Navigable Ink by Jennifer Mackenzie
Transit Lounge, 2020
The blurb of Jennifer Mackenzie’s 2020 collection Navigable Ink (Transit Lounge) begins by introducing Indonesian writer and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who died in 2006. Mackenzie had been offered Toer’s novel manuscript Arus Balik for translation back in 1993, but it seems this translation was never completed. Navigable Ink is described as a ‘poetic exploration of Toer’s tragic, visionary and ultimately triumphant life’. At first glance a reader could be forgiven for thinking that this is the translation of Arus Balik, but Mackenzie’s acknowledgements clarify that this is not the case, rather the poems ‘created out of episodes from the novel are based on my own translation (with interpolations) of the text’.
From the first poem, ‘Before Nightfall’, a European sensibility affects how we are invited into the scenes of the poem:
a bucolic radiance which a painter trained in genre might have pronounced timeless
Imposing a European-style gaze on a muddy Indonesian rice paddy sets the tone for the book. It’s actually an interesting mirror for the steady infiltration of colonial forces that Navigable Ink catalogues, from the Dutch East India Company, through the French, British, Portuguese and Japanese and into the move towards independence amid the terror of the twentieth century. Mackenzie jumps between these historical moments adeptly, using the source material of Toer’s novel as well as documentaries, essays and interviews. The comprehensive notes section explains the sources of the poems, but there are no markers or footnotes throughout the text.
The language is at once spare and vivid, aiming at the spirituality and potency imbued in natural scenes: ‘on the road / a mudslide / on a high peak / gleaners.’ Gig Ryan described these as ‘lyrical descriptions of unvarnished nature’, though the descriptions themselves run the risk of becoming the varnish when they stoke the senses to embellish:
the colour is luminous here memory is of pastel blue, pink, lemon robes in the marketplace dwellings a slash of yellow & mauve a constellation of red roofs dimming only for star showers (‘Maluku Pristmatic’)
Pared down to its base nouns, this passage is of ‘robes’, ‘the marketplace’, ‘dwellings’ and ‘roofs’, but Mackenzie coats these with such ‘luminous’ colour as to render the scene painterly, and forms the background for far more menacing events. These seem distanced from such a metaphysical and aesthetic context, operating in a different material realm. The disparity between the vibrant natural world and the ‘unnatural’ death and destruction of colonisation and ecological destruction is palpable.
Mackenzie’s choices of historical moments are not always political, and the work comes alive when revealing smaller stories. The poem sequence ‘Bogor’ uses Mackenzie’s own research to tell the story of Samida, a manmade forest established by the ruler of the Sunda kingdom in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The sequence begins again with the plural first person, as ‘we’ are shown the king’s forest and told of its later burning and haunting, with the sole remnant an orchid destined for ‘a lifetime behind conservatory glass’ – just one of the many references to captivity and confinement that mirror Toer’s multiple incarcerations as an activist. The poem then moves through history and imagery as we are left only with ‘one last row of banyan trees / providing shade / for tigers’.
‘Anger’, another short sequence, evokes the destruction of art and letters under Suharto’s suppressive New Order regime:
a paintbox thrown onto the path paint, brushes scattered painting ripped from the frame made of the wood of a jackfruit tree left out in soaking rain it could no longer be called a painting the painter flees, finds safety in a friendly state
This imagery effectively captures the physicality of suppression, the act of violence against culture. The italicised line reminds us, too, of the reality for artists and writers in Indonesia like Toer, whose choices were jail or fleeing the state in fear of persecution. Such ongoing persecution is perhaps not well known to Australian readers, who are treated now with a diverse stream of contemporary Indonesian poetry, despite ongoing political conflict in the country. As one such ‘friendly state’ to which Indonesian refugees fled over decades, Australia seems to have been largely ignorant of the literary culture of Indonesia. Perhaps this book is a step in the right direction to redress that lack, offering Mackenzie’s long relationship with the country as a means of entry, and pairing it with her translation and interpretation of Toer’s life and work.