“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

A fascination with sound, individual words and language: Paul Scully talks about his latest book, ‘Suture Lines’

“To me, the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them.”- Paul Scully

Suture Lines by Paul Scully (Guillotine Press, 2016).

suture-linesHow did your new collection, Suture Lines, come about?

Paul Scully: In many ways, Suture Lines (SL) grew out of my Master’s degree at Sydney University. Many of the poems first found life there. The time and the shaping and filtering that aims at a viable collection have also played a part, but I hope it has attained an independent existence.
Putting a collection together is a strange process. You bring the pieces together, assemble them into theme or relationship groupings, prune sections or omit poems that are below the standard of the rest or that don’t fit well with the bulk of the collection, read and reread, and try to be your own critic.
I had one established poet look at my first collection, An Existential Grammar (EG), and two poets look at SL, at different stages. For Suture Lines, feedback at the earlier stage focused me on pruning more aggressively with a view to making my voice more distinctive. At the later stage, it concentrated my attentions, on reorganising and reducing the number of sections and aiming at a punchier and more concentrated presentation. I really appreciate the time and effort all three poets spent on me.
Then there is trying to find a publisher if you are not a poet with a well-established publishing relationship, particularly if you go out seeking when the Government announces radical changes to arts sector funding. This seemed to mean that lists were being restricted until some funding surety was received, although that may have been a polite way of communicating lack of interest.
An Existential Grammar was published by Walleah Press, so was naturally my first port of call. Ralph Wessman there advised me that he wasn’t necessarily going to continue publishing and was restricting new work at that time. I’ve since read that he doesn’t often publish multiple works by the same author. I don’t know what Walleah’s current state of play is. So I had to look elsewhere.
Guillotine Press is quite a new publishing firm and I approached them at a time when they were looking for poetry in particular. Mark Rafidi has been very enthusiastic about my work and supportive. One of my friends has a volume coming out with him later this year and Mark wants to grow the enterprise.

How does Suture Lines differ from An Existential Grammar?

P.S.: There are more themed poem sequences (five versus one) and, at this stage of my writing, I think I have a greater fascination with sound, individual words and language per se. To me the best poetry engages the mind, the emotions and the senses, and words are what we have to work with, so I try to steep myself in them. Caitlin Maling’s blurb describes this as being “in thrall with language” and (very generously) in the nature of “birdsong”. To this extent Suture Lines is a somewhat more integrated read, I think.
On that score, David Musgrave made an interesting observation in his blurb that the collection deals with the “many forms and dimensions of love”. While I was certainly aware that love featured strongly in certain poems, I hadn’t intuited it as a more pervasive theme. I now think David is right and wonder how that came to be.
The title, Suture Lines, comes from a line in a poem, as did An Existential Grammar. To me, it speaks to what I hope is an unconscious wholeness emerging from the bits and pieces that make up the collection.

Can you describe some of the sequences?

P.S.: The ‘Librarians of Alexandria’ sequence in Suture Lines began with the ‘Cincinnatus’ sequence in An Existential Grammar. Cincinnatus was appointed dictator for the defence of Rome, then renounced the position when the job was done, though the detail is far more nuanced than that simple summary. I had enjoyed getting into the mind of an historical figure and creating a hopefully personal sub-text to the reported history. I had always been taken with the notion of storing all the wisdom of the world in a single place, one of the reported motivations for the Royal Library, and the sequence grew from there. The burning of the library on the order of a Coptic patriarch was an act of unspeakable barbarism. Maybe I’ll return to the library someday.
The ‘On a Wing and a Prayer’ sequence in Suture Lines came from my master’s dissertation. It is based on the Attar’s Conference of the Birds, a Persian classic. I hadn’t read the original in full (in translation obviously) at the very early stage. I don’t really know why I was attracted to it, other than I’d read Rumi and about Sufism, and was intrigued about a mystical form of Islam when we read so much about fundamentalism. I was also fascinated by the whirling dervishes of a particular Sufi sect in Turkey and am a sucker for birds.
The plan had been to write an Australian version. I found that Anne Fairbairn had already done so, albeit in a stripped-down form, so changed tack. I was mightily relieved at this after I realised the enormity of my original intention. I wanted to use classic forms as well as free verse, the original having been written in couplets of fixed syllabic length and rhyme points, and mirror somehow the allegories that Attar inserts into the narrative. I came across Tim Low’s Where Song Began in the process of working on the poems and its thesis that the first song birds came from Australia and PNG. It provided a rich source of material to draw from. This was important in the end since there are so many bird poems out there and I needed some element of differentiation.
The ‘Face Value’ sequence in Suture Lines was originally two sequences. The first drew from a magazine article and the second, from something that happened to my brother in London. The magazine article was about a couple, the male of whom suffered from face blindness, the inability to recognise facial features. Sufferers use other cues to navigate the world of relationships. The article described incidents from the man’s life and the woman’s challenges in dealing with a beloved who couldn’t recognise her in a conventional manner.
As for my brother, he is a priest in the East End of London. Someone stole the crucifix from the wall of his church. After a few days, the guy found the Twitter world ablaze with news of the theft, was overcome with guilt, and returned the crucifix. They were the starting points at least. I put the two sequences together as part of consolidating the manuscript under the notion that things are not always what they first seem.
All this sounds a bit manufactured. While there is some degree of planning, the process for me is organic, whatever that means, and I’d like to think that quality persists.

What distinguishes your poetry?

P.S.: Like many people I am often attracted to the side-track and alley-way, even when the ostensible topic is well-covered. In the ‘Librarians of Alexandria’, I found that one of the librarians was credited with developing the first cataloguing system. I eventually landed on him whining to his regular courtesan about how the scholars annoy him because they can’t remember where things are and she comes up with the idea to give them a kind of guide to that effect. For the hoopoe/ sheikh figure in my take on The Conference of the Birds, the role is split between a marbled frogmouth, not “its tawny cousin”, perhaps the more obvious choice, and the reclusive bristlebird. The underlying element of duality in Sufism is hopefully more powerful because of it. For the religious part of ‘Face Value’, a garage sale at a convent around the corner from where I live gave me a new angle.
I am especially pleased when a poem ends in an unexpected place (even to me). For instance, the catalogue poem which ends with the courtesan reflecting on her role, not the librarian’s and a poem about a visit to the Arctic which ends with a comment that the greatest gods pray for irrelevance.

An Existential Grammar acknowledges your father, Kenrick Scully (pseudonym John Dawes). What has been his influence on your writing?

P.S.: A parent obviously influences in all sorts of ways. For me as a writer, in the first place, that my father wrote. Our place was always overflowing with books. Secondly, that he wrote poetry, as well as novels, non-fiction, plays, children’s verse and journalism. His work is not well known these days but, in his day, he encouraged poets like Peter Skrzynecki. My brother, Kevin, has written a book that covers Dad’s career (and many other things). I don’t think I write anything like my father, though, and I have never consciously sought to do so, nor not to do so.

You have worked in finance. T. S Eliot also. Has that darkened your writing as it is reported to have done for him?

P.S.: If I could write like Eliot, I’d take light, dark, anything!
The short answer is no. I came at finance as a professional choice when I was young out of an interest in maths (via actuarial studies). I worked in it full time for some 25-30 years and still work part-time in it. It’s conventional to think of a sector in unitary terms, whereas there’s considerable diversity and people of all sorts of opinions and interests. Some of the biggest supporters of action on climate change, for example, are in insurance.
One thing it has done is deepen my interest in poetry (and literature generally) if anything, as another means of being a more rounded person.
You asked about my view on the cuts in arts from this perspective. I don’t think there was any financial motivation in the original decision. It was purely political.

-Paul Scully

Paul Scully
is a Sydney-based poet and author of two collections, An Existential Grammar by published by Walleah Press in 2014 and Suture Lines by Guillotine Press in 2016. His work has appeared in print and online journals in Australia and the USA. He is a current Board member of Australian Poetry.

Purchase Suture Lines by Paul Scully from Guillotine Press