Gavin Selerie and Maurice Scully: A Review

Collected Sonnets, Gavin Selerie, Shearsman Books, 2019, ISBN 9781848616899, £17.95

Play Book, Maurice Scully, Coracle, 2019, casebound paper over boards, ISBN 978-0-906630-61-7, €18.00

Tilting Square, the third sequence in Gavin Selerie’s monumental Collected Sonnets, is preceded by two quotes. The second of these, from Paul Klee, could serve as a kind of introduction to the entire book, and to Selerie’s way with the sonnet form: ‘A square stood on its corner moves into the dynamic realm, the tensions are diagonal’. Selerie’s sonnets are generally 14 lines long, very rarely rhyme, and are most often presented as single blocks, or squares, their physicality emphasised by the large font size. But then the form is often opened up into two, there, four or even 14 stanzas, usually but not always right-aligned, and sometimes exploding across the page. This variety is one of the sources of tension that enable the sustaining of interest over 340-odd pages of little songs, a good deal of them, as in the ‘Twisted Circle’ sequence and the ‘Days of ’49 outtakes, previously unpublished.

Selerie’s concerns are manifold: place, time, mortality, love, art, music and, above all else, books and writing. But these are not separate strands, they are interwoven, interpenetrating threads in the weave of a lifetime’s work. For instance, the earliest poems here conjure up a 1970s counter-culture that encompassed Grace Slick (never a chick, she’ll stick out for no/and do it—) and the idea of a sacral British landscape via Alfred Watkins’s ley lines:

The Line


Hugged the bracken ridge to Lastingham

and bent down in St Mary’s crypt

with the needle jigging


found interlaced serpents

and a hogback with a bear on guard


from this hollow squat I drank moments

of a thing on another laid


and went over Black Howe

and through the Bridestones

to Dargate Dikes in pine-raw solitude


saw them from there and couldn’t

get away—globes or radomes

glistening on black plinths

in a far vigilanus whose secrets may leak

These poems chime with the sonnets marking similar landscapes and landmarks, many associated with writers and poets, that comprise the Land Spokes series written 30-odd years later:

How stories arrive, a track along the ridge

between counties where two streams



… You can dig but you’ll find nothing,

neither a Dane vader or sacrifice. Bits of

an early world hold more without the rummage.

[from ‘Rollright Stones’]

Or, to pull at another thread, the ‘Days of ‘49 outtakes’ sequence marks, as did the original collection, the year of the poet’s birth (and that of his long-time collaborator Alan Halsey), drawing largely on paintings, books and essays produced in that year. It was a time of stasis and change, with rationing still in force, the ruin of war all around, but the year after Windrush and the Truman doctrine, early robots: the cusp of a new world, the NHS shiny and new, a world that produced that late 1960s/1970s counter-cultural moment and that underpins the opposition to Blairite politics of the Short Takes poems. These are poems of emergence, of the birth of both the poet and his world:

This melding of the natural and the man-made, the past and the present, is a significant part of the dynamic of Selerie’s tilted language squares. It is, paradoxically, a dynamic of stillness. Selerie’s sentences frequently contain no verbs, and when verbs are present they are often stative, modal, infinitives or past participles. Even his dynamic verbs tend to be quite ones. His tenses tend to be Simple Present or Past, the tenses of the habitual. The Continuous, the tenses of actions at a point in time, are rarely used. This is a poetry of accretion, of detail upon detail, nouns, adjectives and prepositions the dominant lexical forces, the syntax is vertical rather than horizontal, with layer upon layer of signification:

Out of the yowl of Lilliput Alley and frowzy steam,

a showpiece for stone that’s easy to cut. Honey-block retreat

high over valley and bowl, a sweep of exact vision

at a looser pitch. Allworthy? With an actor’s bite

through stepped wilderness.

[from ‘Prior Park‘]

The result is a kind of tentative certainty, a sense of language layering the poet and reader’s sense of the world, with meanings emerging slowly, organically, without the imposed force of action. This is as true of the love poetry, which is as concerned with how to relate as it is with the specific relationships it was written out of, as it is of the Out of an English Pole sequence where Selerie writes through the works of Joseph Conrad to produce a kind f homage to Robert Hampson. I first encountered Selerie’s work in the early 1980s, with the publication of Azimuth, a long serial poem in the manner of Charles Olson. It may seem an odd journey from Projectivist verse epic to sonnet sequences, but these are, I would argue, serial sonnets, the exploration of form and matter through the constraints of the 14-line limitation. The Collected Sonnets is more than a collection of sonnets, it’s the working out of a poetic over half a century of attention. It’s a book to reread.

I have already reviewed sections of Maurice Scully’s Play Book here, and hardPressed poetry published a section of it in Dual Poet Readers 3. It should, so, be the case that reading the book would be a bit like meeting an old friend, but the reality is that it’s full of surprises and delights. There are at least three readings of the title that are relevant, I think. First, it is a book about play. Secondly, the idea of a book of strategy and ploys, the Nixon playbook, is relevant. Finally, it can be read as an actor’s playbook, a kind of script for performance by the reader.

The factor that binds these three strands together is Scully’s unique sense of rhythm. Frequently the form adopted is short lines of one or two (sometimes more, sometimes no) stressed syllables, with variable unstressed counts in stanzas of one to four lines. These are punctuated by singles word sentences that act as percussive interruptions of the flow.

Snap. Look: a life –

a packet of white envelopes –

nobody about –

dawn –


chill silhouettes

stopped in the air

condensing into the



daytime trees in

pale light. Perfect

information. No more

‘gems’. Right?

This allows for rapid juxtapositions that may, at first reading, appear random, but are actually crafted representations of the movement of a mind across multiple fields of perception and intellection simultaneously held in syncopation:

A hammer bangs

& its echoes




Wearing a


touch what you

imagine you


can. Tick.

Sign. Number.


the action.

The same kind of process is happening in passages where both line and stanza are longer, but these passages tend to be more information rich and with slower arcs. Throughout, the poetry rests on a process of analogy. Things, in the broadest sense of the word, inhabit Scully’s writing in and of themselves. His interest in natural history and his almost obsessive focus on the minutiae of quotidian life and the physical act of writing, his interest in the politics and economics of culture all stand as records of the phenomena of a life lived. They are not metaphors for each other, but by their very proximity each one illuminates the others in ways that extend beyond the limits of the metaphorical. So that this:

I wandered lonely in a crowd

as a meaning-bearing creature digging

over vegetables flashing signals to

light-sensitive weed-seeds in the dark.

Between yr fingers & yr thumb, humble

ambition. Getting the work done, doling,

fixing, electing, purging curricula,

controlling policy, public opinion, dissemination,

the Taste Police quick to be invisible, are out & about

& busy over the generations ready to shame

us with a terrible pun.

And this:

Reaching up to pick an apple

from a tree twigs tickling the

skin on the back of the hand

sunlit patches on the arm

pulsing body of a wasp

And this:

                                                An eel’s fibre-

reinforced skin acts like an extended tendon, enabling it

to generate a powerful propulsive force. I took a sheet of

paper & put it down again. Dice rattle in the cup. You

are born. Mother & child ok. The verb ‘to be’. For the

moment. Rattle again and see.

And this:

When ecologists began looking closely at the acorn-planting

activities of certain birds they found that the areas the birds chose

to lay their stores by for the winter were almost always open

country. Open country. Not a ‘Poetry Society Recommendation’.

And so … the forest moves, a shifting tissue of melting frames …

Expand on and illuminate each other and circle, or rather spiral, around the core of the book, a process reflected in the repetition and expansion of words, phrases and images throughout the book. And what is that core? When versions of some of this work appeared in Icarus in 2016, Scully wrote that they were from ‘a work in progress. I think this book might be ‘about’ power. But I don’t know yet’. It turns out that it is, but it’s about power of a very particular sort, the kind of power that builds a cultural, canonical hegemony that excludes all sorts of people. One of the threads that runs through the book is the repurposing of famous lines from what Scully has previously called the ‘gem school’ (No more/’gems’. Right? ) The poets quoted include Heaney, Wordsworth and Yeats, but there’s a particularly interesting passage in a piece called ‘Parabola’ (as an aside, all the texts are given titles that begin with ‘P’, and several are called ‘Poetry’) that evokes and then names TS Eliot in a context that begins and resolves in an acknowledgement of a number of women poets: Lorine Niedecker, Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Mina Loy and Elizabeth Bishop; marginal representatives of the Modernist tradition of which Eliot is probably the canonical representative. The poem evokes and rewrites a ‘gem’ line from ‘Burnt Norton’:


says a bird

on a stone


The change from ‘quick’ to ‘quiet’ reflects the near silencing of poets who prefer a quieter mode of expression to Eliot’s ‘public speaking’ tone and sets up a different set of expectations around what poetry might be, and be for, something less oracular, less self-important; or, to quote some lines from earlier in the book, ‘The trouble/with poetry/is poetry.’ And the trouble with canons is erasure.
Towards the end pf the book, Scully addresses this directly:

I used to think you had to concentrate on the work,

fiercely on the work, and with luck, and work, then

more work, managed a high calibre body of work

in the end, and that was that. Job done. But no; you

can produce a full lifetime’s work and be erased.

Maurice Scully has, indeed, concentrated fiercely and produced a body of work of the very highest calibre, he is, in my view, one of a handful of Irish poets alive now to have really made something new of the art, and if his achievement is erased, it will be to poetry’s detriment. Buy this book, buy all of his books, and read them. Now.