Saturday, April 16, 2022

Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen

Things That Happen (with some of its parts)

Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen, written 1981-2006 and finally published in complete form, one volume from Shearsman (2020).  I’ve been reading this gargantuan work in smaller pieces throughout the decades now, since approximately 2000 when I was living in Galway and editing The Burning Bush literary magazine.  I got in touch with Scully around that time, and I’d received a couple of his chapbooks from Randolph Healy, poet and publisher of Wild Honey Press.  I was immediately drawn to Scully’s work, along with that of other innovative Irish poets whose writing was finally beginning to come to prominence.  Scully and I exchanged a few letters (before email became the primary mode of communication), and he sent me some more of his books as well, and I’ve written about these and others in various essays and reviews — for example, online: of Prelude, Tig, A Tour of the Lattice; and about further of these book-excerpts in various print outlets.  Initially I approached them as self-contained chapbooks or what have you, but especially when larger pieces of Things That Happen began coming out from Shearsman and other presses in the early 2000-10s, the bigger picture began to emerge.  Now there is this single volume of approximately 600 pp., finally bringing it all together and allowing us to encounter it as one.  There’s something about the book itself, a big blue object, minimalist design, an object of apparent import even before being read.  “The book / is fat.”

It is a great accomplishment, and for me this has become one of the most important books not only in Irish poetry, but worldwide English-language poetry more broadly.  That said (about the English language), the glossary to this volume is primarily composed of translations of Irish (Gaeilge) phrases, and the mixing of languages is something that is especially interesting to me.  Sometimes Scully signifies on other Irish poets, as in the “Interlude” to “Livelihood,” in “Sear Search” (237-38), which is almost a (very) loose translation of the modernist poet Seán Ó Riordáin’s “Saoirse.”  In “Sonata” (at pp. 433-34), he reaches back to the late-Bardic poet Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, while also perhaps alluding to Gerard Manley Hopkins in the same section (“the deity was / inventing conspicuous beauty. / praise him. & his mother.” — the Mac Cuarta line that occurs somewhat later in the piece is “le seinm na gcuach ar bhruach / na gcoille go sámh,” which is Hopkinsesque before Hopkins), as interruptions of a contemporary industrial-capitalist milieu.  Other times, the Irish phrases are just random phrases, but serve to widen the frame of reference (snippets of talk or thought) as do the bits of Sesotho (resulting from Scully’s time in Lesotho).  Cuireann sé seo uilig i gcuimhne dúinn go bhfuil snáithí éagsúla i gcúlra den obair seo.

There’s a poem called “Fire” (in “Livelihood”/“Steps,” actually one of many with the “Fire” title, this one pp. 319-20) that begins with the cosmic breath, being emerging and dissipating into nonbeing, and then some specifics of being in the world (forsythia in spring, “the bird in flight,” “hedges & trees,” “water in a river”), then moving into poetry itself, the act of poetry I should say, with gestures toward the ancient Irish mode.  The question “what’s in the news, then?” is probably an allusion to the anonymous 9th-c. Gaelic poem “Scél lém dúib,” while other lines of Scully’s reference the practice of composing in the dark (as elaborated in Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland): “dark cell / . . .flat on your back / stone on your belly.”  Possibly something as abstruse as “that vast / central column of / (     ) (being) / . . .connecting verticals” (occurring in the in the middle of the poem) can be linked to this, as a rendering of a similar kind of apophatic meditation where energy is seen to move or transform within the body (and is thus an immanent process rather than transcendent or metaphysical).  While the closing lines, a “predawn whimper of a pump / in the dust.” may seem at first glance counterintuitive, a move away from that “cool” Gaelic stuff, they of course make total sense upon further reflection — what is this if not the perfect metaphor of all existence (which the poet must seek to be in tune with), with its suggestions of also a certain kind of Chinese worldview (“dust,” and the pump like the bellows of the DDJ).  Things That Happen is made of interconnections but also, in instances like “Fire,” poems that can be read as self-contained (though with its themes being picked up elsewhere).

I know that in past essays (here and here) I’ve written about the immediately following poem “Four Corners,” a supposed “pastoral” that limns environmental degradation before moving to its powerful last stanza in which Scully announces,

      The book
is fat, contains code. The world,
the water planet. The code contained in
this thing in the world, the book, changes
the things, the world.  (322)
There are many ways to read this, but this time around I see it as a crucial observation on the nature of our reality, rather the way in which we perceive the world, and specifically how language (poetry) shapes our consciousness of our being/world/environment.  We might think that we are autonomous individuals who observe things then decide to write about them.  But it is really only in the writing (poetry) — the code in the book! — that we create (“change”) the world and ourselves.  Thus, subject-creating, a becoming-subject, rather than subject-existing-and-asserting-itself.  What is the nature of or experience of being in the world, etc.  Flipping through the recent Ken Keating-edited volume, A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (Shearsman, 2020), again, I note references to phenomenologist philosophers like Michel de Certeau and Jean-Luc Nancy, which helps to construct an apt body of criticism around Scully’s work.  Scully’s poetry is of the quotidian, often, but is never itself merely quotidian.  David Lloyd’s invocation of Theodor Adorno (with reference to a somewhat obscure [but eminently relevant] essay on Berg) — “Adorno’s remarks throw into relief the tension throughout Livelihood between its peculiar stasis and its constant, restless forward movement. . .” (Lloyd 63) — prompted me to go to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory as I was writing this essay, and his observations about the transformation of quotidian material in W. C. Williams’s Paterson and elsewhere. Adorno: “When . . . William Carlos Williams sabotages the poetic and approximates an empirical report, the actual result is by no means such a report: By the polemical rejection of the exalted lyrical tone, the empirical sentences translated into the aesthetic monad acquire an altogether different quality” (123).  Paterson is one of Things That Happen’s obvious predecessors, and though the aforementioned poem (“Four Corners”) does not engage in the kind of “grocery list” strategies that Paterson sometimes does, and Scully does elsewhere in the book in his own way, it is indeed partly a “polemical rejection of the exalted lyrical tone” (rejecting, for example, the Heaneyan “pastoral” lyric; though, this observation is old news by now?), and it is via the translation into the aesthetic monad that both the code and the world acquire their meaning or no-meaning (the news that stays news).

Things That Happen in a sense contains a life, the way that Louis Zukofsky’s “A” does (and clearly it is this latter book that is the real model for the former, if there is one, the big, Big, BIG ongoing modern poem).  It is at once personal but transpersonal.  The details of a life are real (of course) but also like a dream (shades of Wakean dreamlogic?  Zhuangzi’s butterfly?), and as Scully writes in one of the “Sonnet”s of “Sonata,” “then I woke up.” (475) — that is, this is how he begins that poem.  As means of further illustration, the very beginning of the book and the very end.  Scully’s opening:
An old house     absence of sound    trees
moss     wildlife     that feeling of surface
over surface with smooth spaces between
                (“5 Freedoms of Movement” 17)
It is the gap in the concrete, imagistic details that Scully is really emphasizing here, in both the gaps (“spaces”) between words and the more overt attempt to describe the “feeling.”  As Aodán McCardle writes of this beginning (with specific reference to its accompanying photo, Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void,” but which I think equally applies to these lines), Scully’s “idea [is] that we never really inhabit a singular moment in time” (in Keating, ed., 24).  Even when we try to capture the “things,” we are really getting layers of surfaces interspersed with spaces.  That is real understanding.  The book ends,
Dandelion & daisy begin.
Soon a sweetish whiff
of wallflower & walks
past the Ashtown Tin Box Factory
down to the pouring canal.  (“Tig” 603)
There is so much to interpret there.  The sensory images of the moment, the “ash” of Ashtown like the earlier-mentioned “dust,” maybe even the inevitability of death (“Box Factory,” as in the metaphoric coffin), to the pouring canal where we flow out once again into the stream of nonbeing (shades of Joyce’s “riverrun / a long the”).  But as a poet, what I also am really struck by is the heavy alliteration of this final passage, d-d, s-s, w-w-w, and the assonance of “ish”-“whiff,” “wall”-“walks,” “past”-“Ash”-“Fac”-“[ca]nal.”  As with the opening passage, it is the surface sheen, the poetry, that is the lens.  So I return to Adorno’s assertion about the translation into the aesthetic, which is not aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake, but rather for the sake of the world.

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