Claire Albrecht Reviews Jennifer Mackenzie’s Navigable Ink

By | 25 March 2021

Mackenzie uses the space of the page for some non-traditional layout and structure—a number of poems utilise two lines of text that encourage a back-and-forth reading between two threads of discourse or history, perhaps representative of Mackenzie and Toer. Others take segments of found text in full-page blocks, cramming the space with dates and names. ‘Kalimantan’ has incredibly sparse pages with as few as six words spread across white space: a deforestation of the poem itself as the forests of Kalimantan (‘Burning weather island’) fall victim to the ‘slash and burn’ approach, resulting in massive forest fires and a thick smoke haze over Southeast Asia.

Reading Navigable Ink without background knowledge of Indonesian history is not impossible, but inevitably misses much of the nuance of the work and the links with environmental and political activism that stand out against Mackenzie’s evocative rice paddy and rainforest background. I found myself wishing I was able to read the original Arus Balik text, in order to get the history ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’, as they say. The poems are generally clear enough, however, to know which periods in history they’re referring to, if a reader wanted to look further into the context.

It is difficult to completely reconcile with a book that, while centralising Indonesian culture and history, is written by a white outsider. Jennifer Mackenzie is certainly a well-informed, respectful and respected outsider, but an outsider nonetheless. The book reads as a response, or creative criticism, or homage to Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s work and life. Taken as such, Mackenzie can be forgiven for some of the insertion into a narrative that is not her own. She is a wrangling with an enormous literary, political and cultural history that is still alive and volatile, despite her focus on Indonesian history up to the end of the twentieth century. Mackenzie’s choice to approach this through the medium of poetry is unproblematic on its own, but where the poems verge into the lyric and take the narratorial I, they begin to claim Toer’s (and Indonesia’s) history as their own, and the waters muddy.

Take this stanza, for example, from the poem ‘Mother’:

the roaming freedom I once had
now a sanctuary, an island found deep inside my heart & head
where my characters flourished
as if behind protective glass
where my words rang out to my brave-backed comrades
during our daily rice fields labour

and the final lines of the book, in the poem ‘Dawn’:

my skin
hoed, black beaten, weathered, flaking away,

	                                 my life

Donning Toer’s voice and skin (and in the last line, his life) in first person, homage or not, doesn’t sit well. The lines in ‘Mother’ guess at extremely personal responses to isolation in incarceration and again use the first person to be a part of ‘our daily rice fields labour’. Perhaps I’d have read this with more sympathy ten years ago, but a book released in 2020 will inevitably come up against questions of appropriation.

Of course, the intent is to bring the reader into the poems’ narrative as more than just an outside observer – to feel connected and drawn through the historical journey through the eyes of Toer. ‘You don’t just read these poems, you feel them,’ the blurb tells us. And it would be effective, were it not for my hesitance to forget the position of the poet.

Navigable Ink is lyrically beautiful and informative. It does prompt a deeper look into Indonesia’s long and fraught political and environmental history, and as such is an effective work of historical poetry. But was Mackenzie the right person to write it? Do we need another colourful narrativising of a colonised country, putting a ‘lifetime behind conservatory glass’? If the title Navigable Ink can be seen as a writer’s form of map-making, we must also remember that cartography is a colonial and political tool that this book at once resists and reinforces.

Works Cited
Ryan, Gig. ‘The poetic inspiration of a great novelist and his work.’ Review of Navigable Ink, by Jennifer Mackenzie. Sydney Morning Herald 8 August 2020

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