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Mosaic Orpheus by Peter Dale Scott (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009, $16.95 CDN, 182 pp). Review by James Edward Reid.

Mosaic Orpheus extends the concerns and achievement of Peter Dale Scott’s Seculum trilogy. Coming to Jakarta: a Poem about Terror (1988), Listening to the Candle: A Poem on Impulse (1992), and Minding the Darkness: A Poem of the Year 2000 (2000) demonstrated that both deeply personal and politically engaged poetry is possible. It is also a welcome antidote to the prevalence of navel gazing and politics of rage. The trilogy was composed in tercets, whose modest forms opened themselves to reveal a combination of the tenderness and biting laceration that recalls Dante’s limpid terza rima. In this book, poetic forms also ranges from densely packed quatrains to the celerity of two line stanzas. Other relatively free stanza forms engage with the challenge of sorting through the proliferating acceleration of information and disinformation.

Scott is a former Canadian diplomat who was appalled by the cover up of the American supported genocide in Indonesia, and wrote about it years later.Coming to Jakarta: a Poem about Terror, examined real terror, before “terror” was degraded to a cliché to justify the indefensible. Although the trilogy felt complete in 2000, Mosaic Orpheus is hopefully, not a coda, but a precursor to more poetry.

Scott’s new book opens with the memories in “Seven Canadian Poems.” The quotidian delight in the first poem (“Aunt Mary backing up the car”) was so utterly Canadian in the gentle unwinding of its humour that I found myself laughing. I tried to remember the last time I laughed out loud at a poem. But the true weight of Mosaic Orpheus rests in maintaining a balance between personal experience and knowledge of the Dickensian mills of the political world. Mosaic Orpheus looks back more than two decades to the frisson in the opening stanzas of Coming to Jakarta, “Mosaic darkness/ constellations… Why are you here?/ Have you something to tell me?”

Scott does have something to tell us: “the problem has always been/ how do we live with evil?” In addition to examining it, and sifting what truth he can from confusion, his poetry touches on the spiritual- distinct from the religious. One of the spiritual interests is Buddhism. From the evidence here, the advantage of a number of Buddhist practices is that they do not require conversion, only commitment to concentration. Possibly resembling the commitment to writing a good poem. “First Retreat: Fire Tending in the Land of Medicine Buddha” from Minding the Darkness pointed forward to “Commuting to the Land of the Medicine Buddha” in Mosaic Orpheus. Medicine Buddha practice tries to relieve the suffering of the sick and the dying. Both poems are remarkable for their honest portrayal of the discursive thoughts that surface when meditation attempts to clam the mind. In the former poem, Scott recalls “watching my mother/slowly fulfill her resolution/ to die.” In the latter he is “plotting/my early escape/ to Denise’s private memorial.” She is Denise Levertov, a fine American poet, and a good friend.

Clarity might be easier to achieve in personal poems, than in Scott’s densely argued political poetry, permeated as it is with a profound sense of history. To help the reader in both the Seculum trilogy and in Mosaic Orpheus, he provides notes and references. These notes link to Bibliographies that follow each section of the book. Notes to poetry? It makes sense- especially if you’ve ever staggered from pillar to post, trying to discern, for example, what John Ashbery’s multiple narrators are going on about.

The notes and four page Bibliography are especially helpful for “The Tao of 9/11.” This remarkable poem is the book’s sustained and ruthlessly reasoned centrepiece. It grapples with the slippery nets that entangle American Foreign Policy, the international  illicit drug trade, Al Qaeda, the Far West consortium, and possibly the worst thing Dick Cheney attempted while he was in power. And Cheney’s worst is an alarming accomplishment.

A few pages after the conclusion of this unsettling poem, Scott reminds us of Dante’s and Milton’s wager on how to live, “that to live in hope/ we must let go of our torments.” In the face of looming torments that Scott tackles head on, letting go and choosing to do what we do best, may be best. Consider his response when he returned home after one of the California fires burned his house to the ground. The fire destroyed a library built over half a century, as well as decades of writing and translating. Here is the equanimity of his response: “and the thick layer of ash/ Could this be all our books?” Peter Dale Scott’s choice to attend closely to the world, and present his experience of it, also echoes Dante’s long journey in the Purgatorio: “When Love breaths in me, I take note…and set it down.”

James Edward Reid‘s essay on Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn appeared recently in The Sarmation Review. His poetry has been published in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

 This review was published in issue 7:1 Luck. To see more from this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

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