Reviewed by: Niels Mulder
Reviewed publication: Djoko Damono, Sapardi. 2012 (rev. ed.). Before Dawn,Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, 172 pages, ISBN: 9786029144185
As a Jack-of-all-literary trades—as essayist, short-story writer, translator, and poet—Sapardi Djoko Damono is best known asIndonesia’s foremost lyricist whose career meanwhile spans five decades of published work. It is the first four of these that are reflected in this collection of some 135 poems (1961-2001). The poetry is presented in chronological order, so yielding glimpses of a life in lyrics from young man to the loneliness of old age and of having been through it all. In other words, the subject matter of the collection is the experience of life.
It is an existential exploration of “who are you, who am I?” that unfolds in amazingly effective language, touching on life's salient points, clarifying them as it were while making them accessible to others. A very effective device to do just that, is that the poet is never alone but always accompanied by “something walking besides you”. It is a soliloquy, and at the same time an internal dialogue between an ego and its alter.
The poet's versatility is impressive, as he is able to draw powerful pictures with a minimum of words to a palette of poems, which a glance appear to be prose. The poem Distance (p. 40) may give an idea of the minimalist:
and Adam came down to the forest
to disappear in myth
and suddenly we are here, gazing
at the sky: empty and still...
whereas Meditation (p. 116) is a short-hand illustration of Sapardi's singing lyrics that sometimes seem to be prose:
Do not disturb: I, the paladin, am meditating in a cave, an egg or a word—is there in fact a difference? And at some point in time when roots have encircled me and I, a seed, have found meaning—will you, my friend, have the courage to approach?
Some pieces of the latter genre may run up to eight pages, of which I particularly like Sapardi's observations on old age, such as the seven-page piece What's the News Today, Den Sastro? and the more conventionally composed title song, Before Dawn. I find these pieces attractive because they delve into the experience of my own, old-old life.
Whatever this layman opines is, of course, not very relevant, even as I am impressed by the images Sapardi evokes in my mind. Upon receiving his fourth literary award, the Achmad Bakrie Award for Literature (2003), the jury observed, "Sapardi's work is a perfect example of how the creative writer is able to rejuvenate language through the process of creating his own personal style" and as such he provided evidence that he has inherited the mantles of both Chairil Anwar and Amir Hamzah, two of modern Indonesian poetry's most eminent practitioners (p. xi).
These observations were concluded with, "Poetry gives life to language and the successful poet, through his linguistic skill and discipline, is capable not only of changing his readers' view of the world, but also giving shape to the world itself. Sapardi, through his poetry, invites us to engage in the freedom to do so in the most basic sense: to give birth to a new reality by reflecting upon and grappling with that most basic cultural element of language."
We still should compliment the skill of the translator John H. McGlynn who, over the past thirty-five years has done much to bring Indonesian literature to readers world-wide. The fact that he could even tackle poetry in a fascinating way attests to his mastery.
Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia; Reflections and observations, Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing (print-to-order ed., ISBN 978-3-659-13083-0) 2012. (firstname.lastname@example.org)