Sunday, November 27, 2016

Maurice Scully’s 'Plays'

Plays is Maurice Scully’s latest chapbook, published in PDF format by Smithereens Press, and available to read for free, here.  Initially dense but, with a couple of readings, very rewarding, Scully’s sequence tackles epistemological questions about the relationship of art to the world around us.  Specifically, Scully seems to be asking whether we can ever truly know the material world through poetry (language), or even through the senses, perhaps even whether there is a knowable material world at all.  That sounds heavy, but this is still a poem, not a philosophical treatise.

It opens with “Path,” a poignant image of a lost dog playing with a ball on a pier, repeatedly letting the ball fall into the water then retrieving it: “A dog came up the steps with a ball in its mouth & / shook itself dry”. . . .  The full significance of this scene does not become clear until the end of the book, when it returns (then titled “Pith”), but the fact that, in the last line of “Path,” the dog is referred to as “our dog” suggests some connection between it and us (i.e. all of us, people, or whomever), lost, forlorn, going about our activities nonetheless.

“Placed” takes up the metaphor of the game of tiddlywinks, while also referencing Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916” — an unexpected pairing, perhaps.  But maybe there is something to the juxtaposition of the fraught, rather random task of flicking small disks into a pot (“Don’t let / the cup / tumble”) and the propensity of a poet like Yeats to seek overarching myths (“Spread low / with many / mythologies // rippling / a language’s / underparts”).  That is, Scully is here deliberately working against such Yeatsian, mythopoeic strategies by deliberately focusing on the quotidian.  In turn, what seem like unimportant details can become driving metaphors themselves.

Scully’s pared-down lines are deceptively simple, containing a wealth of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme.  In this, he takes a cue not so much from the obvious twentieth-century models (WCW’s pared-down lines, for example), but from the soundplay and concise patterning of mediaeval Gaelic poets like Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe, who provides an epigraph (from his poem “A theachtaire thig ón Róimh”) on the inherent “falsity” of poetry.  The first line of the epigraph, “Gémadh bréag do bhiadh san duain,” might translate as “Though it may be a lie, being in a poem. . . .”  Such a theme recurs throughout Plays.

In fact, Scully seems to putting clear water between himself and much of twentieth-century poetry — both the modernists who were obviously at one time an inspiration, and a more reader-friendly poet like Heaney.  In “Pitch,” he parodies Heaney’s “Digging”:
 . . . a meaning-bearing creature digging
over vegetables flashing signals to
light-sensitive weed-seeds in the dark.
Between yr fingers & yr thumb, humble
ambition.
A little further on there is a knock against poetry critics: “the Taste Police quick to be invisible, are out & about / & busy over the generations ready to shame / us with a terrible pun.”  The ghost of Heaney looms over these lines as well, “shame / us” echoing “Seamus.”  A number of additional humorous poetic allusions are waiting to be found throughout the text.

However, it is in Scully’s subtle critique of Pound and imagism that he more specifically sets out his philosophical position.  That Pound actually appears here is debatable (I tenuously base this on Scully’s use of the word “cohere” in “Panel,” also famously occurring in Pound’s “Canto 116”), but Scully is clearly attacking his imagist principle of “direct treatment of the thing.”  Instead, he seems to argue that that is simply not possible.  There are images in Plays, of course, images galore, but Scully has all along been undermining the notion that they are in any way capable of giving us the thing itself.  In “Print” Scully has revealed the science behind perception:
The most energetic
rays that reach
the earth’s surface are
those to which

our eyes respond 
& we call
‘light’. Right.
Thus, the image is not the image.  Nonetheless the poet will write it and take great if ephemeral joy in the writing, as Mac Con Midhe did nearly 800 years ago.  And so, finally in the closing section, “Pith,” Scully revises the image of the dog playing with the ball, elaborating on it until the dog is no longer a dog, not even the image of a dog, and not even light-rays, but an idea in the poet’s mind: “An idea came up the / steps with another idea in its mouth & shook itself dry”. . . .

Does the repetition and revisiting of the scene imply a kind of pattern, à la the cycle of history in Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (also obliquely referenced here)?  That is hard to say.  Not in the Yeatsian sense, as he clearly rejects this.  But there is a tension between “laws” and “accidents,” which Scully explores, i.e. randomness v. pattern, repetition v. change.  It would be hard to say he comes to any final conclusions, however.  Knowing that his work consists of large, ongoing poems (perhaps it is all one ongoing poem), I have no doubt he will continue to render into poetry “bréagach” his continuing explorations of these and other questions.  Unsurprisingly, then, a note at the end of this chapbook informs us that Plays is excerpted from a longer work.. . . .

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