Reviewed by Dr. Rebecca K Law
The Fickle Pendulum
by Paul Scully
June 15, 2021, Paperback, 98 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1922332660
These voices that diarise from the crypts of the past have names already writ but identities riddled with doubt. For every one rendition of St Thomas there is three and for every St John there is two only to be mirrored and augmented by artistic interpretations through the ages. Opinion, fact, testimony: all jostle for dominance or collapse absentmindedly into song. There are “Postscripts” to the act of sermonising and quarrels over who said what and who is the more worthy of “fame”. Then along come the sweeping robes of others over the dust of roads well-travelled. A good Samaritan here, a “restful” bat there, a “brolga” morphed in legend to the form of a “young girl who gambolled like an aurora and dreamed/ herself wings in the fledging dawn”. A world of textbooks, memories and companionship you open up in book form to understand and close to contemplate.
A Fickle Pendulum has five parts to its labyrinth of sites and the movement is a progressive shift from the ancient word to the future perfect. Beginning with Part 1, A Tensile Faith, I find myself unavoidably wrapped up in an image of a stretched out architectural form that is temporary and unimposing. My home for another fourteen pages, I think inadvertently of Ezra Pound’s beautiful contemplation of shadows on his hospital tent and recognise the poems I am reading are not far away from this melancholy and artlessness. “Speech has no purpose/ for our garlanded senses” sings Thomas to the flute girl, “there is melody beyond the ear,/ a grace note more than ornament”. Here, among pages lit by candles or “shadow[s] of moonlight”, faith is personal, visionary, figurative in the forms that artists render to capture ideas.
Part 2, Other Robes, has no canopy stretched overhead but details instead a township with a clay road leading to other worlds, a cave, a church and a domestic interior. Time has moved forward to include object as mundane and usual as “coffee tables” and “books in small print”; but the ghostly walk to and from the past is still palpable. In “Emendations and Glosses”, for example, Scully provides a small study in selfhood and state to conclude the foreground you see is a choice that is always yours to make:
In the asylum Van Gogh copied Delacroix,
foregrounded the victim, the wayfarer
and the hoisted horse, diminished the others
with hurried steps into the distance, and saw delusion
in vibrant colours, whereas Rembrandt
took them to the Dutch doorway of the inn
in courteous, muted tones.
Townships then, give way to Part 3, Faultlines, and there are earthly relationships that prove tense and incorporeal. Scientist Galileo Galilee studies motion from the Tower of Pisa in the opening pages and determines, by means of imaginative projection, that objects released from the same height fall at the same speed, irrespective of their material and weight. So that Cathedrals, faith and “the prism/ of an angel’s voice” are all spatially challenging to the extent at which a person let’s their psyche fall into their heart. Beautifully, quotes Scully, “Wine is sunlight, held together by water” and where a prophet may be “fix[ed”, the earth “moves”. Again, moving chronologically, Galilee’s offspring mature in a convent where regret at “the life chosen” is only ever a passing fancy and “the student” becomes a “carriage for what the master holds dear”. Forms move through forms as love and devotion create forces of tension.
Approximate Science is Part 4 of Scully’s collection, opening with the words of French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, “When I seek, I look, look, look …”. From here, a similar patterning emerges as the poems write of observances and likenesses that are aesthetic, scientific, mathematical or elemental. Borrowing from Mandelbrot often in the early pages, we learn that being “beholden by what we see”, knowledge is a complex “blossom[ing]” of objects, places and things which juxtaposed or intermingled come to mean other objects, places and things until the mind seems to be something which “hovers” over ideas to make sense of experiences:
To the artist,
when the starlings take to a sunlit wing,
they are rhapsodies of graphite, a shape-shifting
stencil, a pointillist accordion
Away from the flock, Part 4 “Forever Riding” celebrates the individuality and voice of poet Laura (Riding) Jackson. Reading her work, Scully constructs a twelve part poem which seeks to re-represent her intellectual musings, often explaining her ideas by contextualising them with the place, person or thing that gave rise to such thoughts. “I have found her plainer thread awkward at times” says Scully, suggesting her “disembodied” language wants to go somewhere, follow a “metre” but is uttered and born to die that way. Yet there is more, and in the poem “A Poem I Cannot Understand”, Riding’s poetry is a book open Scully’s knees whilst he sits on a “deck …steeped in the memory of wrens”, communing with his wife regarding the installation of “a mirror onto the wall that subtends/ the deck to this house” and drifting in fragrant thought to times of “turf mired in rain” and “irrelevan[cies]”.
The last section is titled “Orbiter” and the poet psyche is flying over funerals, diving in ice cold water, staring through dreams, drifting with rivers; or slumbering in the peace of a page coming to life under a scribe’s hand. Somehow in the journey through his poem sections, Scully has found freedom and its scope is felt to be rapt, divine and unexpected. Desiring truth in ”Sung Water” Scully pronounces:
I refuse to be wool, to be woven captive
to a predetermined shape, or ice
Into a glacier, where progress is a matter
Of atoms ….
Yet further along in “Orbiter” it is the imagination that is far more exciting than truth and a child again, there are “bedsheets” made into “houses” and the brief, temporal reflection that maybe that was more fun, a “tumble of days” spent “sp[ying] on grasshoppers”. Alas, no, it is a serious world, peace is quiet and no last minute yearnings for “farmyards” at the podium or lecterns of adult reality can take away that fact.
Scully’s The Fickle Pendulum is moody, joyous and dedicated to abstraction. It is an artist’s tome, a compendium for illustrating ideas or painting religious psalms and a reader’s banquet. As the title suggests, there is no route to follow in the inside pages because, like life, it is cyclic.
About the reviewer: Dr Rebecca Kylie Law holds a PhD from University of Western Sydney. She has published six collections of poetry with Picaro Press, Interactive Publications, Ginninderra Press and Wipf & Stock. Individual poems, reviews, interviews and articles have been published in numerous journals Australia and overseas. She works as a freelance writer and private English teacher.
This review was first published in Rochford Review.