“Every poet has a twilight in his soul,” said Derek Walcott, and this is especially true of Indonesian poet and essayist Goenawan Mohamad. Most of his poems are haunting, elusive, sensually morbid or morbidly pessimistic: a fugitive’s corpus, bred by the spirit of escape and guided only by “the certainty of death”.
Even in the salad days of his career, Goenawan’s lyric poems – a genre which one normally associates with youth – were already shot through with the melancholy of age. And subsequently – whether in the restrained aesthetic of the poet’s response to the socialist experiment in Indonesia in the 1960s, in the burning fire of his eight-year tryst with eroticism in the first part of the 1990s, in the brief compulsive, image-chasing period of the short prose poem and the interior monologue of the early millennium, or in the sturdy austerity of the last six years – there is always that singular aloneness: a leitmotif that hints at its faith in Plotinus’ notion of poetry, “the flight of the alone to the alone”. And so these poems often anticipate their own failures and tragedies, refusing to linger on beauty, let alone hope. They are the poems of submerged desire, the sum of an ironic age.
Yet always, one feels that something has been discovered in the language itself, some property or capacity, some tone never before transcribed that turns even the most familiar ‘truths’, curiously, into the poet’s own. Reading Goenawan, whose poetic output spans nearly five decades, is seldom a train-ride of verbal action: rather, it is a quiet, often disquieting, moment of measure, in which darkness shimmers, silence bodies forth and dusk settles like music. Even in his longer, louder narrative poems such as ‘About that Man Killed Sometime around Election Day’ and ‘Zagreb’, one hears the beating heart of the anti-rhetoric, in which the political diffuses into the cranes that “sail towards day’s end, crossing the wasteland and long streaks of colour, like fading smoke”, or the daylight that “becomes anxious” as a mother’s open wound of a voice reverberates across a border-control office.
This quality, while harder to discern as a deliberate aesthetic, creates a particular atmosphere, and it partially explains why his style has been at once imitated and eschewed at home. Together with the four giants of Indonesian poetry – Sapardi Djoko Damono, Sutardji Calzoum Bachri and the late Rendra and Chairil Anwar – he has become both the norm and the exception, a Bloomian ‘facticity’, the voice to steer away from for any novice poet bent on originality. Anyone familiar with Goenawan’s poetry as well as his lyrical thought-pieces in Tempo, the leading Indonesian news magazine he helmed for a total of twenty-three years, knows too well that his greatest gift to us, the crown of his reputation, is the change he has made in the Indonesian language. In prose as well as in verse, he balances economy of form, a calm syntax and an air at once personal and detached with an uncommonly rich vocabulary, especially in Malay and Javanese. He is schooled in philosophy and is an avid reader and translator of English, and that speaks to the parsimony and subtlety of his poems. And yet it is the combination of those very elements that makes his poems doubly tough to translate.
For one, there is the difficulty of finding resonant vocabulary in English, especially as Goenawan often juxtaposes different (and often rarely used) synonyms and shifts freely between their different nuances. Then there are the specific challenges posed by his choice of rhyming words that belong mentally and phonetically to a certain series of words which bear no equivalence in the English language. And what gives Goenawan’s work its sense of form, of repose and sobriety, is his perfection of ear, or what Robert Hass would speak of as his sensitivity to rhythm. And this, as many translators know, is one of the hardest aspects to translate into poetry.
Indeed, it is within that repose, with its strange mobility, its accommodation of surprise – from Auden’s famous line, “Lay your sleeping head, my love/ human on my faithless arm”, to the geographical whimsy, in ‘Pastoral’, of a stranger’s postcard arriving in a hut in rural Bali: “I like Malacca. The walls of the Portuguese,/ the street at early morning’s rumble,/ old roof-tiles on a Chinese warehouse/ the port’s curvature, the colour of ships, those little food stalls” – that Goenawan’s particular genius lies. To enter these poems is to be suspended in dream: they both surround and elude.
Still, his has been a long time here on earth, and whether he is writing from hotel rooms, lonely cafes or night trains, from the empty valley of a Romanian church or the eternal cushion of a lover’s posterior, from the waves sundered on the shore of ‘The 12th Commandment’ or from a dike along a river’s edge in Batuan; whether in free verse of highly varied metres and irregular rhymes or in sonnets and quatrains of spare eloquence, we stay with him as he takes consolation in stoicism and irony, which grant him the power to keep his fears and disappointments close, where they may continue to teach him – and us – anew.