Thursday, June 26, 2008

Poet Sitor Situmorang: The Passion of the Sound and the Wanderer

IN his early eighties, Sitor Situmorang is still writing poems. Two volumes of his books containing more than 600 of his poems-written between 1948 and 2005-were published recently. The volumes comprise the complete collection of Sitor's poems. Sitor's poetic portraits, tossed about in the midst of both his Batak ancestors' land and cities of the world, are evident in the books. He is known as the 'Lost Child' who has never been able to stay put, a restless wanderer. Tempo looks at Sitor's 'travel poems' and reviews his sketches.
I am old and gray-haired
On the way to being decrepit, yet I wander still
And Lo, I am in London finally
For what reason would I be summoned here?

THAT is an excerpt from the poem, The Rain in London Town. It was written in the year 1989. It was drizzling when Sitor and a girl passed Trafalgar Square. The girl suddenly pointed to a church. "Sitor, I was baptized there." Then Sitor's mind wandered, recalling his own baptism at a church in a rural hamlet by Lake Toba, at the foot of Mount Pusuk Buhit.

We never knew how it happened exactly, whether it was true, as in the poem, that the girl then quietly began to sing: "Sitor, whom the gods love, die young!" However, what we quickly capture in reading the poem is a bit of romantic feeling, some pathos, a tune of Eros. Sitor has never been able to stay in one place. Yet, his fantasy flies off, tossed between the continents.

This year, Sitor turns 82. Next year, he will be invited to visit Holland to commemorate the centennial of Sisingamaraja's death. Sisingamangaraja died on June 17, 1907, during a battle against the Dutch. Sitor is expected to officiate at the opening of this rare event. He himself is one of the sources on the history of Sisingamangaraja. Sitor's father, Ompu Babiat, was a local chieftain who was a close friend of Sisingamangaraja, and who was also the former bodyguard of Singamangaraja XII.

His visit to Holland with regards to Sisingamangaraja seems to reflect the paradox of his wandering. "I have been spoilt by my travels." That afternoon, somewhere in Kemang, he told a story. During his childhood, he would go along on his father's long journey into the forest. It was a long and tiring journey to reach the sarcophagus which held the skulls of his family's ancestors, trailing behind his father's entourage. They crossed plains, going up and down the hills, over sharp slopes looking down over a rapidly flowing river, a mossy uprooted tree, seemingly serving as a stepping stone.

"I went through the entire ancient Batak religious ritual, which is no longer performed today," he said. Sitor is known for his new use of the sonnet and the quatrain forms. He is regarded as a poet who dares to find materials from other places, yet is capable of creating local sayings with a particular rhythm. His experience of "having been brought up by nature" has somewhat made him sensitive to rhythm.

Although he no longer adheres to this ancient traditional belief, his childhood experience has hovered in his subconscious, and every so often emerges when he is traveling, such as to Europe.

It can be observed from his two newly published books by Komunitas Bambu Publishing, which comprise 605 of his poems written between 1948 and 2005. The editor is J.J. Rizal, a graduate of the University of Indonesia's (UI) History Department, who has been jealously studying Sitor's works. He practically took the H.B. Jassin documentary Center apart, digging up discolored file folders, searching from either the old newspapers or such magazines as Siasat and Zenith and seeking out Sitor's fellow writers. He eagerly collected Sitor's poems that were not well-documented, either the published or the unpublished ones. He was able to get himself poems which had once been rejected by some magazines.

Subsequently, he presents us the collection of poems, chronologically, in order to enable us to successively examine the creative phases of the wandering Sitor.

Reading the two books, which can be said to be the most complete books on Sitor's poems, is like a flashback of this poet's long journey. Sitor is a seeker. He is the experienced adventurer who gives us his brief impressions on every corner of the world that have been intermittently expressed either 'calmly' or anxiously. Reading his best poems could make us drown in his travels.

"There are colors, tones and rhythms within a language," said Sitor when revealing his creative process. A literary critic had once unveiled that what lies in Sitor's poems are not banal interpretations of things, but some event that touched his inner feeling. The quote by Sitor above emphasizes an issue that such a strong flash of experience is capable of stimulating his sense to sounds in language. Sitor is truly a "sound wanderer."
Birds are again flocking in the dusk
The sky across on the southeast of the sea gleamed
Tis an omen that a season has spinned
Seeds are sprouting amidst the fallen leaves and the words

Sitor traveled to Europe for the first time when he was 26 years of age. He was, by that time, an experienced journalist. He was granted a scholarship from Sticusa (Stichting Culturele Samenwarking) for three months in order to understand European culture. He boarded a Dutch ship, Olden Barneveldt, and sailed for three weeks from Tanjung Priok Port to Rotterdam, which passed by Colombo and Port Said. He then took the train to Amsterdam shortly after he arrived at Rotterdam.

"I was provided a room by Harian Merdeka journalist Rinto Alwi in Amsterdam," Sitor recalled. During his first days, he was escorted by Rinto to meet Indonesian people living in Holland. One of them was the renowned dancer Djojana. Raden Djojana was a celebrated Javanese nobleman. Sitor had watched his dance performances several times. He was somewhat impressed by their encounter and the poem was dedicated on his behalf.

"After two weeks of my arrival, I feel as if I took a cultural sauna bath," he said. He felt like swallowing everything. He actively watched theater and dance performances, attended museums and painting exhibitions as well. He had a desire to grasp and to fathom the secret of the European mind.
Once the man is released
He will walk along the traces
Before knowing where
The earth has aged
A ship floats without a Compass

He lived in Holland for a year and a half. He wanted to live in Paris for the remaining six months. Nazir Datuk Pamoentjak was the Indonesian Ambassador to France in Paris at that time. "He knew what I wanted," he said. In Paris, he was employed by the Indonesian embassy as a staffer. "I organized a column concerning cultural matters in the embassy's bulletin."

When Sitor resided in Paris, the art performances and movies were mostly inspired by humans' struggle against themselves, namely sensuality, bitterness and monotonous life. "It was existentialism which penetrated the arts," he recollected. Sitor remembered how enthusiastic he was at that time to find the published reviews after watching the performances. "The next day, there were always reviews published in the newspapers." During this very period, his distinguished poems were born i.e. Silence et Solitude, The Tale of Two Cities, Orang Asing, Nocturne, Place St. Suplice, Pont Neuf, Paris, La Ronde and also the series regarding the name of the months: Paris Janvier, Paris-Avril, Paris-Juillet, Paris-Novembre.

It has been three years. The cities must be abandoned. However, the way Sitor reflects on quays, cafes, old chapels, bridges, bells and his hotels has somewhat formed the basis of his next adventures. When Sitor visited Federico Garcia Lorca's country years later, he wrote:
I am Zigana-on which I lie
In the shade of a sponge tree
Having sex with lust
-yet it tempted me-
when the bell echoes

SITOR'S poems when he traveled to China and Russia are considered as having sharp differences compared to the Paris poems. Many critics evaluated that his power of poetics and symbolism had declined. When Pamusuk Eneste published Sitor's poems collection entitled Bunga Di Atas Batu (Si Anak Hilang) in 1989, all poems involving his experience in China were not included. The said unpublished poems now can be read in the books edited by J.J. Rizal.

For example, the poem Lumumba (inspired by Patrick Lumumba, the Congolese leader who was assassinated) is also attached in the books. It was once rejected by H.B. Jassin for publication in the Sastra magazine, until Sitor later sent it to Harian Rakjat newspaper and was made public there.

M. Balfas, who was at the time Jassin's co-editor, had once written, after he re-read the poem several times, that there shouldn't be any anxiety concerning the poem. A poem of Sitor addressed to his daughter entitled Surat dari Tiongkok untuk Retni, is indeed fascinating. He wrote: When you're grown up Ret,/ reminisce Yenan! It's the flower season! I see girls your age being blissful, everywhere.

The poem begins with a description of a journey that reminds Sitor of his childhood.
In the Canton-Peking express train, I memorize
Thirty years earlier, gazing at the scenery of China
I recall my father saying:
-staring from the hillsides-
"Son, look at the mist over the valley!
Life is there! Peace is there!

Sitor's trip to China was the period when he actively joined political activities. The visit was made possible by the upcoming Congress of Asian-African Writers. "In 1962, I led a delegation of authors to the Asian-African Conference in Tokyo," said Sitor. The group consisted of, among others, Rivai Apin and Utuy Tatang Sontani. From Tokyo they were bound for Hong Kong. Then, from HongKong, they left for Beijing. "We rode on a train for three days and three nights."

They were in China for two weeks. The delegation of authors from all over the world had arrived. "All traces of people's struggle against Chiang Kai Sek could still be observed in 1962," Sitor said. Sitor remembered the great fireworks party that was held in the Tiananmen Square. Later on, the leaders of the delegation were summoned to the Palace gates to meet Deng Xiaoping. "I managed to shake hands with Deng."

Then, they were invited to dinner. "I once read about the emperors' feasts, then I imagined that I had tasted the food as well," he said. Sitor confirmed that he admires Chinese history, whether or not it is connected with the Communists. "I study Chinese history by borrowing the perspective of Sukarno," said Sitor who at that time wrote an essay entitled Marhaenisme adalah suatu humanisme.

He felt like reporting the entire meetings with the delegations. He, for example, wrote a poem on a gorgeous girl of Cuba named Zoila. On Irene a pair of plastic chopsticks/ On Liza, sweet girl of Macao, a dream-they are the names of the girls written in the poem Impresi Tembok Tiongkok.

Despite his concern when he was in China, it was not, according to Sitor, the same reaction as when he visited Soviet territory. By 1968, Sitor was invited by the Uzbekistan Authors Association. He traveled to Central Asian cities like, among others, Fegana.

"I have not enough knowledge regarding Central Asia," he said. This is in contrast with his knowledge on China. Consequently, when Sitor arrived at Samarkand, he astonished all with the existence of the ancient observatory there. "I was surprised." Thus he wrote "…Ulukbek stood observing the stars in the sky/Scrutinizing the epoch to come, upon the hill…"

In 1989, his mind returned to his experience of traveling in Central Asia. He brought into mind a feast in Tashkent: "…Vodka, fruits mounted up/ Heaped within the pots/ Wine poured into the goblets/ we sang indeed in tumult/ As the remnant of Kubilai Khan's soldiers…"

SITOR felt that the critic who could comprehend his works was the late Subagio Sastrowardoyo. In 1976, Subagio wrote a literary essay entitled Manusia Terasing di Balik Simbolisme Sitor Situmorang. In the essay, Subagio proved that Sitor was affected by French Symbolism. However, Subagio concluded that, in fact, without taking notice of French Symbolism Sitor would finally reach the same objective as French Symbolism.

Anther critic within Sitor's 'consideration' is Maria Heinschke, a researcher at Hamburg University who authored a book entitled Sitor: Penyair Modern Mencari Persaudaraan Baru. Maria concluded that in the 1950s Sitor was the utmost poet whose consciousness to modernism had come into being as well as having expressed himself in being an heir to world culture. According to Heinschke, the creating of a work of art must be confronted to any and all matters involving life. The limitation in life must be the very axis to finding an orientation.

An artist must not return to the so-called tradition as well as syncretism and eclecticism. Those are matters that do not have any dramatic tension between human beings and their surroundings.

Sitor was imprisoned in 1967 for eight-odd years. After being released from the penitentiary, many critics considered that his poems returned to their initial forms written during the 1950s. In 1982, he published an anthology of his poems entitled Angin Danau. Subagio Sastrowardoyo, in his book review of the anthology in Tempo, evaluated that although Sitor was still a wanderer who cannot have a distinct place, his poems written in the 1980s had no longer an inwardly tense drama like senses of loneliness, fruitlessness and despair.

However, as for Subagio, his passion to sound has not faded away. It can be seen from the poem Weimar. It goes like this: A Million of pine trees/ the earth's fragrance scattered/ on its clean bosom/ Sniffed I contently…Goethe is but a memory/ in an unreachable century/ Schiller has deceased/ Tis a flower season remains…

It is interesting to note that we should we pay close attention to Sitor's poems having themes on Christian matters. According to Sitor, many people had considered that such poems signaled Sitor's return to the church. The reason for this is that he has long been known by his criticism of Protestantism that it has abolished the ancient religion. From the J.J. Rizal books, we can compare Sitor's complete poems of the period namely, for example, Kisah Kias Kristus, Hukum Pilatus, Pesan Ruth Pada Tiap Perawan, Khotbah Baptisan Paskah, those which were written in the early 1980s.

Subagio Sastrowardoyo himself, when comparing Sitor's Christian-themed poems written between the 1950s and the 1980s, believed that many of the 1980s poems were only immediate responses to the popular events in the Christian world. He only repeated his old ideas. In fact, Subagio added, Sitor tended to be moralistic and conveyed such cliches as "Forgive your fellows" or "Love your fellows." There is a sense that Sitor approached religion formally and officially.

"Those were only a youngster's notes," said Sitor that midday. According to Sitor, the Christian experience has no longer occurred to him anymore. "It is wrong to connect the poems as if they were my faith," he added. We may recall that in the 1950s Sitor was anxious with religion's ceremonies and thus wrote:
Will one speak in a hushed night
When snow falls and the birds are white
Every now and then this heart to submit
Within the grasp of a sincere prayer

O God, we have no day to meet again
In a prayer with many your followers
I bear love herewith before the muted beloved
Life separates not from judgment day

There goes the well-known poem Cathedrale de Chatres. During 1995, Sitor revisited the cathedral and wrote Chartres Revisited.
Will there be a mystical light of a colored glass
Through which the window's rays pour back into the mind's eye
as it was 45 years past?
When together with my love, I age
She has long gone, departed, I also
Suffered from cataract as the effect of old age

"I've been a devotee to mysticism for 10 years," he firmly said. Sitor then gave a detailed explanation about nature as a symbol. When listening to Sitor telling stories, we remember a part of his stories which are contained in his autobiography, Sitor Situmorang Penyair Danau Toba, when he was left by his father's group in their journey into a forest: "…I 'vanished' into a world of tale. I became a small creature whose body I possessed through his ears…"

"My poems on mounts Merapi, Bromo, the Parangtritis Coast, Balige, Mount Sibayak, the Borobudur Temple, the Legian, Tanah Karo mountains, are part of this natural mysticism," he said. The poems, according to him, are basically questioning the covert nature of things. "Hence, I seriously understand Mbah Maridjan," he laughed. "If only Subagio is still alive, I wonder what would have been his opinion on my newest poems," he said.

Would Subagio still regard Sitor as approaching religion formally and officially?

In his old age, Sitor still keenly visits his memorable cities, the valley of his roots as well as his best friends. The last poem of this anthology compiled by J.J. Rizal was written in Holland in 2005. It is entitled Amir Pasaribu at 90 Years.

Amir Pasaribu is a distinguished Indonesian composer who was born at Siborong-borong. He was Sitor's senior colleague in the cultural discussion group of Gelanggang which was pioneered by the board of editors of Siasat magazine. This was Sitor's second poem dedicated to Amir. In October 1961, he wrote a poem for the man who once lectured in Suriname entitled Alkimiah Zaman. What makes something perennial? Thus Sitor queries this time. Yet the poem is his reflection in terms of endurance: his never-ending desire to preserve the arts:
Upon the echoes of life's blissful laughter
Long may you live in submission and
on the flood of tears of experience
Please accept my regards…

(By.Seno Joko Suyono, Kurie Suditomo/ Tempo Magazine, July 2006).

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