Saturday, December 07, 2013

Scully & Mills, Smithereens chapbooks

Maurice Scully’s latest work is RAIN, a chapbook/pamphlet published by Smithereens Press earlier this year and readable for free in online form here:


A quick search of the blog in front of you will reveal that I have written quite a bit about Scully already, and what I like about this one is I suppose what I like about most of his work — its capacity for being both imagistic and kinetic at the same time, or, its simulacra of both.  By imagistic, I mean concise description and something more, Pound’s “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” like, “a small cracked / black & white / photo from / the 50s // popped out of / a book on / yr desk”.  By kinetic, I mean the way this poem traces the movement of thought with sudden leaps or jump cuts, to new and perhaps contrasting images.  After the photo, there is suddenly a series of visions of nature, possibly ranging through time.  A “quiet cell / in the woods / berries birdsong / rootlets” recalls the ascetic life of a mediaeval Irish monk in a beehive hut.  A short ways on there is this curious scene: “this must / be that / beautiful / little quick // feathered / animal / feeding by / the // wave-edge” — yeah, the reader might think, you mean a bird.  But what makes this passage is the off-kilter way it is rendered — it “must be” this thing that is denoted by its description rather than its name.

As always with Scully, the way/s in which we use language are under question, or if not that, are at least foregrounded in the construction of the poem.  Much could be made of Scully’s line breaks and use of enjambment, for example.  And after the sequence above, suddenly he cuts to an image of a “book / opened / on a / table”, which is a scene perhaps of the very writer’s desk.  This breaks the frame of the poem, as does the gesture toward concrete poetry (where the vertical-bar keyboard characters placed along a right margin mimic the falling of raindrops).  Scully also discusses the genesis of the poem in a series of notes, further allowing the reader behind the veil.  As he himself points out, though, this may be “subjective & unnecessary to know in the first place other than to give the reader some idea of how the thing was put together.”  RAIN is successful on its own as a poem that is engaged in celebrating life, perception, and the creation of the self through art.

Another recent Smithereens chapbook is Billy Mills’s from Pensato: More Words for Voices, readable here:


(I should disclose that Mills recently reviewed a book of mine, but I have been reading and enjoying his work long before that ever happened.)

In a way similarly to Scully, from Pensato is closely tuned to the small sensory moments and images that make up a life as it is lived and the world as it is in the process of continual change.  These are a series of snippets segueing into each other over the course of 22 pages, sometimes just a handful of lines each, crisp and at times haiku-like.  Here is one: “a snatch of air / freezes / on the lip // crisp & almost / sweet”.  Where an autobiographical presence clearly inhabits Scully’s work, this is less apparent in Mills’s, where there the strategy is to deemphasise the personality of the poet as much as possible, in favor of the natural world.  Yet, subtly, we see the speaker here in the evaluative adjective “sweet.”  Further, the following poem, though grounded in flower imagery, could be read as a personal metaphor of human relationships in the face of ephemerality: “petals fold / against / each other // held delicate / tension / & weave // a fragile durability / that holds”.  What also “weaves” us together here is poetry itself — beyond the metaphor, the astute reader is drawn to the slant or near-rhyme of “fold,” “held,” “holds,” the soft-‘e’ assonance of “held,” delicate,” “tension,” and the hard-‘e’ assonance of “each,” and “weave.”

It is also interesting to me how Mills connects nature and the human subconsciousness (dream) through poetry.  On page 13: “persist & sing / the least need / most // an image is / that leads / sleep goes // first then this / who dreams would / keep so” — yes! for the poet we persist through our art (“sing”) and, through images (in poetry) and dreams, also, live; in other words the inner life is connected both to the way we position ourselves in the outside, natural world and to the production of our art.  Here is a slight reworking of the same idea, on page 19: “& sleep once / & dream / easily // & let the light / erase / the edge of things // drift / purposeful & / clear”.  The consciousness, the clarity, that is provided by an artistic perception of reality allows us to live life in a particular way.  For Mills (and for myself) it is to “drift purposeful and clear” — the seeming contradiction between drifting and purpose being obviously resolved in this particular aesthetic stance.  As Mills writes a couple of pages on, this stance allows the world to be both “explicable & strange”.  His from Pensato is, in this regard, it seems to me, a kind of personal manifesto despite its impersonal framing.

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