James Scully  





communist review · spring 2012 · page 35


    Next is a poem which references Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. In the poem, the angel is being blown away from an exploding Paradise , and the catastrophes of human history are pinning his wings down, so he cannot use them to help anymore.


The Angel of History


"His eyes are staring, his mouth is       open, his wings are spread"

                         —Walter Benjamin


blown backwards

into the future


he beholds only

the past

dragging after him


what a catastrophe

the furious wind

hurls at his feet


helpless before it


his wings are spread—

fanned flat

with the sharp snap

of terrified sails


how will he fold them

feather on feather

before the torrent

of shock waves from paradise?


Paul Klee's angelus novus


on his wretched wings

helpless to help


or anything


what he shouts

is spittle

torn from his mouth


himself, ever only

a single breath ahead

of where he has been


where even now


the surge of broken bodies

is breaking over him


filling his eyes, his mouth, his ears

with creaturely whispers


crushing with love the wings

that have caught him up

in so much misery


    Although the angel’s wings are pinned down, as the poem concludes we see that it is actually human history, collective human action of “creaturely whispers”, which is the real redemptive force, which is “crushing with love” the angel’s wings. It is a very powerful metaphor, working dialectically as an exposure and critique and complaint about suffering, but also representing real revolutionary transformation in history, the self-emancipation of humanity, moving to take control of our world and our future.

    In a sense, the poem itself works as an avenging, liberating angel. Indeed, throughout this fine collection we can sense an urgent, uncompromising, angelic righteousness driving all the poetry forward. Is this not a movement and a spirit which is mimetic of the emergence, struggle through suffering and class conflict, and final victory of the proletariat?

    The uncompromising commitment to writing poetry to illuminate and advance a progressive political cause is reminiscent of Shelley. There are similarities too with William Blake. It is hard to read the poem without being reminded of Blake’s dramatic, apocalyptic imagery, both in his paintings and in such poems as The Tyger, which we looked at in the last column, and which like this poem evokes the sense of an awesome, irresistible historical force. Parallels could also be drawn with the “terrible beauty” of revolutionary forces in Yeats’s poem Easter 1916, discussed above. Shelley, Blake, Yeats: this may seem like elevated company to place Scully in, but the moral seriousness

and intellectual penetration of his vision, expressed with such powerful poetic tools, make such comparisons reasonable.

    Here is another short but heavily freighted poem. It manages to express both human solidarity between oppressor and oppressed, and the promise (or is it a threat?) of ultimate justice for the current “gods of the globe”. It also has both sense of real, historical defeat and a glimpse of a future, ultimate victory.


The Long Defeat


and when the gods are gone

into the long, drunken night--

gods of the globe

drunk with blood, drunk with money,

with hatred of life


we will go after them

into the same night


    We should not, however, conclude that Scully completely identifies committed political activists with the self-emancipating, justice-seeking masses. Here is the final poem in this selection, again expressing his fiercely uncompromising and critical perspective.


Cold Rags


Where did everyone go?


Enemies depress the air.

Friends have gone home.

What’s left

is comrades.


If only these were not so

remote, righteous, intimate

as gossip in snow.


If they would stop

lying to themselves.

Or if the lies

warmed, were not

wrinkled and stiff

flapping at the skin.


In such comrades

a comrade could freeze to death,


to death

pushing this brilliant future,

this communism, this human


like a needle that has lost its thread.

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