Coming to Jakarta (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Centered on the cover of Coming to Jakarta is a clear oblong photograph of a tranquil lake, probably Lake Massawippi, near the point at which Canada meets Vermont. It was in this area that Peter Dale Scott, born in Montreal, spent his childhood summers. This photograph is superimposed upon three other pictures, so shadowy, dark, and indistinct as to be barely perceptible. These pictures are of uniformed soldiers, most of them Southeast Asians. In a sense, the collage of which this cover is made provides the essence of what Scott writes about in his chilling poem. The levels on which the poem functions are equally present in the photographs on the cover.
Coming to Jakarta consists essentially of tercets, all of them minimally punctuated. Aside from an occasional question mark or apostrophe, the poem runs on for 150 pages absolutely devoid of punctuation. The effect of this technique, surprisingly, is that the poem has remarkable unity. Lines overlap, meaning is enhanced by the overlap, and words—sometimes whole lines—do double or triple duty, as they always must in quality poetry. More complete punctuation than Scott uses would interpose stumbling blocks to the kinds of meaning that he so ably achieves in this intricate and well- controlled piece of writing.
The poem is divided into five sections, two short and three long. Sections 1 and 5 are six and seven pages respectively. The first is used to build background and to reflect on the author’s past; the last offers a chilling reflection on the massacre in Jakarta, broached more fully in section 4. The three internal sections intermix their locales much as a visual collage would. The collage effect of the entire poem is essentially impressionistic, sometimes verging on expressionism
Peter Scott has spent his adult life as a diplomat, writer, and professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. Many of his books and collaborations are essentially political, including works on American involvement in Vietnam and the Iran-Contra affair. Scott has also published one volume of his own poetry, Rumors of No Law: Poems from Berkeley, 19684977 (1981), and, with Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, has translated Zbigniew Herbert’s Selected Poems (1968) from the original Polish.
In Coming to Jakarta, all of these past interests and accomplishments coalesce into a work that is at once artistically conscious and stylistically able, politically searching and philosophically well informed. Like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), the long poem to which Scott’s poem seems in many ways most closely akin, Coming to Jakarta runs the gamut of foreign languages both familiar (French, German, Italian) and obscure (Hindi and Indonesian). Mercifully, Scott provides unobtrusive marginal translations for most of his foreign phrases. Also like The Waste Land, Coming to Jakarta provides a list of sources and references to these sources, not in the form of footnotes but in marginal notes. Scott has incorporated these sources as an integral part of his poem; Eliot added his notes after the fact, seemingly to make the published version of The Waste Land long enough to constitute a separate volume in print. Like the Eliot poem, Scott’s poem is inherently pessimistic in its speculations about the future of humankind.
Many of Scott’s early experiences resemble Eliot’s, as one notes in references to Cape Anne that might have come from Four Quartets (1943), although Scott is more materialistic in his views than Eliot was. Just as Eliot spent his childhood summers away from his home in St. Louis with his parents on the New England coast, so did Scott spend his childhood summers south of Montreal around the Vermont border.
Coming to Jakarta will also, inevitably, evoke comparisons to Ezra Pound’s Cantos (19254969) and to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson poems. The volume is suggestive as well of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), although it is such a singular entity that any comparison necessarily is to superficial similarities it shares with other long poems rather than to any inherent influences upon its author. Scott’s work is consistently fresh and original.
Scott’s entire presentation is in the first person. It covers the whole of the author’s life and is at times directly biographical, although the...
(The entire section is 1821 words.)
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