Okay, I’ve got some bad news for all my fellow poets out there. For a long time there has been intense competition for space in our funny little art form and upon reading an existential grammar I have to warn you that that competition has just got hotter. Paul Scully’s book was a delight to read with its wide ranging focus captured by a great clarity of language.
There is no pretension in these pages, just an energetic but humble awareness of the world and his story within it. Richard Sikin said "everyone needs a place. It shouldn't be inside of someone else." Throughout this book the reader has a clear understanding of Scully's place.
The book commences with a sequence of poems based around the Roman dictator Cincinnatus. Seen as a patrician role model by many across history, particularly the early United States, here was a person who was taken from his plough to lead Rome through a time of crisis. Here is a person who subsequently stepped away from that lofty height to resume the humble life of the farmer again. It is said George Washington actively emulated Cincinnatus when he refused to run for a second term as president. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, each person’s story is a mix of light and dark. The simplicity of Cincinnatus’s life was dictated by a huge fine he had to pay when his son was convicted of murder, prior to that he had accumulated wealth quite nicely thank you. In one incident examined in this book, Cincinnatus either committed or at least condoned the murder of a grain merchant for the crime of distributing free bread to the starving poor of Rome. The claim was that the individual concerned had failed to appear before the Senate but even then free bread was a heinous crime against business!
Scully’s second section, sparks and embers, takes a different narrative tack. It suggests to me Scully’s own family story – Father an ex-priest, mother in from the country through to the I character’s adulthood. I know this is a path many have taken beforehand, that looking fearlessly into one’s own past to make explicable both one’s own life and society generally, but there is always that individual element of risk involved, as James Fenton said "the writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation”.
Finally, the ebb tide, contains a wide ranging selection of work responding to Scully’s travels, life & readings.
This book has been really worked on and I loved the language. Let me quote what were a few of the highlights for me “the combinatorial mercies of war”, "the ingenuity of survival”, "the topiary of duty” “at that moment we grinned at each other, I pecked/her dawn-ruddy cheek and she patted/the horny plate my hair had so wantonly abandoned” “I eavesdrop on myself” “a glacier once ground through here?/This is philosophy?” And “limned with our hope”
Oscar Wilde once said “it takes a great deal of courage to see the world in all its tainted glory and still to love it” I think this just about says it all about this book. Scully is not one to blink, like the beautiful window image on the cover he has looked out to the Vista, analysed it, then lived it.
One of my myriad bugbears is the tedious design of so many Australian poetry books nowadays. An existential grammar is beautifully produced by Walleah Press with an arresting, inviting cover image. Ralph Wessman has been a treasure for the poetry community nationally for more years than neither he nor I probably want to contemplate.
I’d like to finish by reading one of the pieces, a personal favourite, Remembering Cincinnatus: an Imagined Life, page 43
Beware the man who would be king!
Pegged to a line remembered
from a poem never written, caution
appended to Kipling’s story, I reinvented
you as an antidote.
that riffle through Livy, I harmonised them
with plangent afterthought, arpeggiated
your reflections with my sensibilities -
the fault-lines of others, our own dissonances ….
Where we mend the broken wings of nature,
reality flies on unrepaired, ends
and means fall to earth, the noble
and debased equally decompose.
And having babbled, having praised and having read my work is done. I declare this title duly launched. Thank you.