Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Maurice Scully, Humming

I’ve written about Scully’s work many times now, including some pieces that appear online here, here, here, and here. Let those serve as my introduction to Scully; this will be a more immediate, subjective, impressionistic review, if it really is a review at all. What strikes me most about Scully’s latest collection of poetry, Humming (Shearsman Books, 2009, 100 pp., ISBN 978-1-84861-059-0), is that it is his death collection, much more so than any of his others. It is dedicated to his brother Brian who died in 2004. References to other deaths inhabit this book as well, the father, the mother, and then: “Turn the beach upside-down, what do you see? It must be yr sister’s / anniversary? By forces too large for all of us she’s drawn into the cave.” But death cannot be the end for those who live on, until one’s own anyway. In the next stanza, “It must be yr brother’s anniversary. [....] go & do / what you do in life and do it thoroughly, one circle, then another, [....] die, and die well. Good.” Between each stanza of this poem (one of many titled “Ballad”) is a sort of refrain: “ha ha”.

It is an affirmation of life being put forward here, a view that is evident in other sections of this book as well. In another “Ballad,” an “Argument” is put forward: the speaker’s brother has died. This is presented matter-of-factly, almost dispassionately. It is a meditation on the reality of death and aging, our helplessness before it all: “I know the facts are rough. Goodbye.” The only “Response” to this (the second half of the poem), is poetry itself, the reassertion of the poet’s poetic life-vision (and here his form enhances his content):
to
    never
be
    still
des-
    pite
what
    you
might
    think
in
    all
this
    space
ever
    open
to
    light....
A recurring theme in Humming is the description of a Neanderthal grave from 60,000 years ago, a grave which included flowers of cornflower, hollyhock, ragwort, hyacinth, yarrow, and thistle (we know this because of their pollen deposits) — showing that a reverence for death and care for the dead are impulses that go back through eons of time and are present even in non-Homo sapiens human society. Those little grains of pollen float throughout this collection (sometimes as “dots”). In this, Scully simultaneously connects us (21st-century Western society) with the ancients and yet at the same time seems to be saying, So what, this has all been going on forever, we’re not so special.

The latter viewpoint seems to be confirmed in Scully’s scorn for poets who turn death, or something like it, into a career move: “If you dedicate your little book to Mammy and get / a prize — size matters — you know how it is — / a million years of isolation and neglect … as if you / deserve pampering as by right. Just write, right?” But, some wise guy or gal might ask, doesn’t Scully dedicate his own book to his brother? What’s the difference? The difference is Scully has long ago put aside (or maybe never had) any expectation of being acclaimed for it. I don’t think he cares whether or not anyone will be moved by such a dedication, or who can “relate.” In fact, he often seems to purposely frustrate (through his form, his poetic strategies, his frequent use of language that can sometimes seem more utilitarian than “poetic”) attempts on the part of the reader to relate in an emotional way. He just writes; that is enough.

So Scully rejects the “House of Prizes,” the cosy relationships of some sections of the Irish arts industry: “I am 52. How old are you? I’m old enough to take a knife / to any letter from the Arts Council for instance regretting, et cetera / because they know I think by now — now that I’m older than / they are & longer on the job — I know perhaps a fact or two of life.” He does seem to be making a point of this, drawing a line in the sand. The book includes a back-cover blurb from JCC Mays, which reads in part, “The poet is not pushed forward as a surrogate hero, an ideal fictionalised presence in whose identity we lose ourselves: he is, always, just (just!) a person making. We are offered a poetry of witness, not of personality and career-accomplishment.” If the point of life for Scully is just to live (until you die), then the point of being a poet is just to write (to make).

I think this is why a lot of Scully’s work is actually “about” writing itself: “hum of a small plane in the distance     hum of my pen / moving     hum of my half-mind following....” He is a very imagistic poet at times, but his images don’t stand still — they are often commented upon, exploded, turned inside out; they are a kinetic form of imagism rather than the pure imagism of early Pound: “to watch one leaf turn turn back my hand / yr palm whatever skill whatever lack a tapestry / of flowers in the mud unstitching the next step” (from one of several pieces deceptively titled “Sonnet”). But in all of this I wonder if there isn’t still something left of the poet as hero, despite Mays’s blurb comment. After all, Scully is here setting out a very particular point of view, inevitably as against those of others; he is asserting both a unique poetics and a worldview which must be defended against possibly hostile entities (e.g. the Arts Council, careerist poets, audiences who acclaim them) and all the shit of the world (“remember / that he knows that / & will remember it / & calculate / the times to use it / with care / against you / as praxis / to his advantage / meanly, always [....] the next / piece of shit / taken for truth. / Have a nice day.”). Though the poet personality is certainly deemphasized in Scully’s work, the speaker nonetheless suffers the slings and arrows, and despite the degree of human cynicism which creeps in here — it’s damn hard to avoid — he comes through it all to occasional states of ebullience (“I am hey! When clouds break / & sunlight floods on to bright // up-readying flowers beside you / & you look up & smile [buoyant- / ly] — ”), and ultimately to poetry: “Drop by drop, grain by / grain… / POEM”.

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