Essays - English

The Poetry of Goenawan Mohamad*) **)

* This is the introductory piece to Goenawan Mohamad: Selected Poems (Jakarta: Kata Kita, 2004), Introduced, selected and translated (with others) by Laksmi Pamuntjak 

** This article is reprinted here without its original accompanying footnotes.

I.

          One day, as I was leafing through the collected poems of Goenawan Mohamad, I was struck by the number of words whose ambiguity inspires a deeper contemplation. The word bubungan, in “The Woman Who Was Pounding Salt,” for instance: does it mean ceiling or the rising plumes of smoke? The context alludes to both. Back to 1963, even: one finds the verb mengendap, in the well-known poem “A Poet’s Final Day, One Afternoon.” A word whose meaning signifies to move stealthily or to settle heavy and slow like sediment. Either way, not a verb normally associated with the sun.

          So it was to the poet himself that I turned to. “Tell me,” I said, “what it was you had wanted to express.” His chuckled reply: “I really don’t know. I’ve forgotten.” My disappointment must have stirred something in him; before long, he told me that the ambiguity might have been the intention. Then again, he would choose words purely for their sound, their rhyme, their image.

          Later, as we were working on what was to become the first bilingual anthology of his poetry, some details would surge with alarming clarity. For instance, he was able to recall for me, in the haunting “A Day for Alvin Hutabarat,” a painting by de Chirico that shed light on the stanza, “In the corner is a print/of a painting: a child running/a lone silhouette, pushing a wheel/with a steel rod.” The child running was not the boy toddler in the garden of his home I had in mind: it was a girl of ten or so, running in the grim corridor between two buildings.

          Artists, Auden insisted, should be anonymous; Goenawan, for all intents and purposes, isn’t, and the firsthand insight to which I am privileged is a luxury not enjoyed by many translators of poetry. But while it can be instructive to the whole exercise of translation, in the sense of bringing the translator that much closer to the “mind” of the translated, it can also detract from what Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward maintain is the translator’s greatest joy: to venture into the open space of its possibilities, to draw out of it a glimpse of its mystery, its secret life, and to ponder the glow of what remains unconcealed. Still echoing Kunitz and Hayward, “By having every meaning recalled and made accountable the reimagining is all but stripped, as if the life source were more important than the metamorphoses.”

          The fact that the poet himself is often ambiguous about his authorial intent is as much a by-product of age as the fragility of the notion of the “original” text. It may even be possible, to follow Susan Sontag, that the original text should be regarded as itself a translation – “the original translation,” if you will, of something in the author’s consciousness. (1) In other words, something which is never “one thing.”

          And so, just as consciousness is a strange thing, - the way it starts with something and leads to another with seemingly nothing to tie them -, the poet is not only unwilling, but also fundamentally unable to grasp, let alone to offer to his reader, a substance or a message out of the chaos of a poem struggling to “become.” The moment he loses that rein, the poet surrenders his wits to words, and he is no longer the auteur: the author is dead, so goes Barthes’ famous saying. (2)

II.


          When the first edition of Goenawan Mohamad: Selected Poems came out, with such a limited print run it barely squeaked in people’s memories, a review by the literary critic Ignas Kleden (3) in Tempo magazine took issue with my central assumption. It is about the possibility of translation as a betrayal, - “perhaps, a particular form of Steiner’s idea of “aggression” -, in that it is a traduction, a reconstitution made of sacrifice and revision. (4) Kleden argued, with good cause, that the translations in the volume that could be considered “successful” were the ones that stayed as faithful as possible to the original text.

          In the context of poetry as discussed before, what is fidelity? Is it the work to which one is faithful? The writer? Literature? Or language? Of course, the idea of ideal translation is always subject to two perennially opposed standards. One is literalism, in which every effort is geared towards preserving every element possible in a work – in other words, to be faithful to the “words of the book.” The other is full naturalization, meaning that the translator must pass the original text over “into” the new language, so that one does not feel one is reading a translation at all.

          While we know that the actual practice of translation usually lies between the two extremes, there lies a larger disagreement about what responsibility one has to the “original” text. But for what end? To translate is still, as Sontag puts it, “to lead something across a gap, to make it go where it was not.” (5)

          A translator may feel that the text is best served by taking certain liberties, - to rearrange passages, sharpen or even alter details -, to make it more accessible in that other language. Even in a literal transcription, he or she must still decide for each poem just what constitutes the essential elements, what he or she dares to change or settle with, what should be sacrificed, trimmed down, let go. Or what is more convenient: to miss, as Eco suggests, “the intertextual link for the sake of comprehensibility,” or, on the contrary, to risk “a poor literary understanding in order to stress the link.” (6)

          All of which makes the task of attempting to translate Goenawan all the more daunting. Anyone familiar with his works knows too well the extent to which he has rejuvenated the Indonesian language – indeed, made it into his own. In poetry as in his prose, sound, rhythm and balance are continually held to experimentation, metaphor is richly mined, and the language of the penumbra, - the shaded area between past and present, personal and universal, distance and intimacy -, given a new lease on life.

           Seen from the perspective of his native tongue, Goenawan’s appeal to his readers lies in his enmeshing of extreme economy in form and constant extension of vocabulary. The latter he does chiefly through the supplanting of bureaucratese and Indonesianized English by an innovative use of rarely used synonyms, especially Malay and Javanese. As a prose-writer, he is known for his ability to probe two sides of the same coin and never quite coming down on the “side” of either – an almost temperamental detachment offset by an eloquence of reasoning that effectively takes the pedantic out of “wisdom.”

          In poetry, this ability to move from dream to reality, clarity to obscurity, participant and observer, often sounds like a disquieting drone of truth. (though nothing like the Frostian effect: the comfortable-as-a-handshake security of familiar “truths.”) Even as Goenawan turns on its head everything we have customarily thought of as right and wrong, black and white, traditional and new, reading him is not a train ride of verbal action: it is often a quiet moment of measure, in which darkness shimmers and silence fills out. While Indonesian readers are often blown away by the singular beauty of a word, a line, a detail, it often takes them a while to recoil from the quietly unsettling effect of the whole - that other side of being that in Goenawan’s hand is acknowledged and thus transcended, in the same way one understands that love, beauty, happiness are not forever.

 

III.

 

          How does the English language come into all this? Two ways: sometimes as a poor match, other times as a good partner. Finding resonant vocabulary in English is not always easy, especially as Goenawan often juxtaposes his use of different synonyms and shifts freely between their different nuances. This perceived imbalance is, in part, the combined result of Goenawan’s constant pioneering of the Indonesian language, rendering him always a fresh, thought-provoking read, and the lexical idiosyncrasies of the Indonesian itself. In the grippingly spare 1971 poem “Cold Unregistered,” the subdued, solitary line “Kota hanya basah” is a deeper, richer plunge into the spectral pain behind the factual “The city is but wet.”

          Rhyming words like “lapuk” and “tumpuk” (“Words are Like the Tinkle of Coins”), “gagal” and “sengal” (“Gatoloco”), belong mentally and phonetically to a certain series of words which bear no equivalence in the English language. In Indonesian, the words and the lines they find themselves in draw each other out and add something which none of them would have had separately or in any other combination. Furthermore, what makes the exchange of secret values possible is not only the mere contact between the words but their exact position in regard both to the rhythm of the line and one another. The feeble translations, respectively: “where meaning stay” and “gathering”; “fizzled” and “choked room,” are precisely that: feeble.

          However, the reverse applies as well. In the matter of sex, for instance, where in his own language Goenawan is almost unparalleled, he pales in translation because Erotic English is so much ahead of him already. And we all know that in sex, it is not enough to translate the “sense.”

          Yet my personal experience with translating Goenawan’s works has led me to discern in him a certain natural affinity with the English language, the kind partly brought on, no doubt, through admiration; through what Walcott calls “that benign envy which all poets have for the great poets of a different language.” (7) The tribute is often self-evident: in “Autumn Quatrains,” we find the line “The summer is so great,” which, interestingly, is Goenawan’s own translation of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar’s Indonesian translation of Rilke’s “Autumn Day.” (8) (Or, in “Pastoral,” Auden’s famous opening line, from “Lullaby.” (9) Or the ghost of Dickinson in Goenawan’s earlier poems.

          Even in those early days, spare eloquence had already distinguished Goenawan from his peers. He was fascinated by lyric poem and found sanctuary for his troubled soul in the steady iambic of older Malay verse-forms, quatrains and European sonnets. This preference for tight forms might well be the poet’s quest for discipline, in the way the stringency of his one-page Tempo columns has worked for his essays - as a guard against superfluity and sentimentalism.

          The greater landscape, however, a period known as Guided Democracy (1958-1965), certainly sharpened this aesthetic restraint. It was a period in which the grand, totalizing ideas of Socialism and Nationalism became a monstrous end in itself, often over and above human lives; and those, like Goenawan and his fellow signatories of the Cultural Manifesto, - a statement published in 1963 defending creative freedom -, were branded anti-revolutionary. One would only have to read the first poems of this collection to get a glimpse of his idea of hope, at a time when culture was ever steered the way of politics and poetry was reassigned to being “fellow travelers” of the Revolution.

          What Goenawan might have forsaken in form he has gained in a measure of the verbal inventiveness he so admired of Amir Hamzah, Indonesia’s foremost poet of the 30s. Indeed, this was also a time when the Indonesian language was still wallowing in its own impoverishment caused by its own official and unnatural quality as a national standard. It was a language stripped off color, smell, shape, desire – an anemic, mechanistic language that spoke nothing of real life. And so, from within the confines of an old matrix, Goenawan ushered a new trope, a new stance towards reality: that which returned man to the wild orchids in the forest; to the “face” of the concrete; to, perhaps, something akin to Richard Rorty’s notion of private irony. (10)

          Yet for all Goenawan’s admiration for the virtuosity of Joyce, the ingenuity of Borges, and the relish of someone like Indonesian poet and theatre figure Rendra in throwing himself open to wild experiments, there is also somewhat of the pragmatist in him: to borrow the poet and critic Arif Prasetyo’s words, there is the “sensible” in the “sensuous.” (11)

          Not surprisingly, Goenawan is at his weakest when he tries to abscond from this discipline, consciously or otherwise. In his first narrative poem, “Pariksit,” (which is also the title of Goenawan’s first anthology of poems, published in 1971), itself a rewriting of the well-known Javanese tale of a young king put under the curse of annihilation in the hands of the Dragon Taksaka, the extended form only brings out all that the poet has steeled himself against: bombast, banality, the need to be understood.

While “Pariksit” remains ostensibly a playground for a stream-of-consciousness reinvention of tradition, once much praised for its innovative spirit, it may now find itself wanting. It is also possible that Goenawan is less successful when re-imagining not history, but himself in a historical role. Shorn off his customary vehicles of ambiguity, - the vague shifts from first person and third person, the plural pronouns kita/kami (we), the you and You brilliantly feinted in “Gatoloco” -, he self-consciously explicates, rather than suggests, his inner demons. “Pariksit” is too centered, too serious for its own good.

          Still, there is a sound, a sensibility, to Goenawan’s subtle eloquence that shares an affinity with the parsimony of English, especially in his latest poems. It is no coincidence that “In Elsinore” (2004) betrays more than the poet’s passing fascination with Hamlet: something that has a lot to do with its author, no doubt, but also to the fate of the conflicted man, ever torn between suffer(ing) “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” and tak(ing) “arms against a sea of troubles.” (12)


IV.


And so, Goenawan tells us that everything not only has an expression (“on a nameless clay, I see your face again;” “melancholy’s face plastered on posters,”) but also a motion: the rain not only ceases but “thins into a drizzle,” and perhaps, every day, outside the reaches of our eyes, “there’s a procession, towards a black hole, where desire – and all that is remembered – collects like the carrion of birds.”

          He also tells us that art is in some important ways the opposite of nature, and that the creation, the transformation, of being, – a winged horse made of glass, trembling, “wanting to touch a name” -, is not just possible, it has to be possible, even if only in mental flight. It is not enough merely to go along, or, worse, “be at one” with nature as many poets seem to be happy enough to settle with - except in that one non-negotiable matter, Death. 

          Matter, too, is not only moved into mind but also the other way around - bending nature towards the will of man, giving it, at times, not just the appearance of a human being, or things manmade, but also its character. Thus, we find not only in “Cambridge” an “asbestos sky,” and, in “One Day in June,” an afternoon “as pale as a patient,” but also, in “The Cube,” a soundless cube that shoulders the night with “everyday melancholy,” evoking, among others, the plain simplicity of the Ka’bah. In such moments, even as hours “hang heavy” and “the numerals have long known,” both man and nature are given transient salvation.

          It is certainly a heavy burden, this knowingness, this morbid pessimism that, in “Expatriate,” “seeps through the senses” like the “course of day.” “Time is poetry’s cliché,” he wrote in “Once”, “but what to do?” Like Rilke, a poet he admires, Goenawan often uses space to defeat time, and stoicism becomes both a luxury and a necessity.

          Yet Goenawan’s stoicism is quite different than Rilke’s. While both of them may point out the same thing, that, really, the human condition can only be appreciated and endured, and that in the end, we are all alone, there is a tendency in Rilke to take refuge in a sacramental form of speech so that the elemental things that share our earthly journey – a house, a bridge, a jug – cease to be defined by their names, are internalized, and translated into ourselves. Doubtless this is a form of protest on the part of the German Romantic poet against the mechanization of life and mass production that he so loathed.

          Yet, the extent of what William Gass calls Rilke’s “withinwarding” (13) is just not possible within the make-up of our own mental traveler. Goenawan survives both his life as a poet and his other life as everything else precisely because he trusts neither nature nor man: indeed, one puts the other in check. He survives precisely because he has a sense of irony. “We mourn, therefore we are.”

          In a sense, Goenawan’s internalized acceptance of incongruity embodies Rilke’s notion of being in the venture of “dim delight.” In Heidegger’s reading of Rilke, the ventured beings most open to “the Open” are those that are by nature benumbed so that “in such numbness, they never strive for anything that might oppose them.” (14)

          Goenawan’s reticence does not just see “dim” as “muted,” just as the sky is not merely the sky. “Dim,” to Goenawan, is not just the countless twilights and fading lights of day that pepper his poems as a device for ushering time, as when “A troop broke through the dim of the yard.” (“A Story for Yap Thiam Hien”), or when “Scraps of the moon hang outside, above the asphalt sky.” (“In That Town, They Say, The Rain Has Become Lead”). But “dim” is also the fundamental fate of man, that which rests on an essential depth and has the nature of a bearer, so that “Darkness falls clumsily, besieging us, the old city square and buildings before 6.” (“In Mala Strana”), so that “My eyes are not that dim, obviously, for seeing what is not there.” (A Quatrain About a Pot”), and so that in the gaunt light, “A passing ambulance sends a shudder, a bearer of a sign.” (“Cikini Street.”)


V.


          Where form compresses - and this is exactly where Goenawan’s latest poems have headed - imagery becomes all the more important. Around 1999, he began to experiment more intensely with short prose-poems, a form that served him well after the particular success of his eight-year tryst with eroticism. All plot and motive are replaced with a kind of chattering, compulsive, image-chasing interior monologue of dreads and desires. 

          After the magical twelve-part “Pastoral,” a stylistic volte-face at the end of 2002, Goenawan has steadily gone the way of compacted austerity starting with “The Altar” all the way to “In Elsinore.” And the austere always comes under closer scrutiny for it presupposes a speaking that says more than it speaks, means more than it says. (which is actually what all genuine poetry is about.) The assumption is all the more so because of Goenawan’s intellectual stature – he thinks, therefore he is. Going back to Kleden’s point on the value of faithful translation, then, to what should it be directed? The thinking itself? We have seen how difficult it is to get a sense of what the author thinks.

          Yet if we were to assume that poetry comes from the experience with thinking, then how does one translate, in “Pastoral,” “Apakah arti sebuah ujung?” when one knows, from sheer familiarity with the author as a thinker, that he would never perceive of “ujung” (the tip, the edge, the precipice, a point in which something may become something else) as “akhir” (the end), even if the two words are often interchangeable, especially when distance is involved? Does one then translate it into “What is the meaning of an end?”, hoping that it would provoke alternative readings, or “What is the meaning of an edge?”, as a direct act of translation?

          In dealing with inter-textual irony, Goenawan seems to avoid too much double coding. Thus is Auden’s line acknowledged as a quote and Rilke’s words italicized. Again, this is perhaps due to his internalized experience with the English language, – that is, knowing instinctively what an average English poetry reader may or may not recognize –, as well as the spectre of a “dual audience” that resides in his subconscious, heightened no doubt by the prodigious traveling of the last decade of his life.

          After Tempo was banned in 1994 by the Suharto regime and Goenawan went underground to build alternative channels of free expression, his life has acquired a different dimension. It is a life of packing and unpacking, looking out at different windows, sitting in planes and trains, watching the umpteenth snowfall (so much snow!), writing at odd and irregular hours, eating poorly, and falling ill on strange pillows. Indeed, Goenawan has never written more in the English language than he has during this period. His myriad references to autumn, snowfall, and hours “growing heavy,” – experiences and figures of speech an English-speaking audience can easily relate to –, also acquire a sheen of the familiar.

          Of course, the familiar, much less the universal, is not the aim of poetry, even if many linguists rightfully worry about the problem of getting a reader to respond to a hypotyposis rousing the memory of seeing something one has never seen. The problem of evoking the individuation of an experience – something involving what David Lodge callsqualia, or the specific nature of a person’s subjective experience (15) – always carries cultural risks. While a text can call to mind a personal experience with a single word, the word does not have the same evocative impact every time, every culture, or in every country. See, for instance, this line, from “Afterword:” “I know a bird will greet us from the northeast/vomiting blood.”

          The image is a very familiar one to those growing up with old Javanese stories. Yet it can as easily be Norse mythology, something out of Julian Barnes, or the poet’s own skewed imagination – and no one is the worse off for it.


VI.


If we accept that poetry is not, as Goenawan believes, the bearer of a message, or a medium of “the masses,” then it stands as itself, on its own: just as life is the flight of the alone to the alone. (16) It need not explain what it sees, or what it wishes its audience to see. Poetry is a space in which meaning is not the same as having function or purpose; language can just freely be, unaccountable to nothing and no one; and time is often defeated. 

           Poetry both releases and restrains: it gives the poet immortality as only a poem can, and also that private sanctuary where he can retire in order to avoid a feeling, the memory of a lover, the plea of duty, the burden of history, the peril of intimacy, “hope that turns into want, and thus sins.” It bids him to the space of things. To “soul in a space of hazy gloom, singed by fireflies of cigarettes chasing each other’s tails." To the space of night in the sound of a piano playing lines of the Rubbayat when “the dark is taking the floor” and “the wind echoes no more.”

          There is a sense that Goenawan’s use of wayang stories (“Kunthi’s Coitus,” “Before the Immolation of Sita,” “Bedtime Story,”) Javanese texts and songs (“Pariksit,” “Asmaradana,”) and Greek legends (“Oedipus,”) is also part of this mental travel, where memory, forgetting, history; pain, faith and irony can meet and have their dance. They are but podiums from which he could turn his observer’s eye on how many daily things – the cycle of seasons, lust, laughter – escape mortality, when you only stop to look. 

          Poetry, in fact, is the ultimate paradox, where one can talk of life and death in one breath, just as beginnings and endings, loving and ceasing to love, living and ceasing to live are one. “Every poet has a twilight in his soul.” said Derek Walcott (18), and this is especially true of Goenawan Mohamad.

           “Expatriate,” one of the earliest poems of this collection, written when he was 21, speaks of a journey – a journey that is life – but one always attuned to “the silent chuckle of age” – that “certainty of death” found in the closing line of “Pastoral,” penned 40 years later. While it has all the requisite hopes of youth, and of duty to country, this “Adam of no word,” this young man whose pages are yet to be filled, knows “for sure what is in store.”

          But twilight for Goenawan is not the fading sky of “a stoic’s route” over which he mourns youth and opportunities lost, but for that moment from which elegies are elicited by the tuning fork of sky and horizon, of fate and place, and of time and space; by places “we recognize in mortal moments.” It is this that lends color and hope to the pallor of everyday life, unbidden, magical, like a “sudden flash of time,” and for once he finds himself on level ground with the morning angel: “I do not want to die yet.” 

Laksmi Pamuntjak