Borobudur and Other Poems
Author: Jennifer MacKenzie Godown, Lontar Foundation
The finality of past events may be unchangeable, irreversible, but our interpretation of it is fluid. It is very likely that there is not much truth left to be discovered about the events surrounding the construction of Borobudur, or about another place in the poem, Nalanda an ancient center of learning in Bihar, India, once destroyed by Turkic invaders. Both landmarks have been paradoxically illuminated by and reduced to history, have been in a state of use and disuse, have been interpreted and reinterpreted.
How will we, as a civilization, perceive the events that resulted in the great monument in another millennium if we still exist then? What will the designation 'World Heritage Site' mean? We, like the characters in MacKenzie's poem, are but fleeting beings, "dots on the horizon" as Gunavarman claims to be in the closing of the poem. Yet we are necessary to the shaping and reshaping of history, for history to even exist, for it to be thought of and examined.
How a thing is and how we see it through the lens of our memory are two distinct things, not to say that the latter is necessarily skewed or false, or is the inferior version of 'reality' which can sometimes be a somewhat confusing if not an inadequate term anyway. MacKenzie does a beautiful examination of this distinction in Borobudur and Other Poems. "Borobudur is not a historical account," the Australian author says of her 94-page poem.
"Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter," Oscar Wilde once said. Events, places, exchanged words, for the writer are departure points. It is the writer that is in every word, yet when the written words are being read, it is the reader that imbues meanings to these words, meanings that are, like the past, adaptable.
Reading Borobudur, enunciating each word, each syllable, will heighten our understanding of the ephemerality of any given instance. The poem's euphony exists as long as we are in the midst of reciting it, although happily, the written words will outlast this almost other-worldly experience. This is the beauty of writing: it keeps an idea alive, to be relived again and again, each experience unique. We will fail to leave a historical imprint unless we write or are written about; unless we erect a monument.
Borobudur, built in the 9th century, was unearthed in the early 19th century by H. C. Cornelius, a Dutch engineer, at Raffles's order. Since then it has undergone restoration upon restoration. Now, it is once again a place of worship. Every Waisak, the dark night sky teems with white paper lanterns: a vision that is a poem in itself. And we find ourselves asking, what did Borobudur mean to the Sailendras more than a millennium ago? Borobudur is an enigma because the monument has become another thing in its own, both in its form and its meaning. Although we may step into the interpretation of history as many times as we like, we may never reenter its stream of events, we may never enter the physicality of the past, except through our singular imagination.
When Kanwa is on his journey to Palembang, in the beginning of MacKenzie's poem, he comes upon a bathing pond and finds a stele with the inscription, written centuries before: "I, Gunavarman…" This haunting stage, which is set early in the poem, served to me perhaps as a guide as to how I could proceed with MacKenzie's poem. Like Kanwa, who is sitting by the pond and resting "amongst the tangled undergrowth," musing about the historic impression, we are given the license to wade our feet into an alternate world, in which much more is possible to know, down to the well-researched tactile details of the place, culture, and time period: palanquins, flying ants drawn to a lamp at night, fried in their own fat, and golden kain slipping away from a princess's supple and tender waist; a dancer that "did not glide but kicked, as if she were performing sanghyang djaran."
MacKenzie, through her sensuous Borobudur and Other Poems, gives the opportunity for the reader to journey across her world of words in the clear present, into the past, simultaneously. And singularly.
By Kendisan Kusumaatmadja
No. 45/12, July 03, 2012