Saturday, February 13, 2016

Is Nothing Sacred?

Salleh Ben Joned during the shooting of The Big Durian (James Lee)

Or Down by the Salleh Gardens (An ABC of Reading Poetry for Local Professional/Academic Critics as well as an Advertisement for Myself)

There is no doubt that Salleh Ben Joned, whose first collection of poems did not find a publisher until he was in mid-forties, is an anomaly – a Malay anomaly. Salleh’s anomaly is multi-dimensional, and this he has tried to suggest in the Malay title of his bilingual book – Sajak-Sajak Saleh.

The pun on “Saleh” is obvious of course, but it is not the only pun – Salleh’s Sajaks or Poems[1] and, if a translinguistic pun is permitted, “Sullied Poems.” If you want to involve a third language there is the French sale hovering somewhere behind the English “sully”.) The “sullied” is for the benefit of those Malay critics and writers who are excessively conscious of the bogey of “ethnic purity” in poetry. They will read all kinds of “impurities” into Salleh’s stuff and no doubt conclude that the guy is beyond redemption, from the point of view of ethnicity at least. These poems are not the works of a Melayu (Malay); only a writer whose sensibility has been sullied by undesirable foreign matter could have written them. 

In other words these are poems of a Mat Salleh, i.e., an Orang Putih (White Man), specifically a Britisher, albeit celup (not authentic). (God knows why Brits are called Mat Salleh). For those Melayus who are also self-conscious about being Muslim (that means the overwhelming majority), an added help would be in order. (This is after all and ABC of reading for them, isn’t it?) These readers will have concluded from what they have heard of Salleh Ben Joned (“Ben” is of course a clear sign of his secret Zionist, therefore, anti-Islamic, sympathies) that the purity of his religious identity is also questionable. They will be glad to be informed that the pun of “sully” on Salleh/Saleh is an unconscious acknowledgment of this, for “sully” is from Latin suculus which is a diminutive of sus, a boar or swine. See, I can be very helpful.

Salleh or Saleh (one or two “l”s is immaterial, I think as a common Malay name is Arabic in origin (there was a prophet long before Muhammad named Salih). The name means “pious,” which is of course very appropriate for a prophet; but in the case of our poet… well, I don’t know.
Perhaps Salleh, acutely conscious of being alienated from the Malay cultural tradition as it is currently or popularly understood, would like to make a claim to a heritage that goes further back in time, perhaps into prehistory, long before the race was saved by the coming of Islam. Perhaps he wants people to be aware of the “Malay meaning” of saleh, not the Arabic. For saleh, according to Marsden and Wilkinson, means “distinct, particular.” Winstedt, who is more alert to the variety of regional usages, has more to offer. His Malay-English Dictionary gives the following meanings: 1(Kedah) throwbacks – of animals, fruits; freak – e.g. albino 2. (Penang) motion to or from as in saleh kemari (be pleased to come here); saleh kembali (revert). The third meaning refers to that of the original Arabic: pious.

I think one should be constantly aware of the “Malay meaning” of saleh when reading Salleh’s poems. (I can hear an academic voice objecting: “That so called “Malay meaning” was an invention of colonial Orientalists, and therefore tak boleh pakai (unacceptable).” Really, Prof? are you sure you know your sources? In any case, the meaning is endorsed by no less an acceptable authority than Kamus Dewan, Prof.)

So saleh is “distinct,” “particulate,” “odd,” “individual,” “freakish” (I particularly like that “albino” bit). An individual who “comes and goes,” and who is a “throwback” to some lost ancestral form.
Now we know why Salleh’s book got the reception it did. The book, apparently, was found to be so “shocking” (dahsyat was the word often heard) that it left the usually vociferous (and highly shockable) Malay critics almost mute with disbelief. There was not a single review of the book in the Malay papers or literary magazines. This is not really surprising in a society which often prefers to deal with the uncommon or the unabsorbable by pretending it doesn’t exist. The book, however, did get a response, generally favourable, from the English reading public; all the reviews that appeared were in English.

Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh
This Malay anomaly called Salleh Ben Joned recently received the attention of a leading Malay literary figure, the academic poet professor Muhammad Haji Salleh. In a special poetry number of the journal Tenggara (24/89), of which he is co-editor, the Professor has three articles. One of them is a survey of contemporary Malay poetry accompanied by a selection of recent stuff in translation. Salleh Ben Joned is one of the poets dealt with in that survey.

As far as Salleh knows, this is the first time that his poetry is discussed by a Malay academic critic. Salleh does not quite know whether he should be grateful for this unexpected attention. The uncertainty is quite understandable. The Professor’s comments on his poetry are frankly quite obtuse, but under the circumstances even an obtuse reaction from such a quarter, he feels, may be better than no reaction at all. Perhaps, Salleh is really not quite sure.

I must admit if there was a Malay academic critic who could be expected to deal with Salleh’s works with a fairly informed mind, that critic would be Professor Muhammad Hj Salleh. Considering his educational background, formal qualifications, exposure to literatures other than Malay and Indonesia, he should not be part of the tribe of ethnocentric katak di bawah tempurung (frogs under a coconut shell), the kind of kataks given the ketok (knocks) of ironic mockery in the opening paragraphs of this piece.

But something has obviously happened to the Professor since he decided to embark on the programme of “recovering” his “Melayuness.” Now that he occupies the Chair of Malay Literature at the National University, the need to assert his “Melayuness” is even stronger, especially in the face of attacks by jealous kataks who dare to question his right to pontificate about Malay aesthetics and arbitrate on the relative worth of Malay writers and works, classic or contemporary.

This must account for the Professor’s strange reaction to Salleh’s book. Confronted with Salleh’s self proclaimed sacred and profane stuff (note the invisible hyphens in the “Sacred and Profane” of the title, as they were by the alert Adibah Amin in her review of the book in the New Straits Times, August 14, 1987), Professor Muhammad’s critical faculties, nay, even his very ability to read poetry seems to have deserted him. He admits that the appearance of Salleh’s book was “the most traumatic of experiences” for “the Malaysian literary scene.” (“Traumatic,” mind you! To be quite honest, Salleh was rather pleased with that word, for never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that poetry – least of all his – could have such an effect).”

Trauma aside, Professor Muhammad takes particular exception to Salleh’s blatant refusal to assume the stance of the “poet as a leader and elder of society.” No, thank you, Prof… Salleh feels that it is this business of the poet as a leader, solemnly and self-consciously assumed, that is in part responsible for the typical Malay poet being a bloody bore. Salleh for his part gets easily embarrassed and feels he would barely articulate by the suffocating mantle of the elder of society. Especially when he feels (in spirit at least) forever young, younger, in fact, the older he gets.

Salleh wants to be heard of course, distinctly even if at times ambiguously. He wants the ambiguity (not something much valued here) to be distinctly registered, especially when there is a risk of him being considered for one of those literary prizes on the committee of which out Professor may be sitting.

So, traumatized apparently by Salleh’s “peculiar” approach to poetry writing, and puzzled by his reluctance to play the part of the elder and leader, and also shocked obviously by his plain-speaking about certain matters, our earnest Professor could only react the way the typical Malay reader or critic would react. After mumbling about “trauma,” “sacrilege,” etc., he categorically asserts that to Salleh “nothing is sacred, neither family nor religion nor the moralistic myths.”

The word “nothing” can be dangerous when used so categorically. After all, even nothing is nothing. Even the blasphemous Earl of Rochester, the notorious 17th Century poet and rake, admitted nothing “hath a being ere the world was made.” You ponder hard on that line, and you will realize that this kind of nothing is not just nothing. Some of Salleh’s poems can be said to affirm this paradox. Even “nothing” is sacred to Salleh. Disinherited Salleh’s mind may be, but certainly not secularized. In fact, it helps to be “scared” of the sacred to make nothing of it. (It’s symptomatic that every time he wants to say “sacred,” “scared” gets typed.)

To buttress his assertion of the anti-sacred or non-sacred tendencies in Salleh’s poetry, our traumatized Professor could only and helplessly resort to the convenient clichés of his trade. Clichés which are easy substitutes for hard thinking and hard feeling, and which are much resorted to by Malay literary critics. “Rebel,” “outsider,” “sacrilege,” and, of course, the inevitable kurang ajar (rude and untutored) are bandied about as if they were nothing. And the Professor, of course, takes several paragraphs to say the damned nothing (i.e. his “nothing”, not mine), and in awkward English too. And in the process manages to make the reader suffer the hilariously painful sight of the mangling of Salleh’s Malay poems in his deadening English translations.

The Professor (quite surprising this, considering his reputed familiarity with world poetry and poetics in English) simply cannot read poetry except in the manner sanctioned by the established habits of his Malay-educated fellow critics. For example, he cannot make the elementary distinction between the “scandalous” autobiographical elements and their poetic transformations.

SBJ with Aussie wife & daughter Anna
What “scandalous” autobiographical elements? Oh, well… you know, those… those “personal sexual act (sic) with women”… with women, mind you!) that Salleh is supposed to have re-enacted shamelessly in his salacious stuff; all the scandalous things he says about his dead father (imagine making the dying father hiss “bloody bastard!” with his last breath!), his wives (infidel wives, too), and his daughters. One of the daughters he claims to be proud of, and even dedicates the book to her. Yet, for some perverse reasons known only to himself, he could write a lengthy light verse that seems to make unkind fun of the poor girl!

The poem that Professor Muhammad focuses on in his discussion of the “scandalous autobiographical elements” in Salleh’s work is Dendang Si Tegang Pulang (The Salacious Rhymes of the Self-Taut Prodigal). His reading of the three-part poem is not only literal but earnestly one-dimensional, showing no sensitivity to its formal and rhetorical strategy as well as its tone. Because of this, he is not aware that the poem is in part of the mocking allusion to his own Pulang Si Tenggang (The Return of Si Tenggang). The allusion is direct only in a few places – especially in the title and in the phrases sopan santun (courteous) and Melayu jati (true Malay) in the first and third parts of the poem; but the whole of the Dendang Si Tegang Pulang could be read as in part a “parody” of Muhammad’s Tenggang poem.

Like Muhammad’s poem, Salleh’s too alludes to the legend of Si Tenggang, the archetypal prodigal son who forgot that paradise lies at the feet of mothers – or the shores of the Mother Country; but the allusion is mocking and ironic, as the punning variation on the name suggests (Tenggang/Tegang) Salleh’s Si Tegang (tegang literally means “tense,” taut,” erect”) is, as the Professor for once accurately comments, a voice very much “on heat.” Propelled by the swinging beats of its syllabics, the poem mockingly echoes the Muhammad Hj Salleh-type English-educated poet’s defensive postures and predictable thinking about identity. Among other things, it says that if you believe and feel in your liver that you are still essentially a Malay after all the cross-cultural wanderings and acts of miscegenation (literal or metaphorical), then you are one. No need to make a self-conscious or defensive noise about it, saying, as Muhammad does in his poem, that “I am still a Malay, still courteous,” and saying it in lines that are not only deadly solemn but embarrassingly self congratulatory (“I am still a courteous person you know.”)

I would say that a Malay poet’s “Malayness,” to the extent that the thing matters in poetry, must be allowed to speak for itself while the poetry is busy on other things. Damn those chauvinistic critics who question what you in your liver know to be the case, and pity those insecure poets and professors who are self-consciously defensive about cultural identity. In any case, a distinction has to be made between essential and formal or official “Malayness.” And even that “essential Malayness,” whatever it is, does not have to remain completely pure, if that is possible, for a Malay poet to remain Malay. If your “Malayness” is somewhat sullied, so what? So much the better if it means you are a fuller human being open to the sheer variety and richness of life. The purity of a poet’s identity, cultural or racial is not necessarily important to the business of writing poetry. All that writing poetry requires here is honesty, skill, clarity of mind and heart. That, and a sensitivity to the furious rumblings in your ancestral gut, the kind of sensitivity suggested by the aphorism that Lin Yutang once memorably and shamelessly burped: “What is patriotism but the love of the good things we ate in our childhood?”

May 1990



[1] Sajak means rhymes, verse. It also means handsome, as in pemuda yang sajak (handsome youth); or fitting, appropriate, as in mendapat isteri yang sajak (found a fitting wife). I can personally prefer sajak to puisi, but I can see there is a case for using both words. Sajak can be used to mean rhyming verse (without the connotation of lightness which the English word sometimes carries), and puisi to mean what its English original, “poetry” suggest - something more comprehensive, embracing both free verse and poetic prose as well as rhyming and blank verse.

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