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Walking on Darkness by Peter Dale Scott
reviewed by James Edward Reid

Walking on Darkness
Peter Dale Scott
Sheep Meadow Press


Late in life, Peter Dale Scott continues to publish significant works of political history and poetry. In 2010 he published American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan. That revealing and disturbing book was followed in 2015 by The American Deep State: Wall Street, Big Oil, and the Attack on U.S. Democracy. Both books shared a number of the concerns in his poetry.

In 2002, Scott had received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award for Poetry. The Lannan recognized the signal achievements of his trilogy Seculum: Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror (1988), Listening To The Candle: A Poem On Impulse (1992), and Minding The Darkness: A Poem For The Year 2000 (2000). In “Seeing Things as They *** Are” in the Notre Dame Review, John Peck, (Poems and Translations of Hi-Lo), a poet with similarly wide-ranging contemporary concerns, described Scott’s Seculum as “one of the essential long poems of the past half century.” Of how many other poems of the last half century could this be said? Peck’s thoughtful and considered essay appears at: http://ndreview.nd.­edu/­assets/35286/peck_review.

In 2009, Scott’s Mosaic Orpheus presented engaged, yet meditative responses to the world, and to its devastation—especially in the sixteen pages of his long poem, “The Tao of 9/11”. Tilting Point appeared in 2012, and at the time, it seemed possible that these two recent poetry books might provide capstones supported by the pillars of his trilogy.

However, his next book of poetry has just appeared, and yet again breaks new ground with new concerns. Walking on Darkness is the title. Not Walking in Darkness. Nor Walking through Darkness, both of which we can imagine. But on Darkness. The title appears to be a contradiction. Or a challenge. Certainly a challenge to approach these poems attentively. Attentively enough that the intersection of the past and the future in Scott’s latest poems open into a sharp clarity that clearly echoes the late work of the Swedish Nobel Prize Winner, Tomas Tranströmer. Tranströmer’s grandfather was a ship’s pilot on the Swedish coast, and his poem “Baltics” describes how a pilot had to read the sea in the early days, even in thick fog, and before radio communications. As the ship in this poem moves into the dangerously thickening fog, the mist lifts ever so briefly, as “His eyes read straight into the / invisible.”

How easily Tranströmer transforms a quotidian espresso, in his poem “Espresso” into “ . . . the drops of black profoundness / sometimes gathered up by the soul.” And Scott, similarly, in “To My Wife Ronna”, after two decades of seeing “the tall blue and white hydrangea / around the corner” sees it clearly for the first time, and is inspired “ . . . to say / you / are more beautiful than you know” both transforming the quotidian, and suggesting a multiplicity of meanings in these lines.

Scott’s poetry is firmly grounded in his debts to his precursors, among them Homer, Dante, William Blake, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, and his dear and difficult friend Czeslaw Milosz. For readers who wish to explore his references, Scott has placed page and line references to other poems on the right hand side of the pages in Walking on Darkness. A particularly rich example of the gift in these guideposts appears in the poem “Tavern Underworld”. It opens up suddenly as the reader considers references to Homer’s Odyssey and to Dante’s Inferno, each of which, across the centuries, then engage with each other. The references recall Odysseus in Homer’s Hades and Odysseus in the Cantos of Dante’s Inferno, both of which also appear in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Scott has spoken recently about the importance of Dante’s poetry to him over the course of his life as a poet and a teacher: “I thought that – maybe if I teach people Dante, they will see that when we love with a pure heart, we will enter into better relationships with other people.” (Paideuma: Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, p.381, Vol. 42, 2015). Then all of unfolding relationships above poetry move effortlessly toward the blunt vernacular in one of the penultimate stanzas of “Tavern Underworld” in Walking on Darkness:

the Quebec tavern men’s room wall
where I had scribbled Daryl is a poet!
Inspiring beneath it Is she? Well fuck a snake!

Occasional and rare toilet room wall graffiti notwithstanding, or sitting, the poems in Walking on Darkness remain as sharp as the clear and present danger in Scott’s poem Chainsaw Dhamma, concerned that the saw’s chain will heat up / stretch / and maybe snake off its / saw bar rail, lines obviously written by some one who has operated a chainsaw at length, and is also committed to clarity.

Scott’s commitment to clarity surfaces again in Walking on Darkness, as he revisits the translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Pebble” which Scott worked on with Czeslaw Milosz in 1968 for the publication of Selected Poems: Zbigniew Herbert. They could not come to agreement on the use of the definite or indefinite article to describe the pebble, or, a pebble. Unfortunately, the version of “Pebble” that appears in Zbigniew Herbert: The Collected Poems 1956-1998, was altered by the editor of the book, who made manuscript changes to the Scott and Milosz translations of this poem and other Herbert poems, without contacting Peter Dale Scott, or the Milosz estate, thereby missing an opportunity to provide us with the trustworthy Scott and Milosz translations from the Polish for inclusion in Herbert’s Collected Poems. I look forward with hope to the appearance of a trustworthy editor for The Collected Poems: Peter Dale Scott.

James Edward Reid is a Canadian writer and editor. He publishes poetry and essays in The Sarmatian Review, at Rice University in Houston Texas. His publications appear at

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 22.