Walking on Darkness by Peter Dale Scott
Sheep Meadow Press, 2016; 90 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Peter Dale Scott’s eighth collection of poems, Walking on Darkness, spans 60 years of personal, historic, and political thought and experience. It continues Scott’s innovations with what’s possible for poetry. His verse engages ideas in an expository way, like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, but doesn’t use prose but a loose free verse, the kind that formalists deride as chopped up prose but which rides the cadences of voice. His non-fiction approach to topics like the Berkeley Free Speech or the Occupy Movements opposition to the military-corporate state pull some poems toward the essay, but not the lyric or narrative but the scholarly essay, including foot—or sidenotes. And yet, his poetics is also personal, since both he and his father were diplomats, and he is Professor Emeritus from the University of California at Berkeley.
His personal witness and his wide scholarship, both evident in the poems themselves, establish an authoritative voice, whether quoting or citing his sources or breezily relating an autobiographical incident. It is a poetry of witness, but not of the victims (as many poets in Carolyn Forché’s landmark anthology are) but of an insider, one who know people who were directly involved. Thus he looks back on his years as a witness of history, and can write
that fantasy that one could redirect
the dominant power of the world
with A Citizen’s White Paper on Vietnam
is also over
and yet part of me still wants
to solve America
Unfortunately, this book is marked, not by the tension of opposites that create a greater unity but by inconsistencies. Because the book includes a headnote about how to read “my often complex and intertextual poems,” missing citations, redundant in-text explanations of what’s also noted, and other technical problems with his intertextual approach distract. More importantly, as a collection of occasional work, unlike his unified long-poem books, this one suffers from including weak poems, like “Berkeley Oaks.”
The persona Scott allows readers to know is far more than his diplomatic and professorial roles, although these interact with his social commentary most. His reflections on aging, on the hard inner work of life’s late act, are profound. Speaking of himself in the third person in “Breakfast Window,” he asks, “Can he really have been all these ages? / He sees how his mind has been letting go / of its cherished baggage…” And as he catalogues the memories of those ages, the pathos builds. But the arc of the personal is not one of endings only; Scott shows how he has always been a seeker, and is now ripening with the heart-opening practice of Buddhism.
Walking on Darkness also presents a redeeming humanizing vision and reflective wisdom. His vision includes values from all ages and traditions. It is a bold courage that enables Scott to view the wreckage of history and still sound the call for “a stronger voice / to empower the old dream / poets have always shared / of narrowing the abyss between the truth we inherit / of Katyushas and M-16s / and metta―lovingkindness / the truth that has always been.”