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Book Reviews

COMING TO JAKARTA: A POEM ABOUT TERROR

(Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1988; New York: New Directions, 1989)



Robert Hass, "Some Notes on Coming to Jakarta," Agni, 31/32, pp. 334-61: "Coming to Jakarta is the most important political poem to appear in the English language in a very long time. Almost everything about it is deeply unexpected. It is, as its subtitle informs us, a poem about terror -- the subliminal, half-repressed terrors of private consciousness, terror as political violence...and also terror as a reasoned instrument of political policy. What makes the poem unexpected is not that it is about the first kind of terror, or even the second, but that it is also about the third, and that it tries to understand the relation among the three, for it has not been the case in the twentieth century that anyone who knew enough to write such a poem would write a poem at all.... So what Peter Dale Scott has undertaken in his long poem is both immensely ambitious and mostly unparalleled."


Thom Gunn, "Appetite for Power," TLS, February 1, 1991: "The structure of the poem is an accumulation of juxtapositions between the political and personal, the small and the large, the reflective and the anecdotal (a moment from a cocktail party in New York for the young and powerful is set beside an exquisite meditation on his wife; his life as consul in Warsaw in about 1960 comes next to an account of a historical Balinese mass-suicide, when a whole retinue drugged with opium walked deliberately into the fire of Dutch soldiers). Such a structure makes for a work of great richness and complexity."
Thom Gunn [same review, unpublished final paragraph]: "The self-qualifying courage that determines the introduction of this anecdote can only contribute to the authority and distinction of the whole. It is a book which extends the scope of poetry, reclaiming some of the ground lost since Dryden, lost even since Pound. Pound largely postponed his misgivings about his didactic aims until the Pisan Cantos, but they are of the very texture of Scott's poetry. So this long poem is a true invention, complicating and modifying the Poundian model until it becomes something of Scott's own. It should be of interest to all who read poetry."


Alan Williamson, "Poetry and Politics: The Case of Coming to Jakarta," Agni, 31/32, 315-25: "One of the three or four books of the last ten years that make "political poetry" something more than a cheering-section for various fashionable causes....Unlike The Cantos, Coming to Jakarta is almost hypnotically readable. There are at least two reasons for this. One is Scott's personality. Wry, conscientious, self-deprecating, he never casts himself in a heroic role....Then there is the matter of form. Scott has learned everything there is to learn from Williams' variable foot....But even more, I am thinking of a narrative skill much more common among fiction writers than poets -- a seemingly digressive development that suddenly pulls tight as a net around the reader and the subject."


Harriet Zinnes, "In Search of Ezra Pound," Contact II (Spring 1991), pp. 87-88: "When we read Coming to Jakarta...we are reading the work of a man intimately involved with the history of our time -- both its cultural and political history. Our own recent poets are lamentably lacking in Scott's breadth....Coming to Jakarta is a compelling book...and it ought to have a wide readership."


James Laughlin [book jacket, Coming to Jakarta]: "Not since Robert Duncan's Ground Work and before that William Carlos Williams' Paterson has New Directions published a long poem as important as Coming to Jakarta."


Beloit Poetry Journal (Summer 1991), p. 39: "Agni magazine (no 31/32)....The second feature in this excellent issue is a symposium on Peter Dale Scott's enormously important poem Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror...on the CIA involvement in the massacre of over half a million people in Indonesia in 1965. In addition to a statement by Scott, a section of a new poem by him, and an interview, are several valuable critical articles, including a magisterial analysis by Robert Hass, "Some Notes on Coming to Jakarta." The editors of Agni deserve our gratitude for calling attention to this major work."


Michael Ondaatje [book jacket, Coming to Jakarta]: "A brilliant and devastating book. An autobiography that cat's-cradles meticulously into world politics....This is a rare difficult book that uses precise poetry to evoke a map of the world where childhood lyric rubs shoulders terribly with the dark gods of power."


"Letters in Canada," University of Toronto Quarterly, Summer 1989, pp. 44-46: "...undoubtedly this year's most ambitious long poem....a net of connections that ends by delineating a new map of the world....a work that breaks down the genres of history and poetry to offer a new way of seeing the individual and society."


Books in Canada: "Scott manages with remarkable deftness to integrate the world of international political violence with his telling of the growth of a poet's mind....It is hard to think of another work like it by a Canadian poet."


Robert Pinsky [book jacket, Coming to Jakarta]: "Peter Dale Scott's poem is about nothing less than the terrifying interplay of power between governments and people. This is a bold, idiosyncratic, and arresting work."


Toronto Sunday Star [book jacket, Coming to Jakarta]: "What is unexpected is the range that connects the philosophical and the personal, the cosmic vision and the precisely observed social detail. Scott's ability to hook up dockside sherry parties in North Hatley with the ritual suicide of the rajah of Den Pasar involves a startling imaginative leap; it's as if Proust had compressed his social panorama into 150 pages."


Susan Glickman, Canadian Poetry, V (for the Year 1988), 1990, 113-21: "The 'way' suggested by the poem is spiritual and creative: to open oneself up to the forces within instead of projecting them on to ghosts in the trees, or evil people in the Pentagon....The supple phrasal shiftings of Scott's line, which dispenses with punctuation and instead uses line-breaks to reflect rhetorical pauses and emphases, are wonderfully suited to the poet's meanderings among lyric moments and catalogues of horrors....Admiring his accomplishment in this first volume as I do, I look forward with greatest anticipation to the second."


W.L. Webb, Manchester Guardian Weekly, August 14, 1988: "a riveting long poem published this year which collages black facts about the pathology of power into a Canadian elegy for innocence and a childhood that was shadowed by those facts."


Richard Ryan, Washington Post Book World, July 9, 1989: "a dreamlike meditation on the political corruption in the 20th century....These paradoxes are evocative and troubling....Scott's poem, for all its craziness and disorder, is real poetry, visionary and complex."


Marion K. Stocking, Beloit Poetry Journal, Spring 1993, 36: "...an enormously important poem, moving between the poet's psyche and the appalling events in Indonesia."


Mary B. Campbell, Parnassus, 17/18, Spring 1993, 380-403: "a truly successful work of art....[Where other poets] give evidence...of the overloading of our circuits, Scott's terrifying, implacable tercets reveal to us precisely what has overloaded them. The author of this magnificent poem...started his career as a Canadian diplomat....To such a man poetry offers the extraordinary possibility of speaking the truth, by which I mean concrete and usable truths....This function of the poem, as a relay between readers and the sources of important information...seems revolutionary to me, at least on a scale like this....The poet has found words 'terrible enough,' has managed after all to replicate, in the defining medium of human culture, 'that jangling chord.' Coming to Jakarta is not the peacock's scream; it is the struggling self-control of a true and terrible poet of empire."


Tim Lilburn, The Fiddlehead, Autumn 1994, 109-19: "This is a book that says more than I can comprehend, is broader than what I can hear. It humbles: both by what in it is graspable and by the intimation it fosters of a range of utterance beyond what I can know....The moral beauty of the poem and its literary beauty are inseparable; it is a book in love with the absent good of the polis, a book of civic passion, but it strikes no fine pose, is not rectitudinous, does not lecture or labour at its virtue...it is not narcissistic....Scott's poem is autobiography but it is also a hermeneutic of political history since World War I....there is no impartial observer, no passive object over which such an observer has the rights of an interpreter. By indirection, by not hiding his confusion, but bespeaking his life, Scott hovers close to the centre of things....Because this recording is powerless...the poem while ambitious is humble. Silence or a humility that might just turn into compunction....


Joshua Weiner, Boston Review, Feb.-Mar. 1995, 31: "When Peter Dale Scott's remarkable and unnerving long poem, Coming to Jakarta appeared in 1988, it was recognized as a major work....An attempt to overcome the psychic self-alienation brought on by Scott's discovery of US involvement in the 1965 slaughter of more than half a million Indonesians, this immensely readable "poem about terror" uses a collage method to trace the links between the political machinations of imperial states and the actions of individual conscience."


LISTENING TO THE CANDLE: A POEM ON IMPULSE

(Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1992; New York: New Directions, 1992)


Roger Mitchell, American Book Review, December 1993-January 1994, 25-27: "There is nothing quite like these books, despite their acknowledged heritage in the tradition of the personal epic....It is in their intentions and in their sense of form and language that these works are most original....Scott's trilogy, only two thirds completed as yet, is certain to be one of the most remarkable and challenging works of our time."


Charles Guenther, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 11/29/92: "'Listening to the Candle' and its earlier companion volume may yet be recognized among the masterpieces of our time in narrative poetry."


Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1992: * [i.e., recommended] "... autobiographical elements form the core of this impressive book-length poem....Through 200 pages of tight three-line stanzas, the poet extends the limits of personal history by incorporating quotations... from over 150 sources in a context that stretches his emotional journey. Past and present converge, but the imagery is so relevant to its particular time that readers should easily locate themselves....The subtitle makes one wish more contemporary poets gave way to such uninhibited yet crafted exploration."


Publishers Weekly, November 2, 1992, 44: on short list of four recommended books (with Gerald Stern, William Matthews, Sharon Olds) after four best books of poetry for 1992 (by Jean Garrigue, Louise Gluck, Derek Mahon, and Charles Simic).


Wisconsin Bookwatch, February 1993, 6: "A book of great richness wherein self-knowledge is more at issue than self-alienation; art perhaps overshadowing politics."


Daniel Morris, Harvard Review (Winter 1993), 1-3: "While Scott resists the Eliotic attempt to extinguish personality in order to tell the story of the culture as a whole, he also chooses to write a poetry which is distinct from the work of Frank O'Hara or the very late notebook poetry of Robert Lowell....The wisdom that Scott achieves in this poem, and that he embodies in its flexible, inclusive structure, is that we must search for a way between what he calls the 'brutality' of civilization and the mindless anarchy that he says will soon lead to brutality; the way is achieved in the act of making, as Scott advocates....The poet's attempt to 'comprehend' rather than to 'impose' order -- his openness to patterns that happen to exist -- is a feature of the poem's effortless style. Scott presents to readers a way toward the making of a less aggressive (which is to say, contemporary) form of modern poetry."


Marion K. Stocking, Beloit Poetry Journal," Spring 1993, 36-39: "To me this appears as a major Romantic poem for our era: a "Prelude," evaluating the century in terms of the growth of the poet's mind: like Byron and Shelley, profoundly engaged in the political and social evils of the age; like all Romantics, concerned...with Becoming, Time, Change, and Many."


Alan Williamson, American Poetry Review, 23/1, January/February 1994, 36-37: "The poem gets, in its wonderful Williams-like slippages, the odd vagary of meditation -- wandering over trivial learning and a lifetime's forgotten experience -- as many more committed poets have not. But it gets, too, the fundamental insight: that it takes 'dar[ing]' -- but brings immense restoration -- to...simply be where we are....Whether the issue is the role of linguistic error in early childhood memories, New Historicist misgivings about the ethics of Spenser and Shakespeare, or the value of sexual liberationism, Scott has a charming way of moving through both sides of any argument....No book in recent memory is more venturesome in its intellectual voyages than this one, yet one of its most attractive qualities is its dogged humanism."


J.N. Igo Jr., Choice, Feb. 1993: "cool cerebral nourishment of a kind long lacking."


Daria Donnelly, Chicago Review 44/3&4, 1998: "a vividly intelligent portrait of...coming to terms...in gratitude and the spirit of forgiveness....a continuously surprising memoir...also a sustained meditation on poetry....His Zen way...seeks enlightenment, achieved by a discipline of bringing to mind what the mind has hidden, both dark and light."


Crossing Borders: Selected Shorter Poems

(New York: New Directions, 1994)
Published in Canada as Murmur of the Stars (Montreal: Vehicule, 1994)



Carmine Starnino, Montreal Gazette, Dec. 24, 1994: "Scott's poetry...is marked by a simple faith in life and an infinite sympathy for all things aninmate and inanimate. This is a book about the natural world as a spiritual resource....The art in Scott's poetry lies in the balance his short, clipped lines strike between colloquial ease and structural constraint, between instinct and logic. The best poems...display a use of language that is original and disarming, with remarkable evocative powers....He is able to take us past the words and their meaning to where the true vitality of understanding lies....his strategy is, in a way, Chekovian: to weave the fabric of the poem so persuasively that its meaning can be felt only indirectly....It seems that we are looking at possibly more than the poetic instinct and skill of a major poet, but maybe, just maybe, at a wonderful new departure in the Canadian lyric. Scott...might very well help vitally redefine the way we think and feel in Canadian poetry."


Joshua Weiner, Boston Review, Feb.-Mar. 1995, 31-32: "Scott now demonstrates a...combination of intellectual passion, self-deprecation, seriousness of purpose, and muted humor...set to a variety of intentions....Reminiscent of late Williams in the measuring of perception and phrase to the line, Scott achieves a more muscular and condensed expression; one which, though natural speech, avoids diffusiveness....These are not poems flashy in their effects, which is fitting to Scott's tone -- steady, meditative, adequately distant to record the movement of mind and the events in the poet's life without excessive self-dramatization. More than the psycho-drama of autobiography, Scott is interested in tracing the connections between personal events and a more worldly and sometimes hidden network....Like Pound, Scott is drawn in other poems to the example of the classical Chinese poets, and perhaps shares even more of their sensibility....Scott's work is rooted in a physical, sensual earthiness; from that location, and from a grounding in himself, he ponders the nature of selflessness."


J.B. Kennedy, Easy Reader (South Bay, CA), 8/17/95: "To read this book is to encounter a writer of conscience, intelligence, and eloquence, a candid and humane activist, an adventurer, traveler, runner, a penetrating scholar, and teacher....Find this book. In the bludgeoning crush of public events, this book refreshes by reminding one that some valuable human beings with authentic voices are still among us."


Scott Ellis, Books in Canada, Summer 1995, 30: "Murmur of the Stars is a rich, humane, tough book, drawn with a delicate, occasionally dark, wit."


Peter Dale Scott's works copyright © to the author.


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