Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Irish Poetry, Paul Klee of
Maurice Scully, the Paul Klee of Irish poetry, has a Selected out from Dedalus Press: order it here. And while you wait for it, my thoughts on his Wild Honey Press book Livelihood.
‘We use space a lot today’, announced vice-president Quayle back in the reign of Bush the first. Comparing Maurice Scully to Dan Quayle may not seem like a promising start, but Scully too knows all about using space. Is the poem the space of the page or just the thing in the space? It’s been a moot question ever since Mallarmé sent his dice-throw tumbling off the end of the margin. Ralph Richardson thought acting was the art of stopping people coughing, and one definition at least of poetry is the art of getting people to put up with all those white bits the poet can’t be bothered filling in. Some of the section breaks in Livelihood use up to eight near-blank pages (‘why is the white so/ difficult touched/ suddenly’, Scully pertinently wonders in ‘Prelude’), and even when not fast-forwarding in whiteout mode Livelihood is a brisk read. This is fifth-gear poetry, tanked up on Raworth and Olson (‘so that one leads to another /& another leads to a thing just so’), heavy on the ampersand (‘a terminal spinney of ampersands’) and light on the majuscule.
Livelihood is the middle part of a trilogy, and runs to five parts and 336 pages. So what’s it all about then? Open the first page of ‘The Pillar & The Vine’ and the welcome pack goes something like this: ‘wandering beyond the puny /into the light net /this pillar //this vine hard to in shadows /discard patterns that /smash their way //into yr face’. And who could resist an invitation like that? With the obligatory dig at poets on a ‘small half-empty island’ who versify their ‘mothers and fath- /ers and grandfathers and grandmothers and fields / and ploughs and pigs’, Scully pulls his Groucho Marx stunt and resigns from every club that wouldn’t have him as a member anyway. Not that the Scully clan is so hygienically absent from Livelihood as that might suggest, I should add. But anyway, rupture of the lines of communication and all that, so we cut him the requisite slack. But still, what’s it all about?
When he worked on a building site in the 1980s Scully’s job involved writing the words ‘Site normal. Nothing to report’ in a logbook at regular intervals. Here the site is rarely normal, and we’ve got the CCTV tapes to prove it. He spends a lot of time ‘establishing the field’ as he calls it, like someone who invites you round for dinner and proceeds to assemble the kitchen table in front of your eyes. Here he is on the job in ‘In the Music’:
There is a ball, a sphere. There is a field,
a rectangle. At each end a space, an Aperture.
Marking on the field and mine, marked and
numbered. A set of rules, a set time, a whistle,
an umpire, an audience. The phantasy of pride of
skill in tactical symmetry, the siphon of violent
energies, the bonding of comrades, place-adoration,
display-therapy: our gift, your tradition! A poet
under the grassblades, threnody in the palmtrees.
There is a ball, a sphere.
The world is round after all. But with his reverie further down the same page of having no readers, ‘None at all’, we can only assume that Scully didn’t want us to RSVP the invitation in the first place. ‘He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes, /the epistemology of loss’, as Berryman wrote in another poem about a ball.
Kit Fryatt is right, in her Metre interview with Scully, to see lots of Kinsella in the first section of the book, The Basic Colours. The Paul Klee comparison Scully himself makes is also revealing. (And speaking of painting, my copy of Livelihood has strange smudges in the margin every now and then that look like they’re ghosting in some adjacent twilight world, half Le Louis Le Brocquy inkblot Morrigan, half shroud of Turin Jesus.) Musically, he’s a John Cage minus the Buddhism who’s just sat on a firework. It’s all about play and improvisation, tuning up, exploring different frequencies and registers, picking up a riff and running with it without pausing to ask, as I’m now doing for the third time, what it’s all about:
beat it’s a beat
that’s what it is.
what is it made of
the Mission cuts in deep
but the people jeer
this beat this singular this
I stopped everything
the people jeer
just to pick up
the downtrodden people jeer
catch it precisely
not bend it smooth it out
into Literature or Song or Art of
just once in a while
lifting yr nose from the pile
After the tuning up of The Basic Colours, there’s a lot, in a kind of stanzaic systole-diastole style, about forms of writing and representation in Zulu Dynamite (Sumerian pictographs, charcoal sketches, ‘the name of the sound of the rain’). Priority offers the striking proposition that ‘an inventory of engaging rubbish is the gleaming /ambiguous horde under the floorboards of that book /in the dream in the dark’. There follows a ‘transcapture’ of the Seán Ó Ríordáin poem ‘Saoirse’, which reminded me of the George Tabori production of Waiting for Godot in which the actors sit around reading at a rehearsal from their copies of the play until you realize, No, this really is the play! The tuning up and the performance become one; the scaffolding is the façade. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the impression I think Scully is aiming for:
I’ll go down: tonight. Yes.
Tiny animate creatures connect. Proliferate.
This house; that star. Bless
dispersing in the air.
Be desperate. Measure measure.
O fix sticks in the mud: decide. Stuck.
Raghaidh mé síos anocht.
Which just leaves Steps and Adherence, the former resolutely trying to stammer its way past the aposiopesis of ‘The thing about poetry is’ – is what? – and the latter staring, big-eyed Narcissus, into a deep pool of despair before hauling its way back to ‘Happiness – /under a lion’s paw under a furnace //under the sun’.
A frequent charge against this kind of poetry is that it fails the memorability test. Granted, we may have some way to go before Poetry Please starts clocking up requests for favourite bits of Zulu Dynamite, but this isn’t really an argument at all. Robbie Williams’ ‘Millennium’ is a catchier tune than a Webern string quartet. A man in Japan recently recited pi to 83,431 decimal places. So what? Just because something gets stuck in your head doesn’t make it worth hearing. There are deeper patterns of recognition and pleasure than those of rote learning. And that’s Maurice Scully for you.
Finally, I’ve almost got through this review without rehashing the debate that normally follows any mention of Irish neo-modernism faster than you can say ‘Call for Papers’. Is Seamus Heaney a patch on Trevor Joyce? Why isn’t Catherine Walsh as famous as Eavan Boland? Discuss with reference to your favourite theory about the 1930s, identity politics and Northern Irish poetry. What a pleasure to give all that a rest and read a good book instead. Livelihood is a fine book. I enjoyed reading it. You should do too.