Several Dances, by Maurice Scully, Shearsman 2014, ISBN 978-1-84861-336-2, £9.95
Several Dances is the second full-length book that Maurice Scully has published since the completion of the major Things That Happen sequence. It is also the most recent instalment in the long, slowly evolving continuous poem that, after a bit of a false start with his first book, Love Poems and Others, constitutes his life’s work as a poet. This ‘poem in progress’ rotates around a number of central themes: a poet sits at a desk, making marks on a page; an artist makes other marks on canvas; a narrator contemplates questions of money and its absence; a particular mind moves through the world of everyday particulars and through the language it uses to map this world; texts are formed from the interweave of science and the poet’s observing ear; and behind everything, ordinary love. Through it all runs a fine-tuned sense of what it is to be alive in the world:
Touch a wet surface in just
the right place & you might
find the reward to be a shiver
of what you thought was well
a sweet appreciation of the next
Scully has made these subjects his own, they are the warp of his work, but interesting themes alone do not transmute language to poetry. What makes these books, this book, more worth reading than most of the contemporary versifying you’ll come across is the music Scully has invented to sing these themes to.
I have written before about Scully’s ability to evoke ‘the stubborn actuality of things and of the odd relationship between those things and the words used to name them’. This sense of respect for the world as separate, autonomous, real, combined with a recognition that the filters linguistic mapping places between the writer/reader and that sphere of reality, remains central to the value of his writing.
This a poetry that is both highly literate and interestingly oral, a duality that Scully neatly illustrates in a key passage from ‘To Balance’, on page 87, in a commentary on an Old Irish lyric:
is oral, and letterist—every word rhyming, every syllable
rhyming, every letter finding its repetition (except the kiss,
a plosive), a sort of spasm of self-conscious design
The passage ends ‘Now, do the same in English.’ And he does, albeit with a broader palette, for instance in this passage from 30 pages further on, where the sudden irruption of the ‘f’ ensures that the word does flash at the reader, sound enacting sense in tensile harmony:
This is a day.
This is a moment
in a day. This
is the point of
a moment in a day.
This is its noise.
This is a series
This dynamically tense intersection between written and spoken language, letter and phoneme, is one aspect of Scully’s verbal music; the other is an interplay between meter and rhythm that is both supremely flexible and instantly recognisable. His verse requires you to listen, a favourite Scully word, with ears open to the possibilities of verse. His long lines are characterised by a high proportion of initial stressed feet (trochees and dactyls for the most part), monosyllabic feet, feet that are broken by line endings, and caesurae that are frequently, though not always, masculine. The result is a rhythm that is at once deft and questioningly hesitant, where the progression of thought is more spiral than linear, turning back on itself in reflexive tones:
Drop a pebble in a pool: listen to it. Its
blue glistens. Black-gold-black. To glint,
tremble, stop. I turn off the radiator,
turn on the desk lamp, sit, start. Here we
are. Soft pulses of light threading a small
hollow to contain the main phase in a fibrous
nest & the next move, the next move, one true
His shorter lines can be read most fruitfully as if the stanza were the unit of composition:
The subtle, fragile strength of this verbal music is a factor, perhaps the crucial factor, in Scully’s ability to write poetry in which, as J.C.C. Mays says, ‘he is, always, just (just!) a person making … We find ourselves watching what’s happening, as it happens, with little concern for personal achievement’. There is no question of which comes first, form or content; they are coeval, inseparable, a complex singularity.
There is a sure-footedness to these dances through the ‘linguistic theatre of/delight’ that brings to mind both the Early Irish lyric and Louis Zukofsky, just as the longer-lined pieces can recall the talk poems of David Antin. Which is not to say that Scully’s work is derivative of these other writers; like any poet who takes the art seriously, he has read widely and learned deeply and then turned what he has learned to his own ends.
One of the strands running through Several Dancers is a series of parody-homages to William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is just to say’. These pieces exemplify how a poet who is confident of their own voice can mine the work of another writer to find ways of expressing some new thing, building on but not copying, emulating but not imitating, an act of serious poetic play.
I’ve left the wooden
tray on the table
set for when
Williams, in these pages, is both a presence to be respected and a resource to be used. Scully’s use of the poem opens up a conversation with the older poet’s view of human love, offering different, wider, more reciprocal perspectives in a way that mere prose criticism could never achieve.
Maurice Scully is one of a handful of living Irish poets whose work can be read in the company of the very best of his British and American contemporaries. It is both formally adventurous and profoundly approachable, and achieves this without ever patronising the reader. Scully writes poetry as it should be written, with a concern for the art and not the artist, an emphasis on the pleasure that setting language loose in the world can bring. On the evidence of Several Dances, he continues to delight. If you’ve never read his work, then this is as good a place to start as any. If you have, then you won’t need my persuading.