The Light Around Us

Viki Holmes on Laksmi Pamuntjak

It begins, as always, with the search for home, both geographical and metaphysical. These are the writings of a perpetual wanderer, one who knows that wandering also necessitates engagement and exchange. One who both delights in and is confounded by the fugue state that writing, movement, conjures. For while travel means separation, and distance, there also exists a sense of constancy and return. And of course, words, always the love of words. Laksmi writes, in her poem “October”: “you and I will be writing across cities / and oceans.” It is both an acknowledgement and a promise. In this voyage through her collected writings, the mythic presence is writ large, from the Mahābhārata to the Aeneid. Laksmi has explored the writings of Virgil in her critical writing. Here his legacy is a golden thread running through her poetry and prose: the wandering, the wonder, the constant movement—and the courage to move forward whatever natural or supernatural obstacles stand in the way. That is the word. Sunt lachrimae rerum, the poet writes: there are tears in things. To understand life—to understand love—is to understand sorrow, to move forward, with resilience and curiosity.

But let us take a step back, for a moment.

It is dusk on a March evening, and the 2007 Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival is in full swing. On the rooftop of Hong Kong’s iconic Fringe Club, a group of writers both local and international gather for a poetry roundtable. Here is a photograph, or a memory: Laksmi standing to read in the half-light, as the poets around her listen, rapt and attentive. She speaks of love, of course, and passion; of sorrows and acceptance, departures and transformation. Her deeply sensory, sensuous poetry is made to be spoken aloud—or perhaps to be murmured: intimate lyrics to be heard at dawn, or at sunset, at the threshold of day and night. I was one of those poets, of course, and since that time, whatever cities and hearts we have inhabited, we have continued our exchange or words, of lives, of literary loves: as Laksmi herself writes in “A Traveler’s Tale,” collecting “What stories we may find / in our passage through imagining.”

It is fitting that this poem should open the collection: emblematic of how, in poetry, as in life, so much inhabits the in-between. Laksmi’s words create a liminal space at the borders of day and night, art and nature, music and words. Here, movement translates her being: at an airport, by the flowing water of canals, or simply at a transition point in a relationship. The women given voice in her forthcoming anthology There Are Tears in Things: Collected Poems and Prose (2001–2016) and elsewhere across her poetry stand at the borders of belonging—searching for home and simultaneously at home everywhere, nowhere. As in the triumphantly melancholic “Stepping Out of the Airport and Weeping,” where the gaze of her lover over the city conjures a sort of glorying in uncertainty: “Because, like a poem, the city didn’t know where our feet would take us, and so we walked, unseeing, inaudible, heart-shaped. With too many signs to follow.” 

But there is nothing wrong with being in a state of unknowing. The elegant ambiguities of Henry James’s fiction are gracefully reflected in Laksmi’s work; and his heroines—and their loves—step gracefully through her latest collection; “with too many signs to follow:” sometimes making an overt appearance, as do Kate Croy and May Bartram, sometimes in the heightened atmosphere and the tacit sanctity of shared, secret knowledge. Laksmi’s art and artist-inspired prose pieces highlight the idea of Woman as an objet to be displayed for status, or as a piece of art to be translated by the male gaze: much as Ralph perceives Isabel Archer as a kind of work of art to be interpreted in James’s Portrait of a Lady. The novel has clearly had a defining influence on Laksmi, and certainly there is a sort of Jamesian surrender in the desire for the inferred that characterizes both her fiction and her poetry. The women here are ruefully aware of their flaws, and possess a certainty that allows them to move forward regardless: to take the steps that their lovers cannot, will not. Her poems skillfully reflect on the nature of perception; of how men misunderstand the women they claim to love; and how these women attempt to open their eyes: as May reminds John Bartram in the novella that inspired Laksmi’s “The Near-Surrender of May Bartram”: “You’re not afraid. But it isn’t,” she said, “the end of our watch. That is, it isn’t the end of yours. You’ve everything still to see.” And the characters that inhabit Laksmi’s poetry and prose, like those of Henry James, are forever striving, forever trying, as in her poem “October”: “to touch what we only glimpsed behind / frosted glass.” 

There are glimpses of something more suffused through the words in There Are Tears in Things: more than love, more than Muse, more than a single, discrete identity. The myths we learn and love function as far more than fairytale—inhabiting all we do, and all of our attempts to make sense of worlds we can only hazard. In any work of Laksmi’s, the archetypal tragic lovers Amba and Bhisma are never going to be far away: and it is no surprise to see them defining the passions in “Entries on Love.” A love like theirs, seen always through a lens of separation, and at last punctured by arrows, is never going to be easy. Nevertheless we must strive for it, the poet urges us.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Amba should be such a potent figure for Laksmi, whose work sings most eloquently when writing of love and of motherhood. For Amba is not only a lover, a fierce warrior, but, also the mother (or reincarnated self) of Srikandi. And as Robert Goldman once wrote, Amba is one of the commonest words for mother in the Sanskrit language. And while Srikandi’s tale is still evolving, Laksmi’s re-imagining of Amba’s life and loves have been an inspiration for both her poetry, and an award-winning eponymous novel, (published in Germany as Alle Farben Rot, and in the US as The Question of Red).

While Bhisma and Amba may be remembered as lovers, it is redemption that is crucial here. And in death the great warrior achieves what he never could in life: access to “a golden city where all our debts will be paid” (“October”). 

This golden city crops up again, but this time it is not only achievable in death. The speaker in “Nights at Gustavo” teases her love by talking of a golden place from which she has come: “a land / from which all / impossible loves run.” 

Impossible perhaps, but not inaccessible to all, for the poet’s daughter glimpses “glints of a golden city,” in “Silent Prayer for My Daughter on Her 9th Birthday.” As with so much of James’s fiction; while the adults in this collection may be recriminated oh so gently for their limited vision, the child comes to know, and to understand, so much more. In “Shanghai Rising,” the daughter dreams of “jade, gold and ivory,” and in “For My Daughter, Once More,” it is the mother who comes to understand the world through her daughter’s clear gaze: “I have looked into your eyes / through the fables of dawn.” 

This filial clearsightedness is explored at length, in Laksmi’s rueful, sharply observed, charming exploration of the mother-daughter relationship “Sophie Between the Lines.” Eloquent, artistic Sophie is both frustrated and fascinated by her mother, whose constant search for love, identity, and self-actualization conflicts with her role as a parent.

Sophie is one of many women in Laksmi’s poetry and prose who demand to be seen. Who have, historically, been neither seen, nor heard. Conventionally women have been too often figured as the muses of the male artists who love and lose them: art becomes the pursuit of a mythical Other. The poem “Light Matters” poignantly sets out these mis-seeings, or perhaps more accurately, unseeings, in its description of a lover who strives so hard to perceive the light halo-ing his love that he completely fails to see the actual woman right in front of him:

I still can’t

help but wonder whenever he looked

at me, whether it was my light that he saw,

or the light around me—the one

that adamantly had nothing to do with me.

Such misunderstandings, misreadings, characterize the loves in much of her poems and short prose of the past years. Certainly they characterize a constant debate in the world of art: what, after all, are we looking for/at? Artists fascinated by their muses, who for all their miraculous insights miss the point: they instead “give praise to the wrong God” (“A Traveler’s Tale”). The notion of woman as unvoiced object was deconstructed in the 2009 anthology of international women’s poetry Not A Muse, in which earlier versions of Laksmi’s poems “A Traveler’s Tale” and “Stepping Out of the Airport and Weeping” appear, and for which, together with Canadian poet Kate Rogers, I acted as co-editor. As Laksmi herself writes in her foreword to There Are Tears in Things: “it seeks to subvert the entire foundation of the traditional male gaze.”

Laksmi’s ekphrastic prose holds a mirror to the male artists whose work functions as inspiration for her own musings: the female Other is given voice, and she has a lot to say.

The muses, the prostitutes, the businesswomen and those who spend their days in the beauty salon, the daughters and the mothers—all speak up in Laksmi’s lush, redolent prose. But it is Mukaburung, the Buru Island tribeswoman who has stood vigil over Bhisma’s last days, who loves the warrior-refigured-as-doctor; whose voice resonates most clearly as an anti-muse. Scarred, ulcerated, leprous, Mukaburung casts Bhisma—or Sentanu, as Bhisma or someone like Bhisma appears in the poem—in the role of object of her desire, and takes centerstage at last: demanding to be heard. The final story (together with several of the poems in the earlier section of this collection) in this vibrant tapestry of experiences provides a particularly poignant insight into a still controversial subject: the events surrounding the incarceration of Communist sympathizers on the penal colony of Buru Island. The women who speak up in “The Women Who Came Back from the Dead” are all too aware of the importance of giving voice—not only to themselves, but to nature itself, which desperately wants to bear witness: “Lately we have seen the wind blowing hard along the river. It seems to want to say something.” Through myth and history, art and music, Laksmi’s women all want to say something. They are eloquent, articulate and so very, very present. “Sophie Between the Lines,” in its final sentence, reminds us of the continuity of history, memory, and the destinies we shape ourselves: “Like my mother and her mother before me, our eyes meet and part.” 

“And yet, what does it mean to see life through a woman’s eyes?” Laksmi asked in her foreword to Not A Muse. “That there are tears in things,” her new collection responds. “And that we continue to live, and love, precisely because of this.”