Maurice Scully published his first book of poems, Love Poems and Others, in 1981, when he was also editing the journal The Beau and organising poetry events in Dublin. In the 1980s, he began the project that would eventually be titled Things That Happen, publishing the first volume, Five Freedoms of Movement, in 1987. A revised edition of this book was published in 2002 by etruscan books. Throughout the 1990s, he published chapbooks and pamphlets containing work which would eventually be gathered as the second volume of Things That Happen: Livelihood (Wild Honey Press, 2004). Sonata (Reality Street) and, a coda Tig (Shearsman), completed ‘the set’ in 2006. The title Things That Happen, a late addition – for many years, Scully’s working title was Livelihood: the set – alludes distantly to Paul Celan’s Bremen Prize acceptance speech. Celan spoke of the effects of the Holocaust upon language: ‘It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through all this happening.’
The imprecision of the Celan allusion is calculated to avoid appropriation of Celan’s suffering and that of European Jewry, while it quietly draws attention to everyday enormity. Celan’s phrase is ‘that which happened’, unnameable and unique. Without claiming equivalence with ‘that which happened’, Scully’s title maintains that ‘things’ do ‘happen’ and the poetry, as he said in an interview with Metre magazine in 2005 ‘carries a lot of grief in its back pocket’. The first book of new work to appear after the completion of Things That Happen, Humming (Shearsman, 2009) is also elegiac, dedicated to the memory of the poet’s brother, but opening into a meditation on universal grief and mortality. Humming’s section titles (‘Song’, ‘Ballad’, ‘Sonnet’, ‘Jam’, and ‘Coda’) assert the connection of poetry with music but also the importance of the literally and metaphorically ‘unspeakable’ even – especially – a verbal medium. This is poetry which aspires to the condition of humming; Scully is as ambitious and and modest as that adaptation of Pater’s epigram might suggest. A book of new and selected work, Doing the Same in English, was published by Dedalus in 2008, and a selection from Things That Happen, entitled A tour of the lattice, by veer books in 2011.
Scully’s poetry, though it is profoundly lyrical, is conceived not in terms of lyrics within a collection, but as book-length units, as projects taking decades to complete. It is poetry that demands the reader’s time as well as the poet’s. That’s not to say that it’s structurally over-determined or solemn. The structure of each book of Things That Happen, and the books taken together, grows on readers as they perceive repetitions and returns: the interest in development and predation in 5 Freedoms, figured by larvae and parasites, returns in Sonata as part of that book’s dominant image of the circle or cycle. The title of the first book of Livelihood, The Basic Colours, taken from an English-Greek phrasebook containing such vital queries as, ‘How many kinds of colour have you? Have you the basic colours?’, looks back to the wonderfully funny schoolbook poetry of 5 Freedoms:
Voici ma famille
mon fils ma fille
Je suis Monsieur Legrand.
my wife the sun the rent
Je suis assis dans un fauteuil.
is due my headache is due
to your headache
Pierre est a genoux sur le plancher
il joue avec son train
Pierre is screwing
that tart from Kimmage.
Bonjour mon ami
Ecoutez s’il vous plait.
That plea, `Ecoutez, s’il vous plait’, with characteristic irony put into the mouth of a cardboard paterfamilias, resonates throughout Scully’s poetry. The typical speaker of these poems waits, listens and observes. But he is not detached or chilly – the ambition articulated in Livelihood ‘not to write very cold poetry’ is fulfilled – just wary of the danger of the poet stamping his personality all over the material of his work, of seeking to absorb the world within the self. Nor is the language of these poems of listening and waiting coldly or grandiloquently impersonal.
Despite domestic contexts and motifs, Scully’s idiom is equally distant from a British and Irish discourse which he characterises in the conversation with Metre as ‘Mumsy and Popsy down on the farm show my Roots are Real & deck me out with Colourful Relatives I can’t wait to write about. A really strange hand-me down Identikit.’ The familial concerns of Things That Happen unfold within a predatory late-capitalist society, exemplified by the chilling creditor’s letter which gives a title to the first section of 5 Freedoms: ‘you are continuing to avail/ yourself of unauthorised credit.’ The pun on ‘unauthorised’ alerts us to Scully’s disinclination to adopt the stance of a god-like author, or as Harry Gilonis puts it, the role of an ‘all-encompassing Master of Ceremonies’. And yet Scully’s poetry also occupies a communal arena that recognises and invites our participation – indicated by that flexible, and much-maligned English pronoun, the generalised ‘you.’ ‘You’ meaning ‘I’, ‘you’ meaning ‘you’, ‘you’ meaning ‘one’, ‘you’ meaning ‘we’. This still-neglected poet deserves a much wider readership: I, you, we are all invited to join in.
The selection of poems included here is taken from the poet’s most recent book, Several Dances.
Love Poems & Others, Raven Arts Press, Dublin, 1981
5 Freedoms of Movement, Newcastle, 1987
Steps, Reality Street, Cambridge, 1998
Livelihood, Wild Honey Press, Wicklow, 2004
Sonata, Reality Street, Cambridge, 2006
Tig, Shearsman, Exeter, 2006
Humming, Shearsman, Exeter, 2009
Paul Perry reviews Humming
Interview at the Irish Writers’ Centre
Video of Scully reading at UC Berkeley