Words For Secrets

October 5, 2002

Harry Aveling (ed), Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry, 1966-1998, Ohio: Center for International Studies, Ohio University, 2001.

Reviewed by Mike Heald.

9780896802162I recently attended the launch of two books about the ex-Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, at which the subject himself, often known affectionately as Gus Dur, was the guest speaker[1]. Hearing Wahid reminded me of what an extraordinary event his election was, and what a turbulent, complicated country we have as a northern neighbour. In the same week, an article appeared in The Age newspaper written by Wahid, entitled “How to counter Islamic extremism”, a topic, of course, very much on people’s minds after the events of September 11th. Wahid’s argument was that many students from Muslim nations who study overseas do not receive a broadly-based liberal education, focussing only on vocational areas such as engineering and the sciences. He argued that, as a result of this narrow education, many of the students lack the intellectual subtlety and capacity to interpret their religion in any but a simplistic, literalistic way, unmindful of cultural change and nuance:

Because they [the students]have not been trained in the rich disciplines of Islamic scholarship, they tend to bring to their reflection on their faith the same sort of simple modelling and formulistic thinking that they have learned as students of engineering or other applied sciences. Students studying liberal arts are rather better served when it comes times [sic] to reflect on the place of Islam in the modern world[2].

I read Wahid’s article with an interest fuelled, in part, by my own professional role within the teaching program responsible for this journal, the Foundation Studies Program of Trinity College, Melbourne University. The wisdom of including humanities subjects, such as Literature, Drama and History of Ideas, as compulsory elements of our Core Curriculum, is periodically questioned, from the position that a functional competence for one’s vocation is all the formal education that a young person needs. The error of this way of thinking, and the very real connection between suicide bombers and intellectual training, is made very clear by Wahid. Intellectual subtlety, a capacity to deal with ambiguity, metaphor and cultural relativity, are by no means disposable, abstract or decorative educational objectives: they are indeed ‘foundational’, and they lead to certain kinds of behaviour which are highly preferable to anyone who values an open and tolerant society. The Core Curriculum of Foundation Studies at Trinity guarantees, for example, that students encounter, and reflect upon, poetry. And poetry, as this anthology Secrets Need Words again confirms, entails a grappling with the subtleties of human experience: so that, through Harry Aveling’s translations, we encounter the ambiguities, the passions, the uncertainties and, in general, the inner life of Indonesians in the Suharto years. After reading such a collection, we can no longer believe in simplistic, or strategically distorted conceptions of contemporary Indonesia: they are dispelled.

This power which poetry has to witness particularity and ambivelance is no doubt at the root of one of the main phenomenon both the poets and Aveling deal with: the issue of repression. This issue has personal resonance for Aveling:

I set out for Indonesia on 6 April 1996, but to my surprise was denied entry at the airport in Bali and required to return to Australia the following day. This was in accordance with a prohibition placed on me in July 1994, which I had not known about. The reasons for this unexpected ban were not clear at the time, although they were apparently related in part to my earlier translations of the dissident Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer[3].

Aveling’s response to this situation reminds me of my own reflections when reading, in Secrets Need Words, about poets who are banned from reading their poems in public, as has happened, for example, to WS Rendra. A first response can almost be one of jealousy: if only poets in Australia were taken so seriously! Thus, Aveling relates that he was ‘upset but not totally cast down. Exclusion was also something that was considered a “professional hazard” among Indonesianists. (Jokingly, it was sometimes suggested that not to have been denied entry into Indonesia, in fact, implied that one was naïve about the Suharto regime)[4]’ This is the outsider’s response to repression. To be a victim of repression is, of course, neither glamorous nor gratifying, it is highly traumatic, as Aveling goes on to experience during a subsequent visit to Indonesia: ‘But the banning and subsequent visit also taught me the reality of something I had not known before. For the first time I realised the fear under which writers now worked in the later New Order period.’[5]

One of Aveling’s main arguments throughout Secrets Need Words, then, is that much of the poetry he has translated, can be read as various forms of response to repression, and to the political climate in general. So I will first look briefly at the recent socio-political background of Indonesian poetry.

Avelings’ collection gathers poetry published in the years 1966-1998, the time of Suharto’s presidency sometimes known as the New Order. In terms of modern history, the assemblage of ethnic groups and islands that we call Indonesia was largely subject to Dutch colonial rule from the late eighteenth century until the second world war, when the Japanese took over. After the war, an independent republic was established, under the presidency of Sukarno. This republic was centred around socialist principles, and literature at this time was often coopted to the cause of a socialist vision. Burton Raffel, one of the foremost translators and scholars of Indonesian poetry comments, for example, that the poetry of Sitor Sutumerong suffered a ‘drastic thinning out’ in the collection of his work published by LEKRA (the People’s Cultural League) in 1962, The New Era[6]. Aveling’s anthology takes up the story after the fall of Sukarno amidst widespread perceptions of corruption, and the transfer of power to Suharto.

Via the periods and thematic groupings he identifies, Aveling arranges the book by first describing the socio-political situation, and then speaking about some poets writing during that period, whose poems are then given. This makes for an orderly book, which allows the reader to consider poems with their background still fresh in mind. The danger is that this kind of arrangement will engender a simplistic sense of causality between environment and text. I don’t consider this too serious a problem, however, because poems have the ability to speak for themselves, and because Aveling’s contextualisation is both flexible and sophisticated.

It is worth remarking, however, that seeing stylistic attributes of poems as symptoms of socio-political pressures is not a universally accepted procedure. Aveling is aware of this, and refers to the objections of the critic David Hill, who argues that the ‘fantastical and bizarre styles’ which developed during the seventies, were

unrelated to contemporary social problems and issues. Rather they were concessions made in response to the official suppression of political organisation and analysis, which writers could make without difficulty because of their “universalist, ahistorical literary perspectives” and their “lack of social commitment.”[7]

Hill does seem to make very tenuous generalisations here, though a certain imprecision also haunts Aveling’s argument. The poems of Sutardji akin to “Q”, for example, are similar in their linguistic play to recent works by the Australian poet Pi O, (and many other examples from other writers could be found) yet we must acknowledge that the political situations of these two writers, though perhaps having some features in common, are of rather different dimensions.

Aveling’s general view of the New Order period is that the new regime was at first greeted with some enthusiasm by writers, partly out of relief that Sukarno’s reign was over, but that it soon became evident that conditions under Suharto would not be as amenable as might have been hoped. Aveling summarises his perspective, using some Marxist terminology, (which I think is accessible) as follows:

As a nation increasingly dominated by the power of the president, Suharto, the General Mode of Production of the Republic of Indonesia moved from a poor, largely agriculturally based economy in the mid sixties, firstly to “a regime constituted by the interests of a rent seeking group of military officers” in the seventies, and then to an integralist state dominated by vast industrial and trading conglomerates in the late eighties. The literary Mode of Production followed this shift to dispersed conglomerates, as writing became less based on privately published magazines and small presses and, instead, increasingly dependent on newspapers and booksellers because they were simply less profitable than other items of mass media consumption.

The General Ideology was one which emphasised obedience to a strong but non-political state, through a range of public formulations (most particularly the doctrines of Pancasila[8]) and the active surveillance of the community by a number of repressive state apparatuses, including the army, the police forces, and the legal system. In particular, the means for the shaping of the individual sought to produce gendered persons who were disciplined and full participants in the economic and social General Mode of Production under the control of the president and the ruling elite subject to him.

At the beginning of the New Order, the Authorial Ideology participated fully in the General Ideology through its emphasis on legitimate political change, away from the rule of Sukarno towards that of Suharto, and the appropriate place of the armed forces in [sic] socio-economic and political structure. Once the state turned against the liberal expression of personal opinion after 1974, writers sought a variety of legitimate, but separate, ways of writing in ways which I have argued can be considered to be in opposition to integralist statism.[9]

In a paper given at the Annual Conference of the American Literary Translators Association[10], in October 2000, Aveling describes the various responses to repression that we see in New Order Poetry, and gives a poem which he believes exemplifies each response: ‘to speak out, holding back the fear’(W S Rendra’s ‘I hear voices’); a ‘retreat into pure language’(Sutardji Calzoum Bachri’s ‘Q’; a withdrawal into the ‘realm of the personal’ (Sapardi Djoko Damano’s ‘’I Want’); a withdrawal into ‘the use of personal symbolism arising from the world of literature’ (Kriapur’s ‘Search’); and finally, a withdrawal into ‘the safety of religion’ (no specific example given).[11]

Aveling does not see this as a wholly negative situation, however. He states in the preface, indeed, that his hope in the anthology is to counter Henk Maier’s opinion that “Suharto and his administrative apparatus have castrated a generation of writers, robbing them of their generative power, the power of being historical witnesses who could tell others about what is happening before their very eyes.’[12] Aveling, on the contrary, wants to show ‘not the failure of Indonesian poetry during the New Order but its great diversity and richness.’[13]

Indonesian literature has, of course, been profoundly affected by its historical circumstances prior to this period, and it is naturally advantageous to have knowledge of what came before. Although much modern Indonesian poetry is characterised by a rejection of traditional forms, to know what has been rejected is often useful. Thus, we may note the absence of prolix and formulaic narrative characteristic of the sjair, and we may consider the influence of the epigrammatic vitality of the pantun, a form based on the Malay proverb, or the influence of the Romanticism of the Dutch sonneteers, introduced by the colonial power. A familiarity with some of the important precursors to Aveling’s poets is also valuable, such as Hamzah and Chairil Anwar, poets who can be seen as both ‘modernising’ Indonesian poetry, and enabling it to live and breathe in the recently adopted national language of Bahasa Indonesian.

The issue of the national language is a complex one, but is obviously of crucial significance to the question of translation. The complexities of translation are discussed by Aveling in “Finding Words For Secrets”. The paper examines the theoretical considerations affecting translation, as described by such critics as, for example Burton Raffel and Edwin Gentzler. Aveling thus shows himself to be aware of the issues, both philosophical and practical, involved in the translation process. These issues include: cultural context, ie the way that the insider’s feel for the source culture is missing; post-structuralism’s problematisation of the link between language and an ‘outside reality’, and consequently of the aspiration towards any simple form of ‘equivalence’ in translation; the plethora of particular issues surrounding poetic language in particular, such as its contraventions of everyday language use, its structuration and musicality; and also the questions of what the translator is actually aiming at: a ‘new’ poem, or the closest possible approximation of the original, for example.

Nevertheless, I have to say that my experience of reading the translations of the poems was generally not satisfying. Often, the poems of protest sound like simplistic agit-prop, religious poems sound formulaic and dogmatic, poems about love and relationships sound cliched or stereotypically romantic, metaphors seem too predictable, syntax is lifeless, and dramatic immediacy and distinctiveness of voice are generally lacking. The deafness I usually feel when reading poems in translation seemed acute with this anthology: I found myself straining to catch the cultural nuance and attack of these words, straining to hear the performative quality which would be part of their oral delivery, which I know is an important and distinctive feature of Indonesian poetry. I felt rather as though I was listening to rich and sophisticated music via primitive and inadequate audio equipment. In saying this, I am not attributing the inadequacy wholly to Aveling’s abilities as a translator. Although I don’t speak Indonesian, it seems plausible that this source language has differences from English, some of them involving simpler grammatical structures, which tend to manifest themselves in English as the deficiencies I’m complaining of. Also, rather primitive political rhetoric to mobilise people was often the aim of the poets, and not considered a deficiency at all.

Another dimension to the blandness I perceive could be what Geonewan Mohamad talks about in his essay focusing the literary device pasemon.[14] Mohamad develops the idea that Indonesian poetry may exhibit an elusive allusiveness (allusion being, according to Mohamad, an approximate though inadeqaute translation of pasemon) due to the fact that most of the poets are writing in a language, Bahasa, which is not their first, and which may severely restrict their expression:

I would like to tell a story, one of an Indonesian poet being forced to write in an environment of linguistic collapse. I am talking about myself, of course, but this same story can be told for other writers, particularly those whose mellifluence in their mother tongue has been transformed by history into a “stammer”.[15]

Thus many poets, argues Mohamad, make use of ‘silences’ instead of the nuances they could achieve in the native tongue, and the poetry comes to rely ‘not on the power of the word and its variations’, but rather to exemplify the way that ‘the matrix of a poem is made up not only of rows of words or lines of sentences but also encompasses the silent interstices that hover between sentences and, very often, form the backdrop for the sentences.’ And so, Mohamad affirms, the feeling we will often get from reading an Indonesian poem is not what Roland Barthes called ‘a mirage of citations’, that is, a plenitude of connotation, but rather ‘a clarity of silence, a measure of emptiness’.[16] My point would be, then, that such articulate silences and resonant emptinesses are particularly vulnerable to the translation process, so that they may, given their culturally and linguistically dependent fragility, simply vanish, leaving the kind of lack I’m complaining of

Rather than try to mount a general, comprehensive argument about this, however, it might be best to focus on one poem, and to point out what I regard as its deficiencies. In his article, Aveling makes reference to Goenawan Mohamad’s poem “Asmaranda/Love Song” (45):

He heard the beat of the wings of the bats and the fall of

the rest of the rain, the wind against the teak trees. He

heard the restlessness of the horses and the tug of the

chariot as the sky cleared of cloud, revealing the pole star

in the distance. Between them words were unnecessary.

Then he spoke of the separation, the death. He saw the

map, fate, the journey and a war indistinctly.

He realized she would not cry. In the morning there

would be footprints on the grass in the yard, to the

north. She would refuse to consider what had passed or

what was to come, no longer daring to do so.

Anjasmara, my love, stay, again.

The moon is covered by the wind, time ignores it.

Passing cloud and ember, you forget my face, I forget


Firstly, I will mention what I think the problems are, and then examine the comments Aveling makes about his translating decisions. In the first two lines, there are too many ‘of’s, and the syntax is too exactly repetitive and therefore monotonous. Also, what is ‘the rest of the rain’: that’s a very strange way to quantify rain, as if some, or most, has already fallen. To hear the wind ‘against’ trees is odd, too. In lines 3-4, is it possible to hear a ‘tug’? In lines 4-5, it seems redundant to say that the pole star is ‘in the distance’, since it’s in the sky: you could say ‘the distant pole star’, but there’s still a redundancy. There is a jarring contradiction between stanza 1 and 2: ‘words were unnecessary./ Then he spoke…’, and ‘the separation’ and ‘the death’ seems strangely general because of the definite article. The list of things which Damarwulan sees in lines 6-7 is messy: it’s unclear whether the last item, war, is the only thing seen ‘indistinctly’, or whether this adverb refers to the whole list. Similarly, the clause ‘to the north’ in lines 9-10 could refer either to the yard or the footsteps: the latter seems more likely, but why not say ‘leading north’, ie ‘to the north’ of what? Stanza 4 begins with a very odd sentence in terms of temporality: does this mean she has stayed before? In the next line, wind is not opaque and can’t ‘cover’ anything without acting as an agent on something else: ‘shrouded’, for example, would seem better.

Aveling comments that this poem ‘has an elegant, melancholy tone, as the hero Damarwulan takes leave of the [sic] Anjasmara, in order to meet his inevitable death in battle against the invincible Menakjingga. The translation needed to reflect this elegiac tone.’[17] There is nothing to object to here, but when Aveling goes on to describe another of his procedures aimed at faithfully conveying the tone of the original poem, I have trouble following his logic, and I also question the result:

There is, by the way, a further twist in the last line of the poem – “Lewat remang dan kunang-kunang, kaulupakan wajahku, kulupakan wajahmu.” – which intensifies this grief. The second half of this line means “you forget my face, I forget yours”. Literally, the first half means: “Passing cloudy (overcast) weather conditions and fireflies”. The weather suggests darkness, obscurity, possibly rain or mist, and is thus also possibly tears. The word for “fireflies” (kunang-kunang) recalls a similar word “kenang-kenang,” [sic] to remember, the antonym of the word used later in the line “lupa”, “to forget”. Despite their devotion to each other, the greater devotion to their stern duties forces them both to repress their memory of the other. In my translation, I have taken the liberty of changing “fireflies” into “embers”, which is hopefully not too far from “remember” and also suggestive of the forced extinction of love. This too was a way of attending to tone.[18]

Aveling’s method of linking phonic resemblance to a connotation consistent with elegy seems ingenious but rather abstract. And the replacing of ‘fireflies’ with ‘ember’ which results, not only seems ineffective (do we think of the word ‘remember’ when we hear ‘ember’?) but also sounds odd because we normally speak of ‘embers’ plural; it also entails the loss of a wonderfully evocative and interesting juxtapositional image, ie cloudy weather and fireflies. Fireflies are alive, hovering in the air: they are therefore like a glowing cloud, or mist, themselves, and form a kind of vital counterpart to the inorganic atmospheric conditions. They can also suggest memory, because of their floating, luminous quality. To my mind, then, Aveling has here spoilt a rather original and striking image, on the grounds of translation principles which seem somewhat abstract and detached from a registering of the specific qualities of the original words. A version with these aspects to which I object avoided, though not offered here as a fully considered or achieved translation, would read as follows:

He heard the bats’ wings beating

and the drumming of the rain,

wind leaning on the teak trees.

He heard the fidgeting horses

tugging at the chariot, as the sky

was swept of cloud, revealing

the pole star. They had no need

of speech, but he spoke

of their separation, of his death.

He saw the future: fate, map,

journey, war, all indistinctly.

He realized she would not cry.

In the morning, there would be footprints

on the grass in the yard, leading north.

She would refuse to consider

what had passed, what was to come,

no longer daring to.

Anjasmara, my love, stay with me.

The wind has shrouded the moon:

time ignores it. Amongst

the mist and the fireflies, you forget

my face, I forget yours.

I reiterate my awareness, however, that translation is a very difficult balancing act, and I do not mean to accuse Aveling generally of the specific faults I find with ‘Asmaradana’. One of Rilke’s translators, Stephen Mitchell, has commented that the two most important factors for successful translation are luck and grace[19], both of which would seem fairly unsusceptible of methodological constraint. Whatever the merits of these translations may be, however, there is no doubt that Aveling provides Australian readers with a wealth of insights into contemporary Indonesia, at a time when the dominant political culture in this country is both simplistic and manipulative in the area of foreign affairs. Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world, for example, but the place of Islam in Indonesian poetry, and in Indonesian social and political life, is not a simple matter. Aveling comments, in a section with the title ‘Islam Religion, Yes! Islamic Ideology, No!’, that ‘[d]espite its numerical significance, Islam has had little influence in Indonesian politics.’[20] (It is interesting, of course, to read this with the hindsight of Wahid’s election as president – and his subsequent defeat.) Aveling acknowledges both the diversity and evolution of Islam, considerations often lost to Westerners taking notice only of Islam’s most visible aspects. In Indonesia, he identifies three main forms: traditional, modernist (which strove to ‘purify’ the teachings through rationality) and revivalist (in which practice is more public and less severely pruned by reason)[21]. Poets are to be found in all forms, but Aveling refers in particular to a group in the revivalist form, the so called ‘New Sufis’, poets born after 1950, such as Emha Ainun Nadjib, Ahmadun Yosi Herfanda, and Acep Zamzam Noor, and summarises their distinct feature as a ‘lyrical emphasis on interior religious experience’ as against their predecessors’ ‘stricter externality.’[22] This kind of poetry has the potential to be of great interest to the West, since it is in keeping with the ‘New Age’ attraction to Eastern, but not doctrinaire, spirituality, and because it is, in theory, tapping a common source as the work of poets such as Rumi and Hafiz, which is generally to be found on the shelves of even non-specialist Australian book shops. Again, however, I found only an occasional happy coincidence of simple language and spiritual depth in the poems translated here. Taufiq Ismail’s ‘Reading the Signs’ is an example which I think works well: it manages to combine a spiritual with an ecological foreboding, a balance which prevents the more general formulaic abstraction from predominating. Ahmadun Yosi Herfanda’s ‘The veins of your neck’ (257) also achieves a kind of visceral numinousness which is combined with an ominous political dimension:

in his love God has set

an angel on each of your shoulders

you need not be afraid

the angels are not policemen

It is not true to say that poets resorted in any simple way to Islam or to religion in general, despite their being, as Aveling says, some degree of protection afforded by religious affiliation, for poets. Although there is some very conventional rendering of doctrine, a poem such as Abdul Hadi’s ‘Near God’, despite its standard sentiment, has nevertheless a kind of yearning for union that can well be read as related to the persistent sense of alienation and danger characterising life for intellectuals in Suharto’s Indonesia. On the other hand, Darmanto Jatman speaks with a kind of derisive resignation about God: ‘Bah!/ Why bother fighting with God/ He always wins’ (‘What can I say?’ p114), while for Sapardi Djoko Damono, as Aveling relates, ‘the very existence of God passes into the realm of clever tales, told by the old to reassure the young and help them endure the suffering of the world. Sapardi seemed to suggest simultaneously that only the myths of religion could give life meaning, yet they were also untrue, and even unworthy of human adulthood’[23]. Such a stance reminds one of Wallace Stevens’s ‘necessary fiction,’ but Sapardi’s poems don’t take on the wry and sometimes searching gorgeousness of Stevens’s work, but tend more towards direct, rather blunt, assertion:‘Our parents were wise, they tricked us/ with their lullaby legends.’ (‘Pilgrimage’ p53) Sutardji Calzoum Bachri brings the same zeal to his poems of Islamic devotion as he did to his preceding anarchic discontent, in ‘In front of the Ka’abah’ (p238-9):

In front of the Ka’abah, I come to the end of my poems.

After my questions and my restlessness, after my heart

has been driven wild by worry, after the cat has roared

through my blood, this is the way forward.

I look at my veins and search for my blood. My blood

flows in prayer, circumambulation, in kissing the Black

Rock, Bismallah, Allahu, Akbar…

And Sutardji goes on, in this poem, to imply that both sectarianism and nationalism are annihilated by the force of revelation which, borne along as it is by the momentum of Islamic devotion, might surprise and challenge the doctrinaire amongst any religious group, not to mention the politicians who thrive on the conflict of superficial division:

…Everything fades.

Fades. Fades. There is no Tardji. There is no crowd of

Pilgrims circling the mosque. There are no Afghanis,

No Iraqis, no Pakistanis, no Iranis…

Nationalism is another common theme in the book. The hopes entertained for the New Order early in Suharto’s reign have a disconcerting echo in Taufiq Ismail’s  “Give Indonesia back to me” (p17-19). W S Rendra is scathing on the subject of exploitation by tourism in “Song of Bali”(p147-9):

This is a different sort of colonialism.

It came so quickly we were taken by surprise.

It came so cunningly we were powerless.

‘Oh honey, look!

Look at the natives!

He’s climbing that palm tree like a monkey!

Isn’t he fantastic! Take a photograph!’

The World Bank

helps backward nations

with huge projects,

In which ninety percent of the goods are imported.

We progress like slaves,

Middlemen and consumers.

In Bali, they spit on us,

our beds mountains and temples.

And Rendra’s tour de force of social criticism ‘Prostitutes of Jakarta – Unite!’ (21-7) is the most powerful indictment of the social justice situation in this collection:

The prostitutes of Jakarta

the greatest and the least

have been crushed


They are frightened


offended and embarrassed.


Tell them

how you were called to the ministerial suite

and how he spoke long and deeply to you

about the national struggle

then suddenly – without even finishing what he was


calling you the inspiration of the revolution,

undid your bra.

And the threat of violent uprising is evoked by Kriapur’s incendiary lyricism in ‘Men on Fire’ (279):

Leaving their villages, men on fire

head for cities spattered with blood,

to destroy property, houses,

the wind and time

Sexual politics is, in a way, an issue of nationalism too, in that the ideology which the Suharto regime aimed to impose on the whole country, Pancasila, involved a particular view of women. As Aveling puts it, ‘most attention was given to forming attractive but docile and submissive female identities.’[24] The responses to such an ideology vary in this collection. Arifin C. Noer gives the lie to the objectification of women by evoking a tender mutual sensuality, while Linus Suryadi Ag praises the wisdom of peasant women. The defence of wives, in Darmanto Jatman’s ‘Wife’ (189-191), is not one which is likely to meet with the approval of western feminists:

We need a wife to look after us

To sweep the yard

Cook in the kitchen

Wash at the well

Send food to us when we are in the fields

And massage us when we have a chill.

Yes, a wife is very important

Ah, see. She is as important as our water-buffalo,

the plow, our fields and coconut trees.

We can plow her night and day and she will never


Aveling nevertheless argues that, against the prevailing ideology, this must be judged as subversive and courageous: ‘The message of the poem was unusual in that it forcefully reminded men to respect their wives and never take them for granted. To some extent, this was still a conventional message, although not part of common national discourse patterns. The poem should not, therefore, be dismissed as merely patronising.’[25] Sutardji ruthlessly satirises male arrogance in ‘A gift of love from an Indonesian gentleman in Iowa City, USA, to a young Indonesian maiden in Jakarta’ (101):

some lovers send gifts of flowers

some lovers send gifts of blood

some lovers send gifts of tears

I send you my penis

may it grow longer and longer

may it stretch thirteen thousand miles

from me to you, ignoring US postal regulations

against parcels longer than 3’ 6’’

my lady, my love, don’t cry, relax

open your soul, your mind, be naked

Women writers, too, tackle these subjects. Toeti Heraty, for example, quotes DH Lawrence in her poem ‘Man’ (67) to suggest the actual proportions of male sexual capability:

Who says:

“like a little bud in my hand”

the woman holding him

a woman

should be grateful

for her good fortune


And Heraty, in ‘The Department’, lays bare the cruel reality of male ‘compliments’:

in your last letter

you said

may you always be

as young and beautiful

as you are today.

But probably the harshest commentator on gender relations in this book is Dorothea Rosa Herliany, whose poem ‘Married to a knife’ evokes a disorienting and violent experience of marriage:

I have arrived somewhere, spinning

in a labyrinth…

there was a scream. It sounded like a song.

but I have landed in a place

of perfect alienation: your body is covered with maggots

which I ignore. Until I find complete

sexual satisfaction. Then I finish you too,

I stab you in the heart and

tear off your prick

in my pain.

Many of the issues raised in this book, then, are in extremis. We are confronted, therefore, with the day to day realities, dilemmas, and indeed agonies of our close neighbour. And though it is possible that for some of these ‘secrets’ one might propose alternative words, Aveling’s anthology undoubtedly allows us a keen awareness of situations which will concern and disturb us, however much our political leaders try to render our borders impermeable.


[1] Greg Barton Abdurrahman Wahid: Muslim Democrat, Indonesian President: A View From the Inside, UNSW Press: Sydney, 2002; Wimar Witoelar No regrets: reflections of a presidential spokesman, Equinox Press: Jakarta, 2002.

[2] The Age 10th April, 2002, p15

[3] “Finding Words For Secrets: Reflections on the Translation of Indonesian Poetry” (place of publication unknown) p4

[4]  Ibid p4

[5] Ibid p4-5

[6] Burton Raffel, The Development of Modern Indonesian Poetry, State University of New York Press, US, 1967,p131

[7] Secrets Need Words (hereafter abbreviated to Secrets) p93

[8] Pancasila refers to the five principles enunciated in the Preamble to the 1945 Constitution: Belief in God, humanitarianism, nationalism, democracy, and social justice. See Secrets p88ff.

[9] “Finding Words For Secrets” p35-6

[10] “Secrets Need Words: Indonesian Poetry 1965-1998”, Annual Conference of the American Literary Translator’s Association, San Francisco, 2000.

[11]  Ibid  p8-12

[12] Secrets xiii

[13] Ibid

[14] Goenawan Mohamad, “Pasemon: On Allusion and Illusions” in Menagerie 2. Indonesian Fiction, Poetry, Photographs, Essays, John H McGlynn and Leda S Chudori, editors, The Lontar Foundation: Jakarta, 1993, p119-135.

[15] Ibid p121.

[16] Ibid p126.

[17] “Finding Words for Secrets” p22

[18] Ibid

[19] Stephen Mitchell The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, Vintage International: New York, 1989, p297.

[20] Secrets p227

[21] Ibid p225ff

[22] Ibid p233

[23] Ibid p34-5

[24] Ibid p162

[25] Ibid p165-6


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