Thursday, September 08, 2005

Peter Dale Scott: Coming to Jakarta

I had a hand – a very small hand – in bringing Peter Dale Scott's Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror into print in the United States. I was a member of the editorial staff of Epoch (Cornell's literary magazine) back in 1988, when the poem as a whole was published by McClelland & Stewart in Canada and was being prepared for US publication by New Directions. Out of the blue, we received a chunk of the poem, not from Scott but from New Directions itself (tho it might have been Scott's agent), wondering if we wanted to publish it – the implication being that we would help create a buzz for the book appearance, and in turn the publicity the book received (for it was already making a bit of a stir in Canada) would redound upon Epoch. Perhaps not the most flattering proposal an editorial board ever receives, but we decided that it was worth running, and three sections from Coming to Jakarta accordingly appeared in Epoch 37.3.

I'm a bit embarassed that I've only gotten around to reading the book as a whole 17 years later. And reading it's been an interesting experience. I recalled the poem as being largely historical, seeded thickly with quotations from CIA-related documents and studded with marginal references to a long bibliography. (In some ways, it's a fine example of the sort of "contingent" poetry Bob Archambeau has written about.) I find on tackling the whole thing that it's really much more personal, as much a poem about PDS's coming of age as it is about the CIA-financed & inspired coup in Indonesia in the mid-60s. Its focus, that is, is on PDS coming to consciousness of complicity with terror, both in Indonesia and in all the other places where the American Imperium has cast its tentacles. As he puts it on the back cover, the poem is "one person's account of what it is like to live in the 20th century, possessing enough access to information and power to feel guilty about global human oppression, but not enough to deal with it. The usual result is a kind of daily schizophrenia by which we desensitize ourselves to our own responses to what we read in the newspapers. The psychic self-alienation which ensues makes integrative poetry difficult but necessary."

PDS has had more "access" than most. As he details in the book, many of the key players – diplomats, intelligence officers, political scientists – in the lead up to the Indonesian coup and massacres were family friends, college buddies, colleagues of his. So Coming to Jakarta is not a "camera eye" portrait of terror, or even as set of testimonies (as in Reznikoff's Holocaust), so much as it is a Prelude-like account of the growth of the poet's consciousness in the face of complicity.

The big counterweight in the poem is Ezra Pound, who invents a wonderfully capacious historical poetics, yet himself buys into the most evil political movements of the 20th century. Coming to Jakarta imitates The Cantos in its pervasive quoting, but the prosody is kind of limp late Williams (with a slightly reversed triadic line). I would not claim this as a masterpiece, but it's a book whose scope goes beyond mere poetry (or mere political poetry). Here's a swatch, from late on, a rather personal bit which ends by invoking Hegel's Owl of Minerva, a figure for historical hindsight:

And it is easy
          to be introduced
     to Jacques' wife from New York

at Eloise's candlelight
          dinner party and
     say with complete decorum

not like with Gregor yes
          your father was OSS
     Sullivan and Cromwell

and then Standard Oil
          your grandfather
     practiced law with the

son-in-law of J. P. Morgan
          and your cousin
here I get
     two completely different

families confused but in vino
          and error I tell truth
     was secretary of the CIA's

Fairfield Foundation
          and his wife's cousin
     Christopher Emmet a descendent

of John Jacob Astor
          and President of the
     American Friends of Vietnam

was the man whose Common Cause
          accepted the tax-deductible
     donations for the deliverers

of the Marseille waterfront
          into the hands of friendly
     socialists and behind them

the Corsican Guerinis
          already smuggling Saigon opium
     through the Armenians in Beirut

to be sold on Harlem streetcorners

          but why tell you this
     who married a French-Canadian

lawyer from Westmount
          and are serious about the piano
     now it is the new blood

from the Reagan entourage
          who meet with the Aginter
     veterans of the Guatemala bloodbath

and no one in your
          generation seems to have preserved
     that ancient appetite for power

As long as I haven't
          offended you let
     us step out on the lawn

sloping down to where the
          streetlight in the maples
     at the edge of the water

shines on the long-disused
          lakefront bandstand
     where as a twelve-year-old

I was given popcorn
          to sit still as the
     Voltigeurs de Sherbrooke

went through their precarious
          Saturday-night arousals
     of John Philip Sousa's

martial nostalgia
          What is that whirr
     of low wings in the darkness

of the ornamental pines?
It is the owl

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