‘How Do You Do’ –
The Strange World of Maurice Scully and his Poetry

Augustus Young

In the mid-1990s I attended a poetry festival in Keele University, England. The line up included Ed Dorn, Les Murray, Allan Fisher, Tom Pickard, Maggie O’Sullivan and even the Scottish-Gaelic legend Sorley Maclean. All choice performers of their own poetry. But it was a sandy-haired Irish poet in his early forties who won the most sustained wows. He seemed determined to disguise his handsome presence by cowering behind rimless spectacles. The delivery was droll, as though he didn’t trust his words. But the voice was clear as the clean-cut phrasing, and the audience was drawn into an interior monologue that had certain echoes. Beckett’s underview of life, but prone to hope, and Pound, despite the slings and arrows in his Pisan cage, still able to count the birds on the telegraph wires.

Maurice Scully was reading from Things That Happen, a journal in verse begun in 1981, based on his years in Southern Africa, North Italy, East Clare and now Dublin, his hometown. The ordinary daily life of a writer is recorded in trance-like snatches. One constantly interrupted by what is going on around him. A restless child next door, a spider weaving its web on the window-sill, a final rent demand on his table (which probably has woodworm). What’s happening is heightened to enter his state of mind: ‘my baby daughter wakes as if meticulous she can sense or dream my presence into her sleep to expel her & cries out’ (5 Freedoms of Movement, 1987). This interaction grabs him a place in the world, and that flairs anticipation and the need to work things out:

to make a table
you need wood
to make the wood
you need a tree
to make a tree
you need a seed
to make the seed
you need fruit
to make the fruit
you need a flower
to make a table
you need a flower.

An Italian children’s song has come into his head, possibly free-associating with Ezra Pound’s “doan you tell no one I made it” (Pisan Cantos). He is going to need a new writing desk.

I’m sure Scully would consider this reading as farouche speculation. After all, it was only what happened. And he might find my comparison with Beckett and Pound a mite hyperbolic. He is a lot less literary in the framing sense than either. His work never traps you in the taratata of some of the Cantos, or dooms you to yet another dead end (pace, Samuel. You had your moments). The tender astringency of Scully’s language and its patterning lightens the mind and the spirits. He burlesques with ideas and what happens (an erratum in his book Livelihood, 2004 – ‘it all could be words’ for ‘it all could be worse’ is surely deliberate?). But his concerns are not frivolous. They are the essential ones confronting anyone interested in making a humane life in a world where values have their price. There is no run for transcendental cover. Monitary theories, or aesthetic imperatives, would seem comic to him. What happens isn’t merely taken as it comes. Montaigne’s ‘terrible bite of necessity’ gnaws in the background. You can’t be a quietist when you have a family to support. Life is ruefully addressed.

Things That Happen could be described as Krapp’s Last Tape without the technology, or even the Cantos by a ‘Goody-Two-Shoes... (you know me Mary)’ (Sonata, 2006). But that would be making too much of a literary song and dance of what is a humbler project: punctuating one man’s life with bloc-notes to chart his passage.

Place yr cup
on the table
look up
what’s that?

Mary is the partner whose presence can be felt in the background of Things That Happen. She is only named in the recurrent parenthesis ‘(‘you know me Mary)’. But her veiled entrances and exits are more often than not followed by the contemplation of the natural order. Flowers, animals, children. What brings him joy. Only the spider is excluded from her kingdom and it represents the poet working intricate patterns endlessly, and easily brushed away. The love of wife and family in his work is so understated that you take it for granted. But it’s behind the door that the rent collector is hammering at. In the early ‘watchman’s log’ in Livelihood, the nightmare of a writer, sick of being poor and neglected, is interrupted and becomes a dream of being a leaf on a tree. And you know it’s Mary. This is an extract.

Elsewhere: peace
the night - the rain -
the mistakes I make
the delight to find in them
& to make that too a delight
all that
to listen
to look
to you or else
where ash trees’ leaves go
back & forth in the breeze
then stop
then show back again
undergreen silver over shadowgreen
under light bright new leaves
on top
I was talking to you were
our minds…
the dance…

George Oppen wrote love poetry like this for another Mary.

In a later book (Sonata) Scully revisits this motif:

If the food source
is close the dance
is a circular pattern
if the food source

is distant the dancing
indicates its direction
with respect to the sun
by the angle of the

straight run to the


here is the news &

peeling a little bark
to get the smell of the tree feeding.

Scully’s working method brings to mind Samuel Johnson, aged ten (1719), writing at the kitchen table. Distracted, the boy looks up. He ‘sees through the window the daughter of the house dancing in the yard’. He is staying with his mother’s relatives, the wayward Fords. The girl is Sally. Half-aware of her, ‘a shadow dancing on the wall’ behind him, he finishes his homework without perceiving that time has elapsed. Remembering this sixty years later in Prayers and Meditations, Dr Johnson confesses, ‘This close attention I have seldom in my whole life attained’.

The forgotten homemade wine farts in its jar. The bank manager gets his come-uppance in the penultimate section of 5 Freedoms of Movement, a marvelous children’s story about two fat and happy caterpillars pursued by their bankman. When he is balancing his books on the bank of a river he falls asleep and when the river overflows its banks he drowns. There is no need to say what happened to the caterpillars. Motifs drop in and out of Things That Happen. Intriguing theories of how nature works, why ‘objects in a mirror are closer than they appear’ (it’s ‘printed in my wing/mirror in white ink’), such anxieties as health, how to conjure up money, the parallel life of children, the art of tying a shoelace and lighting a match.

The phrase ‘how do you do’ pops in and out. Ten letters with as many meanings as the context changes. It’s used to appease or burlesque up a passage when Scully feels it’s all getting too serious, or simply an introduction of good manners in a bad-tempered world. My instinct is to respond ‘very well, thank you’, as Scully is the politest of poets, even thanking a fly for giving him a few impromptu lines for Sonata:

then I woke up.

paring a pencil
carefully, its
frill, its dark

dust, a fly’s
shadow rubbing
its forelegs

by the


(thank you for that)

His domestic arrangements I feel I know better than my own. The architectural lines of ‘a place to stay’, while the world passes by for your entertainment, are clearly drawn. His house, half safe haven, half lookout post, is crumbling from within, like us all. The cracks are there to be patched up. A temporary job. Real life intrudes at every juncture, providing the cement to prevent it becoming a house of cards. It’s quite a comfortable feeling, hunkering down in the human warmth of Scully daily routine while the elements - both social and climatic - rage outside, more often than not. But the anxieties remain. Beyond the garden gate. Just around the corner.

left out bin
clapped hands
dog slips in

closed windows
plugged the kettle
in touched the tree

nod again decide
again negotiate
the gate

the railings
& all that inhale
exhale bus goes

by cleared up
table then around
a pebble drops in

time have you noticed
ice glass kids at
school around

then about bus
down street cross
the floor the mat

slipped off shoes


The caper in “Things That Happen” is an Alice Through The Looking Glass card-game played against Impossible odds.

I’ll deal you
plastic squares of the Absurd while

you shuffle the Possibilities-of-
the-Ridiculous over there, okay?


intent at desk in shed. relaxed
at table. reading in bed. drinking tea.
spearing fish spelling it out won-
dering wandering pondering
weaving a willow basket or two
on the damp river bank billows of
mist over water at dawn. rules.

the ludicrous, the fragile, the

give me some money. give me some
money to live. I’m will to
work. I’m willing to work well.
I’m willing to work well and

apply what talents I have to the
job. you will not get all of me
no but then I’ll not get all of
yr money. give me some money. give

me some money now.

(Several Dances, Origin 2007)

Ed Dorn at the Keele reading said, ‘The poet must always be loyal to the poem no matter what other forms beckon’. Scully is a master of free verse. Line breaks, cadenzas, word scatters, you name it, stumble into dances and flights. ‘Arc’ (Sonata), his poem to his ‘old dead father’, makes his entire bag of tricks take a bow. His father performs an epic swim around an island, emerging out of a white bound landscape to enter the sea, to cut an arrow in the water which leaves a trace moving through the crystalline world of a grain of salt and the salt of tears. A molecular commingling which is the body’s afterlife. If ‘Arc’ is read against the two-step ‘Waterway’ (Tig, 2006), the catharsis is complete.

Scully’s reputation in Ireland is that of a poet beyond the pale of the establishment. He is, absurdly, not a member of the Aos Dana, the hall of fame for writers and artists. But it is understandable. The conventional view is he should write an novel, but that’s unlikely (‘so you’re another/ novelist?/ tell me yr novelty’, Sonata). Scully regards poetry as ‘an activity in itself’ rather than a means to fabricating gems, the Gem School as he calls it. That does not go down well in a culture where the well-made poem rules with Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, the top design exemplars. There is a veritable factory of poets mass-producing imitation gems, and awards and rewards are thick on the ground. In a bookshop window in Italy Scully spots the translation of yet another Irish Prize Winner’s book of poems ‘bedded in silk’, and bemoans ‘verse making games/ the art of acquiring property/ by means of incantation’ (Sonata). Such display is not for him. He’s a serious writer, or spider.

Fortunately the English avant-garde scene recognises the force and originality of Things That Happen and it becomes readily available in book form as it emerges. And his public readings are much prized. There is nobody remotely like him in the ‘experimental’ writing scene that I know on this side of the Atlantic. Two poets often mentioned in the same breath, Catherine Walsh and Geoffrey Squires, resemble him in the challenge to preconceptions their work presents. Scully’s project is closer to the bone than Walsh and to the earth than Squires. But these three poets in their different ways express an open-mindedness rare in current Irish poetry. I read them with a sense of adventure.

Things That Happen continues to grow (the latest work, Several Dances, is more a retrospective, a reculer pour mieux sauter, than an advance). It’s now twenty-five years old. One wonders how it will age. Is there a Lear-like ending in store? It doesn’t seem likely. You get the impression Scully likes his three children and approves that their wavelength is not always his. One of his influences, the Irish poet Brian Coffey, said poetry is about a body of work, not the passing book. In Tig he pays homage to Coffey’s 1930s masterpiece, Third Person, in a sonnet that suggests Scully and his body of work could be getting out more:

From the nine facts the typist is
Charlotte & the nurse must be Alice.
The hostess lives west of Charlotte &
Doris lives directly north of the typist.
Therefore Doris can’t be the hostess.
Putting the results into a small map
it will turn out that Alice lives
four miles south & three miles west of Doris
which by Pythagoras makes the distance
five miles. And Betty, of course, is the hostess.

The definition of an ‘experimental’ writer is one who require readers to adapt their reading habits to his text. I have found Scully is best read in public places, a beach or a bus shelter when people are around. I laugh a lot, but sometimes look quite sombre. People look kindly at me. He’s a good-humoured poet and that transfers. I feel like reciting out loud a good bit, but quoting from Scully, I know, is a poor substitute for reading Things That Happen. The continuum, which hums the reader into complicity, is lost.

In preparing this piece I re-read the four main books in the open air. On the Col de Banyuls which marks the border between France and Spain, the Plage de Paulilles where Nobel once had a dynamite factory, and the jetée of Port-Vendres where I live. I have enjoyed myself. And anticipate the next installment with pleasure. My interim conclusion is that while the reputed strangeness in Scully’s work is rooted in the ordinary obvious, the flowers it produces are truly exotic.

happy art fluid art
who are so

happy art a cow
in experience

buttercup grass happy
art a vow to

stems earth god’s little cow
a bright enamel dot
ambling over




Things That Happen: publications

5 Freedoms of Movement, Etruscan Books, Devon, England, 1987, 2001

Livelihood, Wild Honey Press, Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, 2004

Sonata, Reality Street Editions, Hastings,East Sussex, England, 2006

Tig, Shearsman Books, Exeter, England, 2006