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Confederate Agency of Things: Maurice Scully’s Tig

L’agentivité confédérée des choses : Tig, de Maurice Scully
Wit Pietrzak
p. 33-45

Résumés

Tig, le dernier volume du projet Things That Happen de Maurice Scully, représente ce que Jane Bennett a appelé l’agentivité confédérée, par laquelle le monde matériel, tant animé qu’inanimé, acquiert une agentivité par sa capacité d’expression. Actives sur le plan sémiotique, les choses révèlent une vitalité et une expressivité que l’humanisme classique considère comme limitée aux humains. Les expériences formelles de Scully, étudiées ici à l’aune de ce que Derek Attridge nomme « la création de l’autre », offrent des instances particulièrement intéressantes de la capacité des choses à participer à une production textuelle. L’une des manières les plus enrichissantes de lire l’œuvre de Scully est de prêter attention à la façon dont il déplace l’accent depuis le soi poétique en tant que centre d’expression vers le monde matériel qui, dans ses poèmes, devient un espace où l’ordre et sa dispersion perpétuelle sont en tension, espace que la notion de rhizome de Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari éclaire de manière particulièrement utile.

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  • 1 Eric Falci, blurb note on Maurice Scully, Things That Happen, Swindon, Shearsman Books, 2020. Hence (...)
  • 2 Alex Davis, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism, Dublin, University College Dubl (...)
  • 3 As of now, Scully’s work has been given the most substantial critical treatment in a collection of (...)
  • 4 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, Contemporary Literature, vol. 53, no. 1, 2012, (...)
  • 5 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, p. 4 (...)
  • 6 Michael Begnal points out that Things That Happen is also “a large continuing poem written over the (...)
  • 7 See Eric Falci, “Scully’s Several Dances and the Play of Genre”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fab (...)
  • 8 Benjamin Keatinge, review of Sonata and Tig by Maurice Scully, Poetry Ireland Review, no. 91, 2007, (...)

1Maurice Scully’s monumental Things That Happen, a serial long poem comprising four collections, Five Freedoms of Movements (1987), Livelihood (2004), Sonata (2006) and Tig (2006), represents not only “the most ambitious and important long poem in modern Irish literature”1 but one of the crucial additions to contemporary Anglophone experimental poetry. Although already in the late 1990s, Alex Davis remarked on Scully’s “incendiary quality”, situating it close to that of the Modernist avant-garde,2 the significance of Scully’s work has properly been brought to critical attention in the last decade or so, with more work done on Things That Happen as well as Scully’s two subsequent collections, Humming (2009) and Several Dances (2014).3 The neo-modernist nature of his experiments has drawn comparisons with Ezra Pound – a poet Scully himself cited as a vital influence on his work4 – particularly The Pisan Cantos,5 as well as William Carlos Williams’s Patterson,6 Charles Olson7 and James Joyce. In his review of Sonata and Tig, Benjamin Keatinge remarks on the similarity between the two volumes and Finnegans Wake, observing that like Joyce’s novel the completion of Scully’s project “has taken a while to happen, but has been worth the wait”.8

  • 9 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, p. 55.
  • 10 Lucy Collins, “The End of the Line: Maurice Scully’s Tig”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, (...)

2And yet, more than a mere epigone of high modernists, Scully pushes the capacities of poetic expression to regions thus far only sparingly explored. On the one hand, his rejection of the “well-made poem” together with its concomitant tropes of metaphor and symbol,9 as well as his emphasis on processual nature of the composition process go hand in hand with the experiments undertaken by his Irish contemporaries like Trevor Joyce and Randolph Healy or the English avant-garde poets, from the Cambridge mandarin J. H. Prynne all the way to Keston Sutherland and Drew Milne. Indeed, focusing on Tig, Lucy Collins recognises a crucial strand that runs through Scully’s entire mature oeuvre when she argues: “Things That Happen suggests a world broken apart and reunited in varied forms”, adding that “the dynamics of fragmentation and reconstruction speak of the larger concern with death and dissolution with which [Tig] is preoccupied”.10 In Scully, things do fall apart but, unlike for William Butler Yeats, this hails no revelation nor is it cause for tragic joy. Instead, the various kinds of dissolution: of material objects subject to time, of the lyric self-caught in the networks of the world, of the line of verse pulled apart by the pressures of composition – these various instances of disassembly and disarticulation offer insights into the processual nature of reality and of language as part of that reality.

3It is in evocations of material world, of all manner of those things that happen, that I would like to suggest the depth and originality of Scully’s experiment lies, for in attending to “things”, his poems engage what has recently been termed the vitality of matter – the non-human world’s capacity for expression and agency. Through formal experiment focused on the construction of the line of verse as well as on stanzaic arrangement of the text, both of which create effects of simultaneity of all that takes place and into which the poet is thrown, Things That Happen removes the lyric persona from the centre of expression. By doing so, Scully allows the surrounding world not only to shape his poems’ language but also to join the distinctly human voice in the act of expression. Thus, the things that come to the fore throughout Scully’s project, though I will attend specifically to Tig, the final volume and a coda to Things That Happen, do so by means of becoming articulate not through the speaker but alongside him.

  • 11 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010, p (...)
  • 12 Ibid., p. 4.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 14 Bennett uses the two terms interchangeably, see eg. ibid., p. 31.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 33.

4Jane Bennett, one of the chief proponents of the idea of vitality of matter, explains that “by ‘vitality’ I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own”, all of which run “alongside and inside humans”.11 While for the past several decades it has been accepted that natural phenomena in the form of the climate change have played an active part in human policy-making, Bennett observes that this agentive power is passive. From the anthropocentric point of view, storms or unexpected movements of the tectonic plates can interfere with our designs but they hardly possess a subjectivity of their own. And yet, according to Bennett, matter, which for her also covers the human self by virtue of the fact that the “human being and thinghood overlap”, is a “player in the world”.12 The agentive aspect of matter as well as its overlapping with the human are rooted in a revised idea of subjectivity, which is no longer an independent self that can decide for itself but is part of a complex network, a network that Bennett refers to as a “heterogeneous assemblage”. She goes on to argue that “the concept of agency”, traditionally affiliated with ideas of “efficacy or effectivity”, “becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localised in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts”.13 This distributive or confederate agency14 gives rise to a revision of ideas of efficacy, causality and trajectory (Bennett’s term roughly corresponding to an agent’s intentionality), each of which loses its singularity and becomes enmeshed in the networks of a variety of agents. This is best visible in her discussion of causality, where she points out that it “is more emergent, more fractal than linear” and as such “one finds circuits in which effect and cause alternate positions and redound on each other”.15

  • 16 W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, University of Chi (...)
  • 17 Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, New York, Routledge, 2017, p. 22 passim.

5As a consequence of Bennett’s redefinition of subjectivity, whereby confederate agency comes to replace the singular, independent selfhood, the world, understood as comprising human and non-human, animate and inanimate in a radical gesture of inclusive logic, becomes a space not of subjects and objects but of things. Bennett makes this point early on in her book through recourse to W. J. T. Mitchell, who argues that unlike objects, which “are the way things appear to a subject”, “things […] [signal] the moment when the object becomes the Other, when the sardine can looks back, when the mute idol speaks […]”.16 From Bennett’s point of view, and in accordance with Mitchell’s insight, as parts of the confederate agency, we are exposed to a network of things-as-Others, which not only surround us but for which we are also things-as-Others. Although in trying to convey the vibrancy of things, Bennett does speak about literary texts, her insights often derive from textual analysis, with little attention paid to broader theoretical issues specific to how literature operates. Particularly relevant for extending her discussions of things-as-Others is Derek Attridge’s idea that literature is “the creation of the other”17 (he consistently employs the lower case).

  • 18 Ibid., p. 30 (emphasis in original).
  • 19 Ibid., p. 32.

6Attridge uses the ambiguity inherent in the phrase (literature as created by the other or literature as an act of setting up of some form of otherness) to suggest that “if [literature] is to be derived from ‘creating the other’, it emphasizes agency and activity” of the writer, who manages to “bring into existence by skillful and imaginative labor an entity that is irreducibly different from what is already in being”. On the other hand, though, there is the other possibility, that “my text, and perhaps something of myself, are created by the other”.18 What this latter reading indicates is that “the relation of the created work to conscious acts of creation is not entirely one of effect to cause” but rather that the creation of “the wholly new” literary text entails a “relinquishment of intellectual control”,19 which, in turn, makes the text a product of what Bennett would term confederate agency. Thus, in view of Attridge’s idea, literature constitutes an area of linguistic production that is particularly apt for exploring the way in which things can announce themselves as agents. It is in relation to this idea of things-as-others which participate in the creation of a literary text that Scully’s Tig, in many ways the most radically experimental of the four volumes, proves a ground-breaking achievement, bringing forth, in most astute and intricate ways, the capacity of the non-human to participate in the poetic evocation.

  • 20 Kit Fryatt, “Meeting a Giant: Allegory in Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen”, in A Line of Tiny Z (...)
  • 21 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, p. 47.

7Akin to the previous volumes in Things That Happen, Tig, whose title refers simultaneously to the Irish word for “house” and the English term for the game otherwise known as “‘tag’ or ‘it’” as well as “the Irish ‘tuig’, ‘to understand’”,20 evokes a set of images that repeatedly emerge and self-interrupt, creating a mesh of imagery in which the human voice interweaves with, and adjusts to, material reality. “[Blessing the Animals]”, the opening poem of the volume, starts in medias res with the word “then” (TTH, 515), which is followed by a description of the monarch butterfly’s life sequence. The direct, almost scientific, language employed in the first stanza draws attention to the details of the insect’s mating and travel patterns but the focus on the monarch is interrupted by an image of “the train’s shadow / flickering over the fields” (TTH, 515). After those two lines, the poem returns to the monarch only to drop it once more, this time to attend to “a child nearby / at a window” (TTH, 515), an image which is again punctuated with a brief parenthetical mention of the butterfly: “(migration pattern is as)” (TTH, 515). The brackets suggest that the consideration of the “migration pattern” happens at the same time as the invocation of the child that we subsequently learn is “so happy so // taken aback / she // sings” (TTH, 516). This subset of images recurs throughout the volume and will presently be complemented by similarly recursive evocations of, among others, a leaf falling, picking persimmon, observing waterways and paying a visit to hospital, which leads to elegiac recollections of the poet’s father dying. All this is overlain with metapoetic considerations of what constitutes poetry and a critique of capitalist obsession with profit. The wealth of thematic concerns of Tig is matched by its formal innovation, as lines flow and fluctuate down the page, creating what, in reference to Livelihood, David Lloyd calls “momentary, fleeting patterns”.21 Those transient constellations are embodied in stanzaic arrangements of variable length and rhythm that are further enriched by typographical markers and occasional drawings. It is this experimental form that allows the poems to achieve a shift in emphasis from the speaker’s voice onto the things being conjured.

  • 22 Kit Fryatt, “Interview with Maurice Scully”, Metre, no. 17, 2005, p. 142. Scully’s remark is equall (...)
  • 23 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 18.

8Speaking of Livelihood, Scully suggested that the poems in that collection work “not to privilege human language and stuff it with ego”; in lieu of focusing exclusively on his or her own self, the poet’s task is to “listen, in humility” and become “a contributor [to] not an imperious editor” of the world.22 While voice, which Scully calls “the fundamental trace of the human in the world”,23 is crucial to his conception of poetry, it is voice as part of a larger sonic structure of the world, which any given poem enacts. This idea of voice as a confederate agent, to use Bennett’s term, in the poetic composition is central to Tig. It reproaches the imperialism of the poet’s own ego for yielding no more than “old-world lyrics” (TTH, 533) that fail to “communicate” (TTH, 560) in the sense of establishing interpersonal but also intermaterial lines of dialogue. For Tig strives to open a vocal space to even the most mundane and minute of details, and it does so through experimentation at the level of line and stanzaic patterning.

9In “[Blessing the Animals]”, the several interweaving images lead to the evocation of the movement of both leaves and the monarch butterflies:

        their        
                 
      dispersal   patterns      
                 
    are as       follows.    
                 
  map.           stop.  
                 
count.               then
                 
  immense         upsurge  
                 
    white       red    
                 
      amber   dark      
                 

(TTH, 516)

Alluding to concrete poetry, the stanza sets in motion a dynamic between order and its dissolution, which is part of the more general tension between construction and dissolution as analysed by Collins. Whereas the scattered words point to fragmentation and emptiness at the centre of the leaves’ haphazard motions, the shape of the stanza insists on fullness and coherence as conjured by the circular form. In this way, the paradox of the phrase “dispersal patterns” is inscribed in the poem’s stanzaic arrangement in that while the form projects the sort of stability that is associated with patterns, the interrupted evocation of the colours as well as movements of the leaves and the butterflies suggests an incompleteness of those patterns.

  • 24 See Maurice Scully, Tig, Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2006, p. 13. A similar concrete image of a key ap (...)

10It is by dint of the dynamic inherent in the lexical and formal deployment of “dispersal patterns” that “[Blessing the Animals]” reveals its emergent nature: it only exists in the act of its vanishing. This tension between presence and dissolution of order is then picked up on in the last stanzas of the poem, which drops the discussion of the evolutionary patterns of the butterfly’s development of wings and conjures “rain on glass to the side of yr face” (TTH, 517). The image is followed by a drawing of a rectangle under which comes the phrase “a door shut in a corridor” (TTH, 517). In effect, the rectangle seems to illustrate the rain-covered glass or, alternatively the shut door at the end of a corridor, but also offsets the circle-shaped stanza from earlier in the poem. On the one hand, then, the ending of the poem suggests that the apparent emptiness at the heart of the rectangle is a visual rendition of either the transparency of rain or the closure of passage, as though the drawing were more vocative than mere words in the lines coming above and below it. On the other, though, the shape only amplifies the intimation of emptiness, in that one gets the feeling that the rectangle creates a twofold gap: not only does it delimit a space of nothingness but it also interrupts the textual progress of the stanza. In addition, in the 2006 book published by Shearsman, the fragment beginning with the circular arrangement of words and ending with “a door shut […]” resembles a key,24 as though to suggest that the poem offers a way into the volume, like a key that unlocks the door to the house. But then, the door is declared to be shut by the end of the poem, thus intensifying the dynamic between closure, in this case indicated by the last line, and openness, implied through the concrete form of the key, that informs the entire collection.

11As a result of this formal extravagance, “[Blessing the Animals]” creates meaning not solely through the poet’s evocations of what it is that he has on his mind, though this is also present in the poem, but also through the arrangement of tensions between the semantic content of the words and lines and their formal deployment on the page. Those words and lines, in turn, stem from material things in the world and it is in this way that we are alerted to the vibrancy of the leaves, butterflies and rain. Despite the fact that the voice that conveys them is human, it follows and responds to the material stimuli that conduce to the particular stanzaic arrangements. If, to refer to Attridge’s logic, the speaker creates the others, speaking leaves and butterflies into existence, those others simultaneously lead the speaker by enforcing unusual forms, thereby unleashing a semantic potential extrinsic to that which currently preoccupies the speaker’s ego.

  • 25 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 14.
  • 26 Ibid.

12A similar dynamic, though featuring a different set of formal innovations, registers in “Sonnet” from the “Coda” section of Tig, in which an array of images is intermixed, bringing forth a tension between clarity and what may be termed, after Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, rhizomaticity. Like virtually all of Scully’s poems that carry the term “sonnet” in their titles, this one has little to do with the genre but rather operates through an allusive reworking of the form. In reference to his loose employment of the sonnet, Scully makes a broader observation that poetic form can generally be divided into two kinds, the architectural and the fibrous. Whereas the former emphasises clarity of form through observance of traditional patterns of line composition and stanzaic construction, the latter, which Scully uses to describe his own verse, employs a kind of structuring that lies “below ground”: “The mycelium, the threaded web, connecting roots over long distances. Symbiotic, not parasitic. My poetry has that sort of fibrous connectedness”.25 He then illustrates this statement with the example of his treatment of the sonnet: “When a piece entitled ‘Sonnet’ appears, I don’t necessarily mean that it is a sonnet. What I mean, often, is, think of what a sonnet means to you, then read this, the ghost of ‘architectural’ form invoked against this, which has a different nature”.26 Scully’s idea of “fibrous connectedness”, explained as it is by reference to mycology, echoes Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the rhizome. They explain that in contrast to a tree, which they see as a symbol of a binary structure,

  • 27 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi (t (...)

[…] the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature […]. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple. […] It is composed not of units but of dimensions, or rather directions in motion. It has neither beginning nor end, but always a middle (milieu) from which it grows and which it overspills. It constitutes linear multiplicities with n dimensions having neither subject nor object, which can be laid out on a plane of consistency, and from which the One is always subtracted (n – 1).27

Such “linear multiplicity” operates in a poem like “[Blessing the Animals]”, as it generates ever more tensions by binding form and content in a dynamic relationship, but in “Sonnet”, the rhizomatic nature of the text comes to the fore even more clearly.

13“Sonnet” features a number of interwoven images of cursory events, ranging from a short sentence, like “she left a leaf on my desk” or “a fly stopped on a stone / grooming”, to a single word “wait” (TTH, 550-551). These are separated by horizontal lines, creating a segmented structure, suggestive of a ledger. The penultimate segment features nine lines comprising separate words struck off from each other to imply an additional structure within structure:

hare   giddy person    
              otter   water snake
retaliate         demons
              tor   belly
vanquish         and
[…]
zymurgy         maker of leaven
(TTH, 551; emphasis in original)
  • 28 Ibid., p. 30.
  • 29 Philip Terry, “Author’s Note”, in Quennets, Manchester, Carcanet, 2016, p. 141.
  • 30 David Bellos, “Introduction”, in Raymond Queneau, Elementary Morality, Philip Terry (trans.), Manch (...)
  • 31 James Kurt, “The Beginning of Oulipo? An Attempt to Rediscover a Movement”, Textual Practice, vol.  (...)

The entire stanzaic segment, its alignment of lines into blocks of three caesuraed files, projects stability and completeness, indeed what Deleuze and Guattari term, in reference to Freud’s obsession with conceptual cohesion, “molar unity” as contrasted with “molecular multiplicities”.28 This is reinforced by the mention of zymurgy, the process of fermentation, and leaven, a fermentation-inducing agent, in that fermentation represents the sort of self-identical conversion of one substance into another that Deleuze and Guattari theorise under the rubric of molarity. That this stanzaic segment is included in “Sonnet” also alludes to Raymond Queneau’s Oulipian sequence of poems included in part I of his volume Elementary Morality (Morale élémentaire, 1975). One of the founders of the influential group of experimental writers OuLiPo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), Queneau devised the constraint-predicated form of the grid-like poem, which “has come to be called the ‘elementary morality’ after this volume, or, after its inventor, the ‘quennet’, as it has one more line than a sonnet”.29 It comprises “three two-line stanzas, line 1 of each consisting of three phrases and line 2 of one phrase, each phrase formed by a noun-adjective pair followed by seven lines of at least two and not more than seven syllables followed by one two-line stanza conforming to the same constraint as at the start”.30 While the choice of words seems random, the strictness of the form introduces stability to the experiment. In this way, like Queneau’s earlier work, the quennet “operates in a manner that dramatically precludes limitless possibility and instead produces poems that are fields of massive, yet limited potentiality”.31

14As with Queneau’s poems, Scully’s penultimate section in “Sonnet” implies structural coherence but the choice of words points to the contingent nature of the form, given that there is no apparent rule that governs either the selection of words and their italicisation or the arrangements of lines. Instead, through all of “Sonnet”, the haphazardly recurrent images contribute to the disarticulation of the ostensible stability of the text. One of the effects of the tension between stability and lack thereof is that, just as with Queneau’s constraint-predicated writing, in “Sonnet” the poetic self is no longer the centre of expression but rather it is the links, the “fibrous connectedness”, between things evoked that come to the fore. Thus, “Sonnet” comes to embody the always-already collapsed structure of things that happen, in which the human self remains present and vocal but is made subservient to the fluctuations of the ever-multiplying rhizome of the material world. Once more, the signifying potential of the poem arises from the tensions in the space of the text: tensions between stability and disarticulation, order and rhizomaticity, if not quite chaos. What speaks in “Sonnet” is the human voice but only insofar as it is prompted by things out there, their vibrancy entering the confederate agency that collectively generates the text.

15One of the most sustained meditations on the fibrous, rhizomatic nature of matter as evoked in the poetic text comes in “[Picking Persimmon]”. The poem begins with a series of two-line stanzas in which the speaker notices that “for the sake of / the rhythm I suppose // of the train on its / track” his companion “smiled”, which leads to a reminiscence about his “obsessive hating // obsessed teaching” (TTH, 539). This, in turn, yields to a denunciation of the “cocky ignorant well-to-do”, “the European / upper echelons” (TTH, 540), after which comes the interweaving of the familiar images: the poet’s “dark & haunting house”, the “train’s / shadow flickering / over the fields” and the “very young child / so happy so // taken aback / she sings…” (TTH, 540-541). Despite the interruptions in the process of the poet’s musing over his past, “[Picking Persimmon]” retains the singular voice as the source of the text, until all pretence to architectural cohesion and singularity is dropped with the onset of the latter two sections of the poem. Distributed across two separate pages, the subsequent parts of the poem feature a scattered design of words and, especially in the last section, phrases:

                  & farre    
                  exell 
                  all other strowing 
                      herbes 
  for to decke up houses
                                slate
web
              clay
                          weed
(TTH, 542)

What at first seems to be a formally coherent text opens up to the dynamic of contingency and determinism. On the one hand, the words and phrases scattered across the page emphasise incompleteness and randomness, a dissolution of the attempt at an evocation of a memory. This results in an almost complete disarticulation of the singular poetic voice, which is submerged in the swathes of whiteness punctuated by isolated words or borrowed phrases.

  • 32 John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, London, Norton, 1597, chap. 402, p. 887.

16On the other hand, however, all words in “[Picking Persimmon]” are connected to the building and decoration of a house and the practice of horticulture, both of which also feature in the earlier parts of the poem. The opening of the section cites from the 16th-century herbalist John Gerard, who observes that “leaves and flowers [of meadowsweet] far excell all other strowing herbes, for to decke up houses […]; for the smell thereof maketh the hart merrie, delighteth the senses”.32 This intertextual allusion further extends the web of the text, which now includes not only the synchrony of language and matter but also involves the historical dimension, creating a spatio-temporal rhizome in which the generation of the text is spurred by the flow of things as they happen. Rejecting both pure determinism and utter randomness, these sections of “[Picking Persimmon]” follow the rhizomatic logic of “both and”, as they undermine the molar structuration attempted in the earlier parts of the poem but never relinquish some form of cohesion. Neither does the poetic voice vanish entirely in this dynamic arrangement of images, but rather it is woven into the fabric of proliferating semantic potentiality. The “web / clay / weed”, in all of their evocative capacity, become agentive insofar as they captivate the poet’s eye. They are the vital others at the inception of the text, but also, they only announce themselves in language through the voice of the poet, the creator of the things-as-others.

17It is such a confederate agency of the vibrancy of things and the poet’s contributory humility, to refer to Scully’s own words, that “[Picking Persimmon]” calls “a multiparticular planar miracle”:

      a tree        
           
    is a multiparticular planar miracle
           
is a book an electronic blur a minute variation hook
           
  is a door     a still         my notes     hats         quotes
           
the shadows moving in the breeze in the sunlight
beside the white house outside the village by the sea
           
change
(TTH, 542-543)

The scattering of the words again creates the tension between order and its dissolution, in that the spaces and line breaks as well as the selection of phrases seem contingent. However, the central alignment with the word “change” coming in the middle of the “multiparticular planar miracle” implies a coherence, as though the lines sought not only to evoke but to embody the tree trunk. While Deleuze and Guattari associate trees with the structural order of being, in “[Picking Persimmon]” the tree is woven into the network of things, thereby becoming part of the rhizomatic structure, which exists in the process of perpetual assembly and dispersal. While “change” is the dominant principle here, it projects a continuity of the process and thereby indicates that amidst the aleatory procedures that the poem records a certain stability persists. This idea is further underlain with a tension between a horizontal connectivity, the “planar” or two-dimensional aspect intrinsic to the poem as a printed, textual artefact, and a vertical thrust symbolised by the embedded clauses: “a tree” is “a multiparticular planar miracle” is “a book” is “a door”. In this sense, the poem, being a flat construct, implies multidimensionality, as it is put in the “Bread” section:

essen in part
tiall by grou
y a p pings o
oem i f twent
s a f y-six q
lat s uite we
urfac ll-know
e cov n-symbo
ered ols.
(TTH, 567)

The fragment resists its own designation as “a flat surface covered […] by […] symbols”, emphasising the horizontal-vertical tension through breaking the words apart and arranging them into two columns. The eye, in perusing the stanza, may move in two directions but what is created is a rhizomatic structure of “linear multiplicity”, as the fibrous interruption of lexical construction unravels the architecture of the lines as well as the words themselves.

  • 33 Kit Fryatt, “Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 141.

18Consequently, what “Bread” implies is that poems that privilege the figure of the poet as the source of the text turn into ossified two-dimensional constructs. Such constructs, then, cannot communicate the miraculous complexity of the thingly realm, a point brought up in “Sonnet Ode: Blessing the Animals”, which mocks the kind of conventional lyric represented by Seamus Heaney’s “Digging”. In Scully’s poem, the metaphor of digging, often regarded as the key symbol of Heaney’s early poetry, is derided as a childish oversimplification of issues of identity and belonging. According to Scully, conventional lyrics of that kind – which represent a wider practice in Irish verse that has long privileged the first person singular and its attendant pronouns: “Me, my, I” – necessarily invoke a clichéd version of identikit. As he mockingly puts it, “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”.33 Whereas such poetry may well be no more than flat surfaces, the sort of fibrous “multiparticular planar miracles” that emerge from his writing practice yield “linear multiplicities”, rhizomes and tangled webs.

  • 34 Serenella Iovino, Serpil Oppermann, “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych”, Interdisciplinar (...)

19Thus, in contrast to the many Irish “well-made poems”, by disarticulating the semantic clarity of the text through the experimentation with the stanza form and line structure, Tig removes the poet from the position of the centre of expression, situating him instead in the rhizomatic field of confederate agency. By virtue of the simultaneously orderly and random distribution of words across pages and interruptions in the evocation of individual images, Scully’s poems allow the material world to shape the textual construct. As a result of this practice, things as they happen come to participate in the ongoing act of composition, taking on the role of those creative / created others: both products and creators of the poems. When proponents of new materialism, whether strict philosophers like Bennett or Graham Harman or those representing materialist-related disciplines such as ecocriticism, claim that matter be treated “as a text, as a site of narrativity, a storied matter, a corporeal palimpsest in which stories are inscribed”,34 they rarely explain how this can be done without privileging the anthropocentric perspective. It is in this context that Scully’s radical experiment proves particularly illuminating in that his poetry allows the “storied matter” to gain an active part in the act of expression, rather than inciting expression from the human subject. In Tig, arguably the most radically innovative of the entire Things That Happen project, the human element is shown as no more and no less than an ancillary to the vast universe of agentive materiality, so that by the end of the collection, “Dandelion & daisy” and “a sweetish whiff // of wallflower” become not a background to but constitutive parts of the poet’s “walks / past the Ashtown Tin Box Factory” (TTH, 603).

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Notes

1 Eric Falci, blurb note on Maurice Scully, Things That Happen, Swindon, Shearsman Books, 2020. Henceforth Scully’s volume will be cited in the text as TTH with page numbers.

2 Alex Davis, A Broken Line: Denis Devlin and Irish Poetic Modernism, Dublin, University College Dublin Press, 2000, p. 167.

3 As of now, Scully’s work has been given the most substantial critical treatment in a collection of essays on the poet: A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric. Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully, Kenneth Keating (ed.), Swindon, Shearsman Books, 2020; and in Irish University Review, vol. 46, no. 1, May 2016, Irish Experimental Poetry, David Lloyd (ed.).

4 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, Contemporary Literature, vol. 53, no. 1, 2012, p. 24.

5 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, p. 48.

6 Michael Begnal points out that Things That Happen is also “a large continuing poem written over the course of decades” (Michael Begnal, “A Sustained Burst of Energy”, Fortnight, no. 453, 2007, p. 28).

7 See Eric Falci, “Scully’s Several Dances and the Play of Genre”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, p. 136-137.

8 Benjamin Keatinge, review of Sonata and Tig by Maurice Scully, Poetry Ireland Review, no. 91, 2007, p. 95.

9 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, p. 55.

10 Lucy Collins, “The End of the Line: Maurice Scully’s Tig”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, p. 102.

11 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham, Duke University Press, 2010, p. viii.

12 Ibid., p. 4.

13 Ibid., p. 23.

14 Bennett uses the two terms interchangeably, see eg. ibid., p. 31.

15 Ibid., p. 33.

16 W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 156-157.

17 Derek Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, New York, Routledge, 2017, p. 22 passim.

18 Ibid., p. 30 (emphasis in original).

19 Ibid., p. 32.

20 Kit Fryatt, “Meeting a Giant: Allegory in Maurice Scully’s Things That Happen”, in A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric…, p. 78.

21 David Lloyd, “Intricate Walking: Scully’s Livelihood”, p. 47.

22 Kit Fryatt, “Interview with Maurice Scully”, Metre, no. 17, 2005, p. 142. Scully’s remark is equally applicable to the entire Things That Happen.

23 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 18.

24 See Maurice Scully, Tig, Exeter, Shearsman Books, 2006, p. 13. A similar concrete image of a key appears throughout the volume, with the most pronounced example coming in “Coda” in the “Bread” section on page 86. I am grateful to Bartłomiej Sobański for pointing my attention to that aspect of Tig’s formal construction.

25 Marthine Satris, “An Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 14.

26 Ibid.

27 Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi (trans.), London, Continuum, 2004, p. 23.

28 Ibid., p. 30.

29 Philip Terry, “Author’s Note”, in Quennets, Manchester, Carcanet, 2016, p. 141.

30 David Bellos, “Introduction”, in Raymond Queneau, Elementary Morality, Philip Terry (trans.), Manchester, Carcanet, 2008, p. ix.

31 James Kurt, “The Beginning of Oulipo? An Attempt to Rediscover a Movement”, Textual Practice, vol. 29, no. 5, 2015, p. 888.

32 John Gerard, The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, London, Norton, 1597, chap. 402, p. 887.

33 Kit Fryatt, “Interview with Maurice Scully”, p. 141.

34 Serenella Iovino, Serpil Oppermann, “Theorizing Material Ecocriticism: A Diptych”, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 19, no. 3, 2012, p. 451.

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Wit Pietrzak, « Confederate Agency of Things: Maurice Scully’s Tig »Études irlandaises, 49-1 | 2024, 33-45.

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Wit Pietrzak, « Confederate Agency of Things: Maurice Scully’s Tig »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 49-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/etudesirlandaises/17868 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.17868

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Auteur

Wit Pietrzak

University of Łódź (Poland)

Wit Pietrzak, professeur de littérature britannique à l’université de Łódź (Pologne), est spécialiste de poésie moderniste et contemporaine, irlandaise et britannique, de théorie littéraire, et d’écocritique. Parmi ses publications récentes, on peut signaler The Critical Thought of W. B. Yeats (Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), Constitutions of Self in Contemporary Irish Poetry (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) et “All will be swept away” : Dimensions of Elegy in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon (New York, Routledge, 2023).

Wit Pietrzak is professor of British literature at the University of Łódź (Poland). He specialises in modernist and contemporary Irish and British poetry, theory of literature as well as ecocriticism. His recent publications include The Critical Thought of W. B. Yeats (Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), Constitutions of Self in Contemporary Irish Poetry (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) and “All will be swept away”: Dimensions of Elegy in the Poetry of Paul Muldoon (New York, Routledge, 2023).

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