Angel in Flames

Selected Poems & Translations, 1967-2011

There are two angels in this book. One is Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, blown by the storm of progress into a catastrophic future. The other is an unemployed and illiterate Puerto Rican man. Both angels are blown backwards into a future they cannot face. Angel in Flames brings together, for the first time, the best of James Scully's poetry from the 1960s – when it was claimed that Vietnamese villages had to be destroyed to be saved – to the 21st century ├╝ber–state terror wars fought not on battlefields but against civilian populations. Scully's poetry addresses head–on the intellectual and cultural degradation of an imperial order whose ambition appears to be to reduce the globe to a shrunken head on a stick.

Sample Poems

Woman in Black Chador, Running

the head held so high
it tilts back
a balancing act, running

eyes watery watering

like the girl in Vietnam
last century, only yesterday
still with us in a famous photo
out of her element still
throwing her head back
the same way
running naked, trailing napalm vapours
too wispy to be visible

this one is not naked though,
this is no girl
the other was slender
this is round, soft, fifty–ish
this has a homely oval face
wrapped head to toe
in black fabric

this is 2003
this is this century

running from nothing anyone can  see
from no napalm
by Macy's on O'Farrell Street

with no neck running,
no shoulders,
fists tucked up
under the chin

head into body streaming
its unbroken shroud
like a fish out of water
limbs fanning, gasping

the eyes of the fish
wide with feeling,
preposterous feeling

as though a bomb has dropped
on O'Farrell Street


Sadr City, 28 August 2004

took him inside the house
his family on the patio

cut off the plastic cuffs
shot him in the head, twice,
dragged him out

his wife
hysterical, wailing
throwing dirt in the air
beat on herself with both hands

they watched, shocked
she placed her baby
on the bleeding body

this had not occurred
to the video wars
racketing the screens
of their video games

the yellow ribbons
neatly looped and swallow–tailed
on trees and cars, boding
their soldiers coming home
had envisioned nothing
as mad

as a baby's blind warmth
on a man's corpse

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?

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


'James Scully's essays, like his poems, refuse to soothe or simplify, to shortchange either poetry or the imperative for social transformation. They are continuously interesting because they take on poetry – and values – from so many angles, are written from a generous frame of reference and in a human voice.'

Adrienne Rich

'Thank Things that somebody is paying attention to what a hell our world is becoming – and, above all, that we're letting the bastards get away with it. It's great to find somebody who's awake and alive. And also find a book of poems that I really want to read.'

W. D. Snodgrass

'beautiful, expert poetry.'

Mistress Quickly's Bed

'a book that recapitulates and re-enacts one entire life that may have tried to be universal but which will be remembered as unique.'

American Review of Books

‘a collecting together of forty-plus years’ socialist commitment through thought, witness and activism [which] ill undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable future source of political experience as poetic document.’

Socialist History