Listening to the Candle

By Donnelly, Daria | Chicago Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Listening to the Candle


Donnelly, Daria, Chicago Review


In his prose note to the confessional long poem, Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse (1992), Peter Dale Scott anticipates that some readers "may be puzzled, or even disappointed, by this poem's relationship to its predecessor Coming to Jakarta." To them he offers the promise of a third and final long poem (the forthcoming Minding the Darkness) toward which Listening to the Candle is moving. This is a modest gesture, for Candle is already potent, both in itself and retroactively, as it shores up the work of Coming to Jakarta by expressing the personal, poetic, and spiritual counterparts to the political testimony so prominent in the earlier poem.

As an autonomous artwork, Listening to the Candle is a vividly intelligent portrait of a man - poet, activist, intellectual, and husband - coming to terms with the life he has lived, summoning his friends, both living and dead (almost each section of the poem is dedicated), in gratitude and the spirit of forgiveness. It is a continually surprising memoir, largely because of Scott's steadfast refusal, enabled by his practice of Zen meditation, of the cliches of recollective poetry, namely, regret and achieved wisdom. Listening to the Candle is also a sustained meditation on poetry, a poem crowded with poets and poetic quotation, that discursively reveals Scott's retrospective understanding of Coming to Jakarta's poetics.

In that earlier poem, Scott was notably reticent about his faith in poetic knowledge, despite Coming to Jakarta's astonishing reinvigoration of poetry's moral authority in an age of prose. Scott's twice locating Coming to Jakarta's genesis in the failure or difficulty of his pose account of the same events to find a publisher (II.iv, p. 24; IV.i, p. 102) implied that poetry is a testifying genre of last resort. This presentation of poetry as secondary and distinct to a certain extent misdirected the reader away from the poem's substantial and deft interweaving of poetry and prose, an interweaving that is most overt in the marginalia, but which also is evidenced formally and stylistically in Scott's chosing to denature prose fluidity by means of enjambment and syntactic inversion, and to embed meticulous description and analysis within a stream-of-consciousness voice. The story Listening to the Candle tells of Scott's coming to poetry, his apprenticeship under the guidance of Dante, Pound, Rilke (masters of the long poem and unified sequence), the formation and refinement of his poetic ideas, goes a long way to explaining this intermingling and the arresting blend of cocktail parties, childhood scenes, and precise political documentation that is Coming to Jakarta. In Scott's now more explicitly stated view, it is "precisely poetry" that has the capacity to break down the denial and the false boundary between personal and civil life that permit covert forces, such as those that promoted the 1965 massacre of 500,000 Indonesians, to operate unchecked.

Listening to the Candle testifies to the perfect consilience of Scott's political, spiritual, and poetic methodologies. As a trained political scientist, Scott finds the traditional definition (pluralist and Marxist) of politics, as a system of overtly identifiable interactive forces, wanting. In his work on Indonesia, the Kennedy assassination, the Iran-contra connection, and the drug wars, Scott traces points of contact between conventionally acknowledged political actors and unacknowledged, even actively repressed, areas of political activity (such as CIA covert operations and organized crime). His Zen way (which possesses more force and efficacy in Candle than its belated invocation in Jakarta allowed) seeks enlightenment, achieved by a discipline of bringing to mind what the mind has hidden, both dark and light. …

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