Michael S. Begnal, review of Doing the Same in English: A Sampler of Work 1987-2008, by Maurice Scully, in An Sionnach: A Journal of Literature, Culture, and the Arts, 5, 1 & 2 [Crieghton UP] (Spring & Fall 2009), pp.314-17.

[ Source: Project Muse online - accessed 03.06.2012; note that only the above issue is available on Muse since the journal ‘no longer contributes’ to the Project.]

Maurice Scully has been writing and publishing since the 1970s, though his name may not be quite so familiar to the average reader of contemporary Irish poetry. So, some context is desirable. In his signal critical {314} volume Irish Poetry Since 1950 (2000), John Goodby labels Scully a “neo-modernist” and writes that “Scully’s expressionism .. is more obviously a continuation of the avant-garde’s assault on art as institution.” This places Scully at a pole opposite the neo-bardic poetry of other, more well-known Irish poets. It has also made it more difficult for him to reach a wider audience. Up until now his work has been published by smaller presses such as Wild Honey Press (sometimes in the form of hand-sewn chapbooks) and Shearsman Books. Doing the Same in English, however, is published by Dedalus Press, whose longer reach will certainly go someway toward helping Scully’s singular poetic vision gain the readership it deserves. This newbook is a healthy mix of Scully’s work spanning the last twenty years - from the gargantuan four-volume-long poem Things That Happen to the more recent collections Humming, Several Dances, and Work - and gives the reader a valuable overview of his career.

Goodby’s use of the term “assault” implies that Scully sets himself up as some sort of ideologue bent on smashing the poetic mainstream, but this isn’t really the case. True that at one point he does refer satirically to “swindl[ing] a / lyric poet or two” (“Cohering”), and that he occasionally gives poems titles such as “Lyric” or “Sonnet” or “Ballad,” when on the surface they may bear little resemblance to those stated categories. True that he sometimes aims to subvert or at least broaden the reader’s perception of what poetry should be, but this can only be a good thing, and is often accomplished with humor. At the same time, Scully is very serious about exploring what it means to be a poet: “You will discover starfish ingesting molluscs & ugly / dishonesties between people. You will have been a poet. Why?” (“Ballad”). The answer for Scully is usually in the practice of poetry itself. For him, it might involve something as seemingly mundane as a description of the contents of his study (a recurring theme), or as ebullient as the piece titled “Maturity”:

... The trees’ canopies curl over us,
bend and sway at the sky’s lips. Of course. Our
children fly. Fragrance rises. Stem wavers.
World turns. One. Back from the retina shoals of
information slot into place and, from the stone out,
one pollen-grain, one, the fruit’s flesh swells.
Delicious!Yellow, the daystar; green is begin.

Like his modernist forebears Ezra Pound and especially William Carlos Williams, Scully can at times be quite imagist, as he is in the preceding {315} extract. But imagism is not his limit - it is in the act of writing, the conscious transmitting of information, that the poet is present. For Scully, the poem is something vastly different than any scene it purports to describe. At another point, after delivering another strongly descriptive passage, he suddenly commands (of himself ?), “Cut / through / that / too” (“Cohering”), as if in fact to undercut the older notion of a poetry composed solely of images.

This goes to the heart of Scully’s existential position as a poet. A major theme of his is ephemerality, or rather the awareness of the impermanence of everything except change itself. It is the awareness that the images the poet sees are also constantly changing, that they soon will appear quite differently, and will have in fact become other images altogether. There is no attempt in his work to fix time, or to fix the ongoing process that is this life. In “Rain Dance,” Scully writes,

It’s not that Time Flies, no, but that the past slipping back & elasticated can-will ping! forward into a possible future now/now any moment now any moment/moment - duck! now. It is important that the public should not be given a false picture. Plumes of steam across dark industrial zones. . . .

The disjointed nature of the language here is meant, I think, to convey the sense of futility involved in anything so presumptuous as trying to directly represent in words either the nature of time or even the plumes of steam. For that matter, the statement that “the public should not be given a false picture,” while probably emblematic of Scully’s thinking, is delivered in an ironically portentous tone. The reader will not find the false comfort of certainty here, be it of the poetic or of the philosophical variety.

What Scully presents the reader with instead is a sort of challenge. His work is a challenge on the level of language - his can often be dense - but it is also the philosophical challenge alluded to above. “A million / things happen at once,” he writes in “[Hungarian] Folk Dance: Artist’s Studio,” “Can / you hack it?” In other words, can you deal with a poetry that rejects the idea that the world, a universe which is in constant flux, can so conveniently be brought into language? Can you deal with an Irish poet for whom the heterogeneous aspect of existence is to the fore, and virtually all of the familiar tropes of “Irish poetry” are absent? Some might answer that they simply don’t care to, and that would be fair enough. Others might {316} accept the challenge, and, to this reader’s mind, might find themselves the richer for it.

But Ireland is far from absent in Doing the Same in English. It is there in the details Scully transmits, such as the supermarket advertising slogan “Super Valu - values you!” which appears in “Geometric,” or the “impossible accent ... over the P in Oifig an Phoist” which appears in “Setting.” [1] Indeed, it is often the interplay between the English and Irish languages that heightens the awareness of language itself as a medium in Scully’s work. This is probably most obvious in the poem “To Balance,” part of which is an explication of an ancient Gaelic poem, and ends up supplying the title for this book. Scully gives the short poem (in its original Gaelic font), “Cride é / daire cnó / ócán é / pócán dó (glossed as “he is my heart / nut of the oak / he is a young man / a kiss for him”), and continues on to say that it

is oral and lettrist - every word rhyming, every syllable
rhyming, every letter finding its repetition (except the kiss,
a plosive), a sort of spasm of self-conscious design (Celtic,
bardic, academic even) from far away, in silence ...
                        ... But a girl’s kiss too carrying
across centuries in a handful of received letters. Nine of them
in fact. Now, do the same in English.

The idea is that you can’t really do the exact thing in English that is being done in the original Irish, though you might create a sort of simulacrum in a different way, away that speaks to contemporary reality. Broadening this out, thinking of the work of poetry on the wider level, poetry itself is like a translation, a translation of the world or its images, of thoughts or perceptions. But it is not these things directly, and something will have been altered in the act of translation that is the writing of poetry. Scully does not purport otherwise, but forges ahead “doing the same in English” just as he knows it’s not the same, and that is one of the foremost strengths of this collection.

1. Oifig an Phoist means Post Office in Irish, and it, along with the many other Irish phrases in this volume, is helpfully glossed for the reader who does not speak the language. {317}

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