Sunday, February 14, 2016

Luna, Lunacies and Lovers

In Body Time, Gay Gaer Luce says: “Of the many rhythms we casually observe in the creatures around us, the most familiar is the daily rhythm of activity and rest.”
           
Gay Gaer Luce
I’d add to that: Among lovers, the time for rest can be a time for a specially passionate activity. Like sex at siesta time, for example; those who have done it tell me it can be quite fun. Properly approached, preferably with ritualized foreplay – that and some of the essential sacredness of the occasion can do wonders. So I’m told. Gay Gaer further says: “Dogs, diurnally active like man, will follow their owners to bed.” What happens in the bedroom Gay Gaer doesn’t say. She simply goes on to talk about the cats whose rhythm is very much like man’s: “lazy by day,” cats “find the onset of darkness stimulating, and then begin to play.” Cats’ sense of foreplay is quite exciting for man to watch and get ideas from. If sex at siesta time can be fun, it can even be more so at the time of the lunar eclipse. I’ve never tried it, but I can imagine how it can be so, considering that the rhythm of a woman’s body is so tied up with that of the moon. (The Malay word for menstruation is datang bulan (the moon comes), another instance of the tendency of Malay be literal and metaphorical at the same time.)
           
If you don’t believe me read Kekasih (Beloved), Usman Awang’s marvellous, erotically charged love poem. Now I know why Usman Awang at one time had Tongkat Waran (police baton) as a pseudonym. It symbolizes not only his passionate commitment to the cause of the poor and the betrayed (he himself comes from a very poor family), but his remarkable poetic verity and sensuality in his “rare ventures” into the difficult genre of love poetry. I said “rare ventures” because the lover in Usman the poet is not so prominent as popular notions about him would have it, and certainly not as conspicuous as the politically committed writer. In the whole of his collected poems, Puisi-puisi Pilihan, there is only one real love poem, Kekasih. But this one poem is near perfect. It is written in the early Seventies and is one of the best poems in the language, fit to be in the virile company of those erotic pantuns celebrated in this column some time ago (see AIP, May 13 and 29, 1991).
           
Compared to the mush and gush of the purely verbal sentimental pensyair (poets), who can pen a “love poem” at the drop of a sarong, Usman’s Kekasih stands out like the magnificent inspiringly seductive tits of Gunung Ledang. And it is not surprising that when the Suasana Dance Company wanted a poet to celebrate the legend of Puteri Gunung Ledang, it turned to Usman Awang. The poem that Usman wrote is called Kunang-kunang Gunung Ledang, after the Azanin Ahmad dance drama which was staged in Kuala Lumpur recently.
           
Before we look closely at Kekasih, here’s the poem in its entirety:

'Romanticized portrayal of Puteri Gunung Ledang
Akan kupintal buih-buih
menjadi tali
mengikatmu

akan kuanyam gelombang-gelombang
menjadi hamparan
ranjang tidurmu

akan kutenun awan gemawan
menjadi selendang
menudungi rambutmu

akan kujahit bayu gunung
menjadi baju
pakaian malammu

akan kupetik bintang timur
menjadi kerongsang
menyinari dada mu

akan kujolok bulan gerhana
menjadi lampu
menyuluhi rindu

akan kurebahkan matari
menjadi laut malammu
menghirup sakar madumu

Kekasih, hitunglah mimpi
yang membunuh realiti
dengan syurga illusi

The right approach to this poem is by way of an earlier work, Kelopak Rasa. Or better still by the way of Kelopak Rasa and those anonymous erotic pantuns like the ones I discussed in this column last year. Familiarity with the pantuns, in fact, is an absolute must for an appreciation of Usman’s poetry; the continuity of sensibility and aesthetics between the tradition of the pantun and the modern Malay poetry is best revealed in his work. Dr. Lloyd Fernando, in his introduction to one of Usman’s volumes, rightly points out that rasa (feelings, sensitivity, sensibility) in his poetry has an almost metaphysical quality. In the words of Kelopak Rasa itself, it is an anugerah keramat (sacred gift); another word for it is barakah (poetic grace). Rasa in the sense informs and universalizes Usman’s passion both as a love poet and as a poet-spokesman of the insulted and the injured. Rasa is what makes Kekasih both delicately sensuous and powerfully charged with eroticism.
           
Usman Awang (1929-2001)
The poet can effortlessly range from the cosmic to the concrete in effect uniting the two in one experience. The entire universe, from the foams on the ocean waves to the stars and moon, participates in this fervent expression of love and desire is given concrete expression almost unbelievably erotic in its effect. “Akan kupintal buih-buih/ menjadi tali/ mengikat mu”. Abidah Amin’s translation of the opening verse (I’ll twine the froth of the sea/ into a rope/ to tie you”) is quite good, but you need to be able to read the original to fully feel its erotic power. The same is true of the following verses. The verbal music of the original (“Akan kutenun awan gemawan/ menjadi selendang/ menudungi rambutmu”) is very difficult to carry over into English. Malay has a kind of easy euphony that can be treacherous to the poet who lacks the artistic discipline as well as depth of feeling.
           
Here’s Adibah’s English version of these stanzas: “I’ll spin the clouds/ into a veil/ for your bedchamber/ I’ll sew the mountain winds/ into a nightgown for you/ I’ll pluck the star of the East/ a brooch to sparkle/ on your breast/ I’ll bring down the darkened moon/ a lamp to light/ my desire/ I’ll sink the sun/ embrace your seas of night/ drink your crystals of honey.” The images are fine, the syntax adequately reflective of the original. But I feel the translator’s decision (if it was a conscious decision) to stay close to the original rather than exercise the freedom of “transcreation” has resulted in her English version being rather weak in terms of rhythm and verbal music.
           
The truly marvellous verse six (“Akan kujolok bulan gerhana/ menjadi lampu/ menyuluhi rindu”) is … well, literally untranslatable: “bring down” doesn’t have the concrete aggressive connotations of jolok (to poke in order to bring down). And the sakar (sugar or sweet stuff) in verse seven is a delightful near-pun (zakar means penis) which is totally lost in the English version. It is a testimony to the poet’s deep intimacy with rasa, the anugerah keramat (sacred gift) he is blessed with, that with just one poem he leaves the sentimental verbalizers far behind, drowned in their easy-come-easy go so-called “love poems.”

28 October 1992


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