Academic journal article Chicago Review

Coming the Jakarta: Poetry, Information, and Disaster

Academic journal article Chicago Review

Coming the Jakarta: Poetry, Information, and Disaster

Article excerpt

Academics have very little leisure time. The only games we play are what Clifford Geertz calls "deep games," in the problematic essay on Bali cited so frequently in this poem. In order then to make time for things like genocide and the "New World Order" in his busy life, and in ours, Berkeley medievalist Peter Dale Scott has invented a poetic board game called Coming to Jakarta. Although it comes without instructions, most people get the hang of it pretty quickly: the five-page bibliography in the back of the book and the marginal glosses and citations throughout are heavy clues, at least to academic readers and knowledge buffs, that the game is in fact about following clues - it's a research game, an intelligence-gathering game. Our kind of game. Two of the three writer-academics who wrote on the poem for the 1990 issue of Agni Review (31/32), as well as the man who interviewed Scott for that issue, took the same tack, discussing the results of the research they found themselves conducting into American involvement in Indonesian affairs as they read the poem. Robert Hass's review ends in fact with an update of the government's account of the Indonesian massacres - this just in from the San Francisco Examiner. I'd like to account here, at least in part, for the exhilarated awe with which these readers and others like them participate in the intelligence game of Scott's poetry. Ross Labrie, the reviewer for Canadian Literature (no. 122/23, 1989), writes from off in left field that "what one remembers with fondness from Scott's poem are the boyhood scenes in Westmount and the Lake Memphremagog area..." (146). That attitude towards poetry, or the kind of reading it attests to - the aesthetic pursuit of private nostalgia - is not in play here: as Scott proposes in canto 2, "Let us examine carefully // the good reasons / you and I / don't enjoy reading this."

Coming to Jakarta: A Poem about Terror is an epic, and one that explicitly claims its place in a continuum the poet both acknowledges and accuses: Virgil is invoked by name in the first tercet (the stanza form the poem shares with The Divine Comedy), and the whole narrative is framed as a descent into Hell, begun as a near-drowning in a childhood lake, the Avernus Canadian Literature's reviewer "fondly remembers" as "the Lake Memphremagog area." It is divided into five cantos, each further divided into several two- or three-page sections, and it oscillates by something like free association between the hard-factual narrative of covert American involvement in post-colonial political unrest, particularly in Indonesia in the 1960s, and an autobiographical account of the author's own involvement, one way or another, in that defining American crime. (Before he threw his lot in with poets and professors Scott had been a Canadian diplomat, a Ph.D. in political science educated at places like Oxford and Paris, a family friend of people like "the Dulles clan" who also summered in the "Lake Memphremagog area.") After the first short canto the margins are littered, like those of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with reference notes - much of the poem's language is a tissue of fragmented quotation and paraphrase. A bibliography of 108 items gives full data on these sources in the back.

This list is not the latest event in the trend set by Eliot's Waste Land - these are not additional remarks from a poet bent on teaching us how to read his poem, but a set of sources from which we can learn more about the concrete historical circumstances which occasioned the poem. The emphasis is not on Scott's meanings, but on the meanings of "Jakarta." As a result, the poem is in a way subsumed by its bibliography, becoming itself another source of information on American involvement in the 1965 massacres that attended the overthrow of Sukarno. In an essay about the poem's occasion, Scott writes, "the poem arose initially out of the impossibility of reaching any U.S. audience on this unspeakable subject in prose. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.