Airs, by Maurice Scully, Shearsman, 126 pp, £12.95, ISBN: 978-1848618015
Writing on Maurice Scully’s poetry tends to begin by signalling certain important identifications and disclaimers. He is an heir to the modernists of the 1930s: Thomas MacGreevy, Denis Devlin, Brian Coffey and Samuel Beckett. His work is disregarded, overlooked, neglected in favour of the clockwork Irish lyric, with its parade of closure, territorialisation and possessive epiphanies. His work bears examination in relation to a group of “neo-modernist” Irish poets: Trevor Joyce, Catherine Walsh, Billy Mills and David Lloyd. Alex Davis has written the definitive book on this “broken line” in his monograph on Denis Devlin, exemplary in its literary-critical attentiveness, while David Lloyd’s new book Counterpoetics of Modernity: On Irish Poetry and Modernism (Edinburgh University Press, 2022) contains a chapter on Scully’s perambulations, investigating them in terms of a strikingly original postcolonial thesis of modern Irish poetry. These are significant and important definitions of Scully’s aesthetic and place in the Irish literary canon.
I want to start somewhere different.
Leave aside the visual form ‑ we can come back to that with fresh eyes. I read the lines again, “slowly”, and fall with its cadences. This is gentle stuff. The words are ordinary; the imagistic qualities are clear and definite; the music is audible but restrained (“noiseless”). We’ve fallen this way before (“fall / gently / from // the trees / again”). Maybe we never stopped. Nothing is resolved, eppur si muove ‑ the present participle “turning” taking us down in suspended animation, like the rose liquid grammar of Eliot’s opening lines in The Waste Land. This is lyric poetry.
Thomas Campion’s 1602 treatise Observations in the Art of English Poesie might be a surprising place to think about Scully’s particular facility with the smooth gravity of the English language. Proportion is one of Campion’s tuning words:
The world is made by Simmetry and proportion, and is in that respect compared to Musick, and Musick to Poetry: for Terence saith speaking of Poets, artem qui tractant musicam, confounding musick and Poesy together. What musick can there be where there is no proportion obserued?
Predating Milton by several decades, Campion eschews rhyme as the invention of a barbarous age, defending the musicality of poetry on the ground of proportion rather than the chime of cheap symmetries. He gives examples of verse “which we may call Lyricall, because they are apt to be soong to an instrument, if they were adorn’d with conuenient notes”, including his delicate “Rose-cheekt Lawra, come”:
These dulle notes we sing
Discords neede for helps to grace them,
Only beawty purely louing
Knowes no discord:
But still mooues delight
Like cleare springs renu’d by flowing.
Euer perfet, euer in them-
“To grace” lyric, to give it due proportion, requires a knowledge of discordance. So Scully:
as gates – windows –
bang in the
(berry – fig – leather)
its energy back –
advising cajoling & ‑
shiver of richness –
fine-tasting poison –
almost ripping yr roof off.
Discords neede for helps to grace them. scribble scribble.
Sense is vital. Taste and listen. Scully’s electromagnetic feel for the dark side of proportion, a “shiver of richness” that, like Hyperion, takes savour of its own “fine-tasting poison”, draws a vivid energy from storm-music and makes of it a lyrical meditation on what makes a poem fly, its pneuma, the air behind airs. We can’t deal with all the matter that he distresses his fluency with by ratiocination or cryptopoesis, “decades – doctorates – / centuries / of the // woven babble / of the species – ”. Scully has no desire to keep the professors busy. Read slowly, fall gently. What might those interruptive tissue of numbers, 3342, 442231, signify? Pin codes, telephone numbers, safe keys, garbled countdowns? How they signify is not in question. They are part of the poem’s resistance to its own seductive cadenza, dissonant quarks making up “this / persistent / piece of ‑ / darkness”.
Take the parentheses, or the hyphens. What feels natural in early modern typography, lyrical in Donne, Jonson, Campion (“them- / selues eternal”), must be met with acrimonious suspicion in “neo-modernism”. Hyphenated music is hyphenated music: compound, granular, hesitant, stalling, at times prevaricating with purpose; opportunistic, concerned with proportion. The gaunt line of “Airs”, which must be presumed to flaunt its modernism along the lines of William Carlos Williams, or Projectivism, or the New New York School, might trace its breath back from the “rain-damaged” twenty-first century to the English lyricism of Wyatt & co, the smoothness of anonymous Irish amour courtois, or the terrible vigilance of Ó Bruadair and Ó Rathaille (“Garnish away in the west with its master banned”):
In “Self-Portrait as Oddity”, the poet sounds a bit like Emily Dickinson, sending up the little horrors of living and writing with scenes vivid and abstract as though viewed in a mirror of polished onyx:
Tear it up and start again.
Knurled brass god-monster, allegorical figure of persistent stress,
grins through fissure in roof at Struggling Writer at Desk. Pale
moon-print shock. Go Struggle, Boy! Thus Hope, done as a
laughing statue and set on a green dome in high, bright light, over
the majestic gates to the city, cameras affixed, each fidget, each
shadow, each crimp in the world-sheet, each suppressed wail of
their cars on the trail policed; granite. And that’s that.
There is a nocturnal brutality to the vision here that is almost savoured, but not quite. “Tear it up, and start again”, we are instructed. With its “Department of Special Pleading” and the “Secret Department of Constant Money-Worry”, its self-mockery – “Coherent (hah!)” ‑ this is a poem in which narcissistic paranoia is battered with gleeful elan.
Scully’s diaries of possession and dispossession are frequently humorous about their rumination, moving instantaneously from irritation to lyrical composure:
Log that dog’s yapping
in the laneway
following each line around
& about &
& about &
then start: this
must this must
to the left then heard a
each tree a spectral
sheath of rising moisture
each forest a colony
This takes us into the eigengrau of early waking, of history (“a colony”), mortal fear (“a / click outside”), of possible composure in nature unsettled by the timbre, the suggestion that “history” can “collapse / on itself”. The brokenness of things requires halts and taps, a deep listening and fearful repetitions. Beginning in gelatinous rock-pools (or books with rock-pools in them), “Lullaby” resolves into decorous
under the hills
over there where
you remember now that
measured in time
in units of
Viscous poise: fluid yet balanced. In “Traditional Air”, the poet watches “as the Nail. Goes. In. One little / plank meets another, / & fits”, ending with an invitation: “Do come round // again this evening / won’t you?” ‑ there is an astonished courtesy of things fitting together nicely, craft coming together with open-endedness.
In the post-Romantic toss-up between tranquillity and spontaneity, it’s hard not to be convinced that tranquillity won. There is another lyric history to be told: one of proportion and disproportion, that neither rejects artifice nor laments process and vulnerability ‑ a hyphenated music manoeuvred in Scully’s shadowy airs. “Arc” ends in enjoyable melancholy, quoting lines (“among the … among the miserable people”) which the notes tell us are from Dáibhí Ó Bruadair’s mairg nach fuil ’na dhubhtuata:
fitting shape into
idir na daoinibh duarca
this must be art.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.