Claire Albrecht reviews Jennifer Mackenzie’s “Navigable Ink”

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

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.

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

*Claire Albrecht is a Newcastle-based poet. She was the 2019 Emerging Writers Festival fellow at the State Library of Victoria, a 2020 Varuna ‘Writing Fire, Writing Drought’ fellow, and will be a resident at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, New Mexico in 2021. Her debut chapbook ‘pinky swear’ was published in 2018, and she runs Cuplet Poetry Night.

**From here:

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