“Suture Lines reflects Scully’s passion as a poet and scholar”: Malcolm St Hill reviews ‘Suture Lines’ by Paul Scully

suture-linesThere is not a simple label that could be applied to Paul Scully’s second collection, Suture Lines (Guillotine Press, 2016). The title suggests the melding of adjacent and related parts. This is the context of the beginning of the poem in which the term appears, ‘StoryBird 1: Gondwanaland’, dealing with the formation of the ancient supercontinent. While the five sections of the work are more disparate than the title implies, their ‘amassing’ is manifested through Scully’s erudition and recurrent motifs which are embroidered throughout.

‘StoryBird 1’ is an early poem in ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’, a signature section in this collection. It is inspired and informed by the Persian classic The Conference of the Birds by Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar. In a two page introduction, a precis of his 2016 Southerly essay, ‘ReConferencing the Birds’, Scully explains that the group of birds in Conference are on a quest to find Simorgh, their king. The leader of the birds, a hoopoe (an iconic Eurasian bird and the national bird of Israel) takes them on a journey through seven valleys, each a symbol of progress towards their goal.

Scully’s hoopoe figures, the two birds in his rendition, are Australian natives: the marbled frogmouth and the bristlebird. The particular birds were selected, perhaps, because of their rarity and reverential place in Australian ornithology. The former is a relative of the tawny frogmouth, a bird that many would recognise, while the latter is elusive and officially endangered. The reader is introduced to the frogmouth in ‘The Accidental Priest’, and to the bristlebird, a ‘patient, shy, protective bird’ in the poem which follows, ‘Sage-Brush Sentinels’. In both poems, Scully describes the birds’ habitat and simultaneously alludes to their spiritual significance. The frogmouth is ‘an abbess—// of her tawny cousin’ in ‘The Accidental Priest’. ‘Sage-Brush Sentinels’ is referred to as a ‘psalm’, with the bristlebird as its centrepiece.

Scully’s hoopoe surrogates needle their way through the poems, eventually landing their charges where they started. In ‘The Observatory Pool’, the ‘pilgrim flock’, led by the twosome, come to a pool, a metaphor for Attar’s king and court. Expecting to see a deity, they see their own reflection and in turn, realise that the one they are seeking is a manifestation of the self.

The fifteen poems of this avian journey vary in the intensity of their allegorical significance. The ostensibly literal poems provide an introduction to bird life and lore. The sexual habits of the superb fairy-wren are described in ‘StoryBird 2: Superb, Purposeful Sluts’ (a somewhat jarring title) and in ‘[Songs of the Reviled]’ pest and nuisance species are variously treated with respect and disdain. Scully grants the crows ‘clemency’, deferring to their unique place in the Australian consciousness and ear. The sacred ibis is afforded respect, cast as a victim, ‘profaned by an urban smudge’. However, the Indian myna is not spared, as Scully takes aim at its ‘lice and the displacement of locals, especially its native cousin.’ ‘StoryBird 3: The Origin of Song’, draws on the work of Australian biologist Tim Low, who challenged orthodoxy and posited that birdsong originated in Australia and New Guinea and not the Northern Hemisphere.

The other signature section of Suture Lines, ‘The Librarians of Alexandria’, also begins with an introduction, contextualising the poems which follow; explaining Scully’s creative approach and assisting the reader to navigate them. The generosity of these introductions shows respect for the reader and Scully strikes a careful balance between revealing too much and not enough.

The section traces the machinations of the first, third and sixth librarians of the Great Library of Alexandria. ‘There is conjecture,’ says Scully, ‘as to the identities of the head librarians’. This gives him licence to nominate particular individuals as his protagonists and to enliven the narrative with selected ‘facts’ from the library’s history. It reads like a poetical version of historical fiction. The section starts with Demetrius, the first librarian, with his ‘caterpillar eyebrows/ and pedagogic feet’. In ‘Peripatos’, Demetrius lays out his vision for the library before the Pharaoh but stumbles when questioned about the design. “There is more space than building,” the Pharaoh says. Demetrius wants to reply that ‘an enquiring mind is a plain, not a paddock,’ but chokes and responds politely, limping out ‘a few braided syllables’.

The third librarian, Callimachus develops, seemingly the brainchild of his courtesan, the first system of library cataloguing. ‘The Pinakes: A Catalogue’ and ‘(F)Re(e)-versed’ trace the genesis and roll out of the system, a response to his frustration at watching scholars walking the halls seeking items from ‘the bins that held the scrolls’.

No text was binned
without Callimachus’ eyes filing it for later enquiry, his memory sure, finely bladed.

In the seasoned arms of his long-frequented courtesan, he mused as to why
his wards’ daily ferrying did not make a track of similar remembering for them.

The courtesan suggests that he ‘commit the sequence of his mind to stylus and pinax tablet as a label/ above each bin’.

There is a single poem dealing with Aristophanes, the sixth librarian. ‘Marks of Distinction (The Invention of Punctuation)’ explains his legacy; ‘komma, kolon, periodos’, solving the dilemma of ‘UPPERCASEDENSITYOFUNBROKENLETTERS// encamped to the margin/ of the papyrus’, providing the fulcrum to lever and align meaning with intention. The poem is emblematic of Scully’s approach to re-imagining history, a fitting and satisfying conclusion to a group of poems which are both playful and informative.

The remaining three sections of the work are more loosely bound. Exceptions are a short sequence about an unusual medical condition, face blindness, in the sequence ‘Face Value’, and a number of religiously themed poems in the ‘Pseudepigrapha’ sequence in the same section. Beyond this sequence, religious terms and allusions are a feature of the work and combined with a plethora of avian references, watermark the collection.

Many specific birds are named in Suture Lines, including the albatross in ‘The Longbow of the Albatross’, contained in the opening section, ‘Heart and Hearth’. Here Scully weighs elements of this enigmatic bird, against literary and religious imagery. The literary allusions come primarily from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Scully writes that ‘Samuel Taylor well knew, though, the pious bird/ as an unpencilled architect of myth, a cumulus/ of fortune and hope’. Scully also references Australian playwriting doyen, Ray Lawler and his little-known play, The Man Who Shot the Albatross.

Lawler knew it too
when he noosed Bligh’s neck with the albatross

in the title of the play that charted an inner life
for the captain and governor…

The nod to Lawler is characteristic of poems in the first section of Suture Lines where Scully registers the influence of other poets as either a response or dedication to a poem or poet or as ‘unacknowledged references to…’ their poems. Judith Beveridge, Pam Brown and Michelle Leber are included in this framework.

The final section of the collection, ‘Beyond the Dingo Fence’, includes poems which describe polar ice and frozen seas, and others depicting coastal landscapes. In the last poem, also called ‘Beyond the Dingo Fence’, Scully presents a hardened outback loner whose ‘hair was boot-heel pressed spinifex’ and who ‘preferred goanna oil to affection’. The image of the outcast recalls similar poems in the first section of the work, ‘Laneway Tom’ and ‘Singular Voices in The Strand II’. These poems similarly examine those on the margins; a man on the poverty line who resides in a laneway shed, and a homeless person with a ‘second voice hidden/ in his ear’.

Suture Lines reflects Scully’s passion as a poet and scholar. He draws on knowledge across many fields; ornithology, ancient history and literature, to name a few. He is inventive in his treatment of these spheres of interest. His eye for landscape and the human condition is acute. The result is as ‘sure (and) finely bladed’ as Callimachus’ memory, a collection that will inform in surprising ways and have the reader wanting to dig deeper.

-Malcolm St Hill

M St Hill pic
Malcolm St Hill. photograph by Kim Jordan (2017)

Malcolm St Hill lives in Newcastle and is a poet and independent researcher focused on the literary memory of the Great War, particularly that of Australian soldier-poets. He was the winner of the Morisset Show ‘Lake Macquarie Moments’ Poetry Competition in 2016 and has poems forthcoming in Brew: 30 Years of Poetry at the Pub, which will be launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April 2018.

Suture Lines is available from booktopia

Paul Scully talks about Suture Lines to Zalehah Turner

Comments are closed.