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Crossing Borders: Selected Shorter Poems
Peter Dale Scott
New Direction, $11.95

by Joshua Weiner

When Peter Dale Scott's Remarkable and unnerving long poem, Coming to Japan appeared in 1988, it was recognized as a major work (see particularly the special section in AGNI 31/32). 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. Since then a sequel, Listening to the Candle, has appeared, and the third volume of this projected "trial opus" is forthcoming. With Crossing Borders, Scott now demonstrates a complementary handling of short forms, all of them expressing the combination of intellectual passion, self-destruction, seriousness of purpose, and muted humor that has gone into his personal ethic, here set to a variety of intentions.

After many false starts

we are dispirited although

this seems right a sphagnum meadow

smelling of wild onions

under the vertical granite

just like the ranger said

so we explore the flat

crest of rock outside it

strewn with duff and boulders

too random to have had

any obvious intention

until I call out Here

is the grinding-stone
and at once

we wonder how we could have missed it

the symmetrical pestle standing

by itself in the skin-smooth hollow

of the abraded rock

it fits from so much practice


while behind me

on the other side of the canyon

drifts the white smoke

of the small forest fire

they are letting burn

("Merced Canyon")

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 while making an intellectual link through implication between ancient and modern technologies. There is something unparaphrasable and a little haunting in the conjunction of the image of white smoke ant the information in the last line that the smoke is from a fire "they are letting burn." Man in nature -- yes, a common enough theme; but here Scott makes the point through observation keen to the immediate physical register of "skin-smooth" rock and wild onion, combined with the suggestion of something slightly uneasy taking place in the distance, the two kept in one view by virtue of a kind of double focus.

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 the act of perceiving connections. A former Canadian diplomat, trained in political science, and a Professor of English, Scott has written books in collaboration and on his own about JFK's assassination, the Iran-Contra scandle, drug trafficking, and the politics of escalation in Vietnam, all of which makes him uniquely poised to draw the relationships between world politics and the experience of being a citizen in late 20th century America, and to find a way of embodying that experience in poetry. He is in fact, obsessed with such connections, and the pursuit of them is the central subject of his investigative work as a poet as well as a political critic.

In "Free Climb," for example, the poet begins by describing a TV story about a mountain climber he is watching on the in-flight screen of an airplane, leading him, in turn, to a meditation on risk:

You must be halfway

to Tassajara

our daughter sleeping

on the madrone hillside

above Suzuki Roshi's grave

as I add you to this margin

of my manuscript notebook

he reaches the flat top

and spreads his arms

laughing in my headset

from needless relief

in this country

we make our own risks

even beside this window

I am in my quiet way

engaged with power

my phone line tapped again

as during Vietnam

the stewardess laughing

as she pours me coffee

from the tapestry blue

mountains of Guatemala

and Sandoval's death squads

trained by ex-Nazis


The short line, notational speed, and lack of punctuation create a sense of vertigo as the reader slips from interruptions on the in-flight headset to covert wiretapping, the origin of the coffee the poet sips at 37,000 feet to Guatemalan death squads, their connection to the Third Reich, to research on Romanesque art, Spanish Civil War refugees, the comedy of stumbling across classical music on the airline studio, "the friendly schmaltz/composed here in Iowa/of Dvorak's imagined/New World." For the poet this "new world" is the intricate network of channels between personal experience, history, political action, and the luxury of watching someone on TV risk their skin -- a construction modeled on Pound's use of juxtaposition in The Cantos as a way of pulling together disparate materials, but here without his accompanying radical fragmentation.

Like Pound, Scott is drawn in other poems to the example of the classical Chinese poets, and perhaps shares even more of their sensibility. Along with translations from Li Po, Du Fu, Wand Wei, and Su Dongpo, Scott's own lyrics demonstrate the sense of proportion, balance, and understatement we've come to value in their work.

Two robins charging each other

as I sweep by in my Honda

to the music of C.P.E. Bach

and then after the last turn

in the wooded canyon

the skyscrapers of San Francisco

their windows ablaze

from the dawn behind me I cannot see

Noting the conflation of different cultures -- Japanese cars, Western Classical music, modern American architecture, and the interpenetration of natural and human landscapes -- the poet quietly acknowledges, as well, his own transport towards death as it is gently figured in the dawn he has turned his back on, the origins he leaves behind him "after the last turn" towards the blazing city.

Elsewhere, Scott's measure and music can sound a more Wordsworthian extension, as it does in the two "Laurentian Eclogues" or the letter poems to Czeslaw Milosz and Paul Alpers. In the latter, Scott addresses his friend and colleague at Berkeley, a Renaissance scholar, on the subject of pastoral poetry, "a space for exchanging song." Here literary criticism merges with a criticism of life as the poet interweaves considerations of how, for example, "what 'great' authors do can be compared/to the impact of 'great nations'" like "Erza Pound/ . . . whose crimes/were all of them self-betrayals, whose defense/was like his crimes a sickening self-torment/offering, from its inner darkness, refutation/in verse to his false rhetoric . . ." Or, more personal, this passage on how Scott's approach to teaching "the classics" has shifted with his growing age:

Once , as a mere job, I summarized

the classics, and defined

as easily as A) B) C)

what in Dante to remember. Now

I explore each author like a cave,

not so much interested in the poet's design

as in the opposite, to show how deep

the darkness at the end of each couloir

the unpleasant proximity of death

more and more audible upon my lips

in my increasing gestures towards silence.

Like other poets of California (Hass, Jeffers, Everson) 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. With Scott's eye on mortality, these selected poems have the same kind of relationship to the larger work of Jakarta as Thomas McGrath's later poems have to his own autobiographical and political long poem, Letter to an Imaginary Friend -- they are the smaller chordal variations of a poet who has brought to light an aspect of our collective and sometimes hidden history once buried in the labyrinth of a single consciousness.

Originally published in the February/March 1995 issue of Boston Review

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