The Frankfurt Book Fair (14–18th October) at which Indonesia is the Guest of Honour country, is a landmark moment for the spread of Indonesian literature to a global readership. For many young writers it is a great opportunity to be read by a huge new audience of (initially) German and English readers. For more established writers, it offers a great acknowledgment of years of hard work and relative anonymity outside Indonesia. Substantial funding was provided by the Indonesian government for the translation of some hundred titles. Up until this time Indonesian literature in English translation has been primarily available through the decades-long service of the John McGlynn-led Lontar Foundation in Jakarta. In the lead up to the Frankfurt Book Fair, a whole raft of new publishers have entered the business of promoting Indonesian literature in English.
One of the writers to gain increased exposure thanks to the book fair is Arif Prasetyo; a poet originally from East Java, who lives in Bali. As a practicing translator, he translates his own work, preferring to describe the process as re-writing rather than ‘translating’, in order to emphasise the creativity of the act of translating. As he explains, there were shifts in meaning, and changes in the typography which form an important visual element of his poetry. The poems included in the selection below, originated from his feelings of being ‘haunted’. As Prasetyo says, ‘I write when I’m haunted by something; an event, a memory, an impression, a fantasy, a word. I only write a poem when I can’t express something through any other way.’ Below is a sample of Prasetyo’s poems from the past decade. His writing is in turn graphic, visceral and subtle, drawing on myth, history and place.
Lithe and naked,
lighter than birds,
The pond trembles. The light quivers
like a clock that slips
into a watery mouth.
Ruined wax wings
send the scent of tamarind
to the sleeping forest stupefied by the rain.
Rainforest. I learn to hate life
from her heart. Covered in mud, I lie waiting for prey.
Mossy. Dying in a submerged habitat.
Sometimes the sky sobs and sheds
its stars. The plump shape drops
and sows phosphorescence in the water.
A swirling light twists
lecherous, feverish algae.
The whistle of ghosts and the dirty tricks of their snakes.
Wait. She will vanish any minute.
The current will snarl into a vortex. Foam will turn red
and my cracked jaw
will snatch her.
Ripples wipe away off the end.
Time is asleep in the water.
From the bawdy inn’s attic, near the sunset prayer time,
She walks to the vanishing town square.
The sun is paralyzed. His fierce yellow whiskers
Lie strewn over the grass. Sore and parched.
The light from the lustful cinema of thighs and cleavages
Panting from scraping the carbon dioxide veil.
A thundering sound at the grand mosque’s minaret.
Pale as a patient on a stretcher, the whole town shudders.
A host of sparrows scatters away.
The hour is crouching, weighed down by the shadows.
She closes her eyes and listens to the river moan.
The wind is raking through the shivering bank of river-reeds.
At the bottom of her prayers
she only hope that later tonight
God may step down to the death railway
And have a taste of beer and lust in her locked mouth.
Ginseng Roots of Jeju Island
Across the cabin in the woods stretched the river. Shabby
An all-season sleepwalker tottering, holding on to the
Feebly anchored at the river mouth, a bruised deck.
The rancid air blanketing the scent of diesel oil.
A circle of fire. A sooty altar of the searing flames.
Ruins from the quenched hellfire.
After nightfall the river hears the ghostly sigh of the forest.
The moaning bamboos in the backwoods which were
islanders’ killing fields.
The pale, smokescreened faces behind the blazing red
Trails of blood extending onto the lap of Mount Halla.
The river knows, even the dead do not wish to sleep the
sleep of stones.
Nor to be shut like an island submerged in ashes.
To Gyorae, the silenced hazy drizzles have returned,
Catching the scent of the autumnal humus in agonizing
Dissolve my body in the flame!
Sita screams. Before she collapses
behind the soaring wood smoke. The heat
and explosion of burning fat, a canon shooting
fireflies to the sky. A typhoon of flame reddening the azure.
Lips bitter. A million eyes tear me apart,
screaming the curses of gods.
What sin have I committed?
Strong ash-coloured arms. Immoral desire.
A wink of hated destiny. And spring
cleverly teaches me to make love.
There is no more fear. Holy war is in vain
As is revolution. But why do I still hear
a revolver shot in the ribs. A bitter trickle
is released. Shattered I fall from the embrace
of the rough man who achieved what he longed for.
Deadly passion. Later when the vultures
flap furiously clawing at the ghosts of soldiers,
troops who have burnt god’s incarnation, scatter
my soul in your pain, Dasamuka.
We reincarnate as a pair of dragons
swallowing the moon in the sky
The Sleepwalker Ballad,
Surabaya Once upon a Time
I will not twist the axis of your body
Tracing the burnt trails of the words
Spilled throughout the hour and the boulevard.
The asphalt is shivering from influenza.
The plaza and the banks gradually disappear.
Gone, sinking in the balm.
The cold is sharpening its javelins in the air.
The chill is chiming. The air is shuddering
Besieged by echoes and shadows.
You are lying beside me. Dark and luminescent.
The river is naked on her golden bed.
By the river, a loo is almost overflowing.
Some engrossed lovers park their motorbikes in the dark.
A group of men stagger to their feet, entering the tattered
Their snorts still leave a warm sensation on your nape.
Touching you, stunned by a street soothsayer
My passion builds a fountain park with its whore fairies
Green as the morning rain.
At the edge of the park, a bronze commander
Stares coldly at a battalion of butterflies
That defend themselves in the south. They are trapped
in a patch of another park, more magical. More shameful.
A place where the bamboo spear monument, the phallic
Stands upright slashing its neck.
You tremble. The sap of your body starts to gush out.
The ancient wind overthrows the shadows of the park.
The echoes wallow in the pools of blood.
The whole river is stricken with seizures.
The dam and the submarine wrecks clamber out to resurrect
of the delta
Haunting the shopwindows which used to be the creepy
wards of a hospital.
From the limp of your bones, from the crush of my ribs
The dawn returns to break his shells.
Names droop shakily. The crossroad misses its bells.
The hour is made of water and cannot be trusted.
Overgrown with the tendrils of autumn
I come down from the seventh-floor paradise.
A phony traveller wandering through the cape
Hauling the hours and the clattering trees
As clear as the November crystals in a daze,
Eternal, in shopwindows at Lexington Avenue.
The blaring horns the wailing sirens piercing, one after
Gleaming, unsheathed by the midday rain.
Myriad beads of eyes, brown-yellow
Aridly scattered along the street. Abandoned
Like deserted mineral wells
After the caravans drained the gulf. And the tribesmen
went down in defeat.
On the desert’s horizon, in a cape of another paradise, I see
The sun throwing down his rusty bronze armour.
The fire tower creaks and crumbles. The soot is licking its
The ash rain chokes the canals of speech.
Ashen dust ashen wind ashen deserted flats
Roaming through the hollows of my bones.
A pale face of a dervish disappearing from a balcony
For a moment grimaces in the dark currents of Hudson
These poems have been published with the permission of the writer.
Arif Prasetyo is a practicing translator and poet originally from East Java.