Coming to Jakarta

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1821

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.

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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 bulk of it reflects broad social rather than narrow personal concerns. Scott introduces his family, particularly his father, who also published poetry and who was a law professor; his grandfather, an Anglican clergyman and published poet; and earlier progenitors who thought deeply about social issues and had deep social consciences. Scott admits to attending “a small school! for the over-privileged/in the woods of the Seignory Club.” After completing his bachelor’s degree at McGill University, he continued his studies in Paris and shortly thereafter at Oxford, before he returned to McGill, which granted him the Ph.D. in political science in 1955. All of these educational experiences are reflected directly in Coming to Jakarta as they relate to the broad context about which Scott is writing.

This book was actually written eight years before its publication in Canada and nine years before its appearance in the United States. When he wrote it in 1980, Scott was a visiting Senior Fellow at the International Center for Development Policy in Washington, D.C. He had just completed his book on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and on what he considered to be the subsequent cover-up. He relates in poetry what happened to his Kennedy book, which asked embarrassing questions about how Jack Ruby came to be in such close proximity to Lee Harvey Oswald after the assassin’s arrest and of Jack Ruby’s ties with Cuba. He questioned the findings of the Warren Commission, but, according to Scott,

   The book went into galleys  and was photographedfor the Pocket Books spring catalogue   but never published  freeing meto write this poem

Scott works these bits of information—which might seem intrusive if they were not so well integrated—skillfully and effectively into his poem so that they become part of its very fiber. They are neither superfluous nor distracting. Few poets could get away with using such a technique, but Scott succeeds admirably with it.

The title of the book, Coming to Jakarta, is not literal. The massacres at Jakarta were real, but the title is a metaphor for what is happening to the human race as it rushes toward what Scott fears is its inevitable annihilation. He focuses on things that our society is killing off—the snath (scythe handle) factory in Waterville, the Kennedy brothers, anonymous people in Southeast Asia. He juxtaposes these losses to the political philosophy of the United States, to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to the Warren Commission, and to practices such as tapping people’s telephone lines.

Early in this volume, Scott reveals what his poem is about:

I am writing this poem   about the 1965 massacre  of Indonesians by Indonesianswhich in an article ten years later   I could not publish  except in Nottingham England witha friend Malcolm CaIdwell who has since   himself been murdered

As one would expect, Scott’s poem is full of ironies. He writes of meeting members of the Dulles family, of seeking out Allen Dulles, Jr., at Oxford

years before a Korean bullet   dedullicized his head  the New York Timesshowing the sorrowful father   bent over the prostrate form  of his only sonone day before his confirmation   as CIA director

He then goes on to mention that John Foster Dulles’ son Avery became a Jesuit, implying that this was Avery’s comment on the modern world.

Scott points directly to a modern condition that reflects much of the tenor of the 1960’s, to the age of liberalism that spawned him as a concerned intellectual and artist:

It seems that where there is   tolerance there has always been  paranoia

In this stanza, Scott clearly shows that he understands a basic drawback of the liberal posture, although it clearly is his posture and that of the people he most respects. The psychological insight of this statement, however, is typical of the overall social and psychological insights that Scott reveals in nearly every page of his long poem.

The causes of war, as presented in this poem, are incredibly complex and are seemingly not bound by nationality. The real power structures of society are not national, according to Scott; they are international and highly convoluted. The concentrated wealth of the J. P. Morgans, the Rockefellers, the Rothschilds affects all societies. Scott relates world politics to Western misunderstandings of other peoples, referring to his early reading in his father’s study of Bronislaw Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages in North- Western Melanesia (1929), which, written from a Western point of view, presents gross misinformation about sexual practices in the Third World and heightens suspicion of unknown peoples. On the very next page, he writes about reading other books

from which someone   of that excited era  lecher puritan aesthete or all threehas with a razor excised   page after page in efficient  oblongs all pairs of breasts

It is not a major step in Scott’s worldview from this puritanical desecration of books to the desecration of people whose ways are different, misunderstood. In a sense, then, Scott is writing about provincialism among seeming sophisticates in a power structure whose point of view is essentially Western. He goes on to express his profound dismay at discovering that his father in his writing and thinking was really a part of the very power structure that leads to the international misunderstandings that haunt Scott as a political thinker and as a poet:

I always thought of my father   as a radical not like  my grandfather who taught me grace

Scott returns to the question of modern economics and their effects upon world affairs throughout the book, pointing accusing fingers at the double dealers who play both ends against the middle in world politics, to the Adnan Khashoggis, the Bebe Rebozos, the Ray Furmarks of this world.

The phrase “coming to Jakarta” has to do with the political upheaval of this Dutch outpost in Asia, with the fall of Sukarno, with the killing of Indonesians by Indonesians in a society “upheaving,” to use Scott’s term, but more broadly, as noted above, it suggests that the entire world is “coming to Jakarta,” is moving along the suicidal course that permitted the Jakarta massacres. Many stanzas in Coming to Jakarta are “found” poetry, lines from sources displayed on the page 50 that they look like poetry. Perhaps the most haunting of these, the one that reflects more than any other lines in this long poem what the terror is that Scott refers to in his subtitle, is from journalist Robert Shaplen’s words about the Balinese massacres:

They went to their deaths   in white funeral robes  with an astonishing passivityas if admitting their guilt

This is the accusatory finger Scott points toward modern Western society, toward the tolerant whose paranoia is their greatest liability.


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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22

Books in Canada. XVII, May, 1988, p.25.

Rubicon. X, Fall, 1988, p.290.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, July 9, 1989, p.3.

Zymergy. III, Spring, 1989, p.121.

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