Maurice Scully is consistently one of the most interesting poets writing in English today and any new work from him is to be welcome, and this short e-booklet along with some associated/overlapping material published in the TCD literary journal that Scully once edited, is no exception. Plays comprises a series of eight interrelated texts, two of which reappear in Icarus, along with a ninth, and a short prefatory note written especially for the magazine. The Smithereens sequence is literally framed by play, a dog playing with a ball on a pier, in brief at first, and then a more extended treatment at the end. These texts call out the deliberate nature of play as a rule-bound activity, much like language. This parallel is developed in Placed, the second piece in the sequence, which starts from a game of tiddly-winks, moves through a kind of painterly abstraction:
in circles squares
diamonds cylinders –
and moves, as the prose note calls out, from this ‘motley’ to thoughts of Yeats, Easter 1916, and the ‘decade of commemoration’ and all it implies.
At various points Scully’s language draws on ‘canonical’ lines form what many years ago he dismissed as ‘the gem school’ of poetry.
The poets in question are Patrick Kavanagh:
O co memor
or emco morat
may by water
vat or em
Followed by Wordsworth and Heaney:
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
These reworkings are, as I read them, sardonic comment on the persistent myth of the poet as Romantic hero, grappling with ‘significance’, the solitary purveyor of the profound. Scully, by inference, favours a more modest, social, and fruitful view of the process of writing as being in the world. In this work, the poet is both solitary and connected, exploring life as it is, not as it ideally should be, dancing in the weave of things.
The action of
with a base
a pattern of
in clear letters
stains where a
cup was placed –
the action of
fending for yrself.
Scully’s control of verbal music is evident in, for example, the patterning of the sounds represented by the letter ‘a’ in the second quoted stanza above, which play across the variable single and double stress lines. The result is a complex simplicity that perfectly enacts the ‘sense’ of the lines.
The implications of this approach to writing are profoundly political, precisely to the extent that it avoids didacticism. In the note in Icarus, Scully speculates that the book-in-progress to which all these texts belong ‘might be about “power”. But I don’t know yet.’ There is a cliché in wide circulation that art (and everything else) should ‘speak truth to power’, as if truth were that simple and that power didn’t know it. The indeterminacy of Scully’s approach is, I believe, ultimately more effective. The business of poetry is to explore questions, not present answers. Scully’s restless art does this better than most.