Peter Dale Scott’s Tilting Point: “tilting at the mills of state / with a lance of paper”
Peter Dale Scott’s first full volume of poetry since Mosaic Orpheus (2009) collects ten new poems that speak from the vantage point of a lifetime and his singular interrogation of the American Empire. The first eight, short poems reflect on the eros of old age, the “drive’s decline”, a shift to “love not as acquisition but as gift”, an eros poignantly in love with living more than with any one beloved, that lifts
for an instant
into this abiding
of all there is
Fifty-seven of the volume’s seventy-pages are taken up by two longer works Loving America and Changing North America, the former probing the schizophrenic love-hate relationship Scott has developed over decades’ engagement with his adopted country (“the cradle of the worst and the best” as Leonard Cohen sings), the latter searching for resolutions to the country’s increasingly pathological contradictions.
The profound pertinence of Scott’s message is tuned to a style tempered to communicate it. Tellingly, at least four of the book’s poems, including many of the long poems’ sections, first appeared on “the spreading / leafwork of the Internet,” an index of Scott’s urgent desire to get the word out. His classical manner verges on the prosaic, even the pedestrian at times, guided throughout by a democratic ideal to address the widest possible audience, such as in the startling “To the Tea-Party Patriots: A Berkeley Professor says Hello!”. Often, that audience is an expressed dedicatee or interlocutor, poets or friends, including Daniel Ellsberg, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Czeslaw Milosz, and Walt Whitman, among many others.
More ruminative readers, however, will not mistake the clear surface of Scott’s language for a shallowness of thought or knowledge. Already, for example, in the volume’s first piece “Homing: A Winter Poem,” Scott’s simplicity belies a profound complexity of reference, the tracing of which is the richly rewarding work his writing invites: the significance of the dedication to Tomas Tranströmer, the epigraph from Genesis, the allusions to ‘Jubal’ and ‘Urthona’ and the poet speaker’s “dead parents,” among others, coupled with the intratextual references—the “tilt of the earth” nodding to the collection’s title and the “glimpse of odyssey” that winks at the poem dedicated to Milosz “Not for long”—all point to a profound and unending network of meaningfulness, a characteristic virtue of literary art.
For all its accomplished polish Scott’s poetry is no mere aesthetic production. His manner is chosen to address matters of the utmost consequence, the character and fate of America, a topic that has inspired him to produce more than eight volumes of painstaking investigative scholarship into the machinations and abuses of power and a monumental long poem Seculum (in three volumes, Coming to Jakarta (1988), Listening to the Candle (1992), and Minding the Darkness (2000)). It is in the book’s two long poems that Scott most firmly grasps this theme that runs throughout his life’s work, work that rises to his friend Milosz’s question “What is poetry which does not save / Nations or peoples?// A connivance with official lies…” Scott’s answer to Milosz’s demand is, in part,
… to write any poem
encompassing this nation
one must have an awareness
of gratuitous murder
committed by released felons
in uniform for sport
without forgetting the grace
of a doe drinking from a forest stream
Scott’s theme, like Whitman’s before him, has vista. The periplum of this territory his work traces and this latest book continues invites and demands our attentive study.
Tilting Point, Peter Dale Scott, San Luis Obispo: Word Palace Press, 2012