Saturday, July 18, 2015

Review of Maurice Scully, Several Dances

The latest collection from the Irish poet Maurice Scully is Several Dances (Shearsman Books, 2014). Scully’s writing, in the big picture, is just that: big. It is essentially an ongoing epic poem or chronicle of the “things that happen” (to quote the title of his major work, which this new book follows on from), in the line of Zukofsky’s ‘A’, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos (thankfully without the kind of crackpot ramblings we sometimes find in Pound; Scully is anything but a fascist and has no time for paranoia about such notions as “USURA”).

Rendered correctly, these long, life-work poems do more than simply record the poet’s thoughts and observations; they encapsulate an argument, a philosophy. In his writing, Scully explores the way(s) in which language and physics (particularly light-waves) influence human perception of the world. Laden into this sort of thinking, or rather existing simultaneously in Scully’s work, are the emotions and details of human life in the day-to-day world, with these latter tending to be the key or gateway for illuminating the former.

A reading of the first piece in the book, “On a Light Ground: Eye Dance,” gives a sense of both Scully’s poetics and the kind of thinking that goes into his writing. First, there is an image: “Dapple of mother-spider / at the centre of its wet / web. . .” Then the speaker enters the poem, but obliquely, as the second-person “you.” In the third stanza come the lines,

I-me-myself are moving

to that left behind, through
air, to that placed shimmer
There is a sense of the multiplicity of the self, or perhaps rather the lack of a stable self. Even when the pronoun moves from second person to first, the first person exists in triplicate. Similarly, “forward” and “behind” and “ahead” are essentially one and the same.

Then, the mode switches back to second-person —

Are you ready? What? To cross

which pattern a/pattern a/
[black] ripple of leaf-shadow
over those books there
— which suggests the interconnectedness of the speaker (or even the reader, maybe also a “you”) with the patterns and shadows the world produces, and perhaps even with the poetry that limns such things (as “books” implies). However, even the things we see are never their “true” essences, Scully argues, but a simulacrum produced by the interplay of light waves and human perception:
smooth fluid undulations
that move across a vase
sketched in to burn care-
fully across representations

On the next page of the same poem, Scully further clarifies that what he is getting at are “Meshes of energies / made visible.” He goes on to revise and reiterate the setting “a calm autumn morning” (in different versions each time), graphing three different successive possibilities for the phrase, further highlighting the sense of the mutability of both language and that which it describes.

Toward the end of the poem, Scully connects “small paint-marks on my palm” and giant stars, conflating the large and the small, the individual and the universal, before finally asserting that “I // think I’ll live here for a bit / not across no but along.” This implies both a sense of ephemerality and the desire to be a part of a greater whole, to, in a sense, “go with the flow” of the universe.

Now, I don’t mean to make Scully sound overly or self- serious. There is plenty of humor here as well, from his riffs on Williams’s “This Is Just to Say” to his wry jabs at the arts industry and literary prize factory; from his short section of poems in greyed-out font (which incidentally come at the end of the book, after the bio note, when you think it’s over) and other typographical play to his use of the mysterious acronym “ELIGP” in the poem “Ground”: “this was at the ELIGP” — huh? Helpfully, the phrase is glossed in the Notes as “Eternal Learning Institute of the Gaelic Phantasm.” Oh, right, I should’ve known!

Actually, though, it’s a brilliant phrase that both subtly parodies and in Scully’s own way affirms the oft-overlooked or dismissed Gaelic backdrop in Irish culture. Since the Celtic Twilight period, there has been a tendency to romanticize this, but Scully, a fluent Irish-speaker, himself often intersperses phrases of the language throughout his work in a manner that both highlights Ireland’s Gaelic history and the part that that heritage and language plays on a day-to-day basis in the present. “The Gaelic Phantasm,” though on one level tongue-in-cheek, is a concept rife with possibility.

And now, I leave it up to other readers to analyze the poems in Several Dances that might speak to them, to indulge in the myriad other Scully phrases and lines here that are also rife with possibility and meaning.