeavour.

Sailors and milkmaids and priests lie low

as the worked-out coal seams. Glaciers made this –

ice miles, thick as centuries, combing valleys,

teasing out hills, a slow explosion

of seas. I imagine, back in Europe’s

reticular forests, a homely,

mackerel sky caught in another’s vision –

ancient weathers, sand settling in a pool,

pebbles jarred momentarily, the shape

and sense of time.

 

Towing the continent,

hulks sailed west. Only fulmars passed. The past

stretches like a landscape from this instant,

encompassing it. The oneness of things,

their disparateness I taste like blood:

the jest at the heart – being here and now

who could so easily have been elsewhere

or no one. Oblivious of ironies,

soarers and coasters cohabit. The ice

was deep as mountains. I am shrouded in

imagining’s ponderous white oceans.

 

For the final selection we proceed inland. An Abridged History of the World, first published on this site in July 2012, considers the painting below, Holt Bridge on the River Dee, by Richard Wilson R.A.

‘Holt Bridge On The River Dee’ By Richard Wilson RA

On the one hand, the title is plainly a pun. We might roll our eyes. On the other, it suggests that the poem will again be one in which a grand sweep of history is marshalled and expressed through succinct detail. This is the real joke, as the poem starts off in this vein but then comes to focus on the gaze, as history is abridged to the question of who is looking at whom, or even who are you looking at?

An Abridged History of the World

Near where the Romans made pottery and tiles

from the rich boulder clay the Ice Age brought,

a fourteenth century eight arch sandstone bridge

spans the River Dee, Afon Dyfrdwy,

linking Welsh Holt and English Farndon.

The bridge’s stones are from the same quarry

as Holt Castle’s, the first the invaders built.

Three centuries later the Roundheads took it.

 

Occasional salmon from the Atlantic

navigate the industrial detritus –

found downstream below Chester, upstream

above Ruabon – to spawn in the shallow,

white waters of the river’s upper reaches.

But here the current flows tawny and deep –

past grazing dairy cattle – its banks choked

with sweet-smelling Himalayan Balsam.

On the Farndon side are Triassic cliffs

from when the earth had one continent.

Ancestral dinosaurs hunted here.

 

Richard Wilson, known, although born in Wales,

as ‘the father of English landscape painting’,

and acknowledged an influence by Turner

and Constable, has, of course, in part,

romanticised the scene. The middle distance –

the bridge, which a drover and his beasts

are crossing, still then with its gate tower

– the horizon – marked by the hills and mountains

of the Clwydian range – and the light

itself are the Welsh Marches to the life.

But the foreground seems more Campagna

than Cheshire – the side from which he has painted

the scene, from somewhere above the cliffs,

below which sheep graze and, on top of which,

are four figures, one female and three male,

framed by an Italianate-looking tree and bush.

 

Perhaps they are shepherds and a shepherdess.

Certainly, the youngest male is playing a flute.

But there is irony in this eclogue.

The older three are staring at the painter.

One, a staff or gun strapped to his back,

has climbed up the cliff to get a better look.

The remaining two are a rather portly

Daphnis and Chloë. The former lies prone,

his legs crossed at the ankles, one hand

propping up his head, the other holding

what appears to be a pair of sheep shears

or a broad-bladed knife. He seems affronted,

his mouth gaping. His Chloë – in a blue dress

and white smock, her legs tucked under her –

has one hand placed both possessively and

protectively across his back. She shields,

with her other hand, her eyes from the sun,

to see more clearly what has caused her swain’s

self-righteous, tongue-tied rage.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed this selection of David’s poems. In working through his writings for this edition of Between Rivers it became obvious to me that there were certain themes which might become a focus for later editions: wildlife and industry are cases in point, and there is also more work about Richard II and Bolingbroke at Fflint castle. We will come back to these at some point. More to look forward to!

 

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