“The sound of foreign cash spreads. The corals are desecrated”

The latest part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Nathan A. Thompson
March 11, 2015

The latest part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson    Illustration by Natalie Phillips

Once termed the “only woman amongst the leading contemporary Indonesian poets” by critic Andries Teeuw, Toeti Heraty has earned wide acclaim for her poetry, which has been written throughout a distinguished academic career. Her poem “The Moon is High” is a dreamy free-association of images. While there is plenty of imagery depicting the beauty of the archipelago’s moonlit beaches, this is not a mere nature poem.NAT_ILL

The desire of the poet, who was born in 1933 and released her first major collection of works in 1974, to capture the meaning of the waves stops the drifting imagery. As if remembering a responsibility, she brings up the practical demands of the writer’s life with “Pages that need / To be sorted”.

The third person is used throughout, apart from a few lines where the poet addresses someone: “This time you have mastered the skill / Of throwing the safety rope.” Who is she speaking to? She continues, as if answering, by saying “I have not yet drowned”. The description feels like an attempt at communication between two people hopelessly separated. Perhaps this is a remark on the nature of the ego – a subject Heraty examines in the philosophical paper The I/Ego in Culture. The final two stanzas depict the coming of “Melbourne and Sydney-style property on the beach”. Foreign cash is compared to the sea as it “spreads”, revealing its pervasive and unassailable nature as tall grasses and crotons “collapse in fear”.

The dubious promise of progress is also questioned in “Jogging in Jakarta”. Again, development is described as an elemental force, “rapid, accelerating, sustained”. The italics slant forward, mimicking the grasping, addictive nature of capitalism. The final verse begins with an invocation of the subdistricts of Jakarta, who the poet beseeches – “may it never come to the point of being / buried standing up, because land for graves has become so scarce” – as if they were old gods.

What comes next is a complex trick of psycho-geography. The poet talks about the maps of the city that exist in the minds of its residents – a “map of the injuries of life” – and juxtaposes them against the reality of a fast developing city that “the nostalgic spirits come looking, searching / and do not recognise…”


“The Moon is High”

by Toeti Heraty

The moon is high

Not a crescent this time.

On Gilimeno island, on the sandy beach,

it glides beyond experience

beyond the reach of my hand.

The moon is high

Pale and round, the drum

Beats, speckled silver-bright.

The casuarinas dance, the waves lash out;

The passion of life, love, their meaning

Pages that need

To be sorted.

The moon is high.

Honey from Sumbawa in Mataram!

Questions and answers are a bitterness –

An angry honey moon

Very late, a distant, intermittent hum

After the TV has been switched off, and conversation

Has died down; after the boats have foundered.

This time you have mastered the skill

Of throwing the safety rope

From island to island.

I have not yet drowned, I have not drifted

Even though I have no anchor.

A bewitching moon beckons

Melbourne and Sydney-style property on the beach

Verandas draped with bougainvillea

Tall grasses and crotons will collapse in fear

Battered by storms

Before this manuscript, this life story

Has reached its final age.

The moon is high

Clear as the tinkle of a bell

The sound of foreign cash spreads

The corals are desecrated, and the tourist’s dream.

Wanderer, honey moon,

Lyrics of a song, fragments of a tune

Searched for and nearly found.


“Jogging in Jakata” (extract)

by Toeti Heraty

Get out of the way –

here is a trishaw loaded with vegetables

feet pedalling urgently

to catch the morning market customers.

Look –

on the pavement at the junction, bananas and sweet potatoes

are being fried for the construction workers

who squat and murmur

‘development is rapid, accelerating, sustained’

as long as there’s a kick-back.

The city’s cleanliness is guaranteed: cigarette stubs

are picked up carefully, none left behind,

by the basket-carrying brigade

shades, silhouettes sticking close to the trees,

rubbish dumps and open drains

eyes fixed on the ground, expertly

picking up stubs with makeshift tweezers.

Karet, Menteng, Pulo, Tanah Kusir . . . whatever happens

may I be laid to rest – may it never come to the point of being

buried standing up, because land for graves has become so scarce.


more worrying still,

suppose for whatever reason one is not buried in Jakarta

and in the morning, or at some other time

the nostalgic spirits come looking, searching

and do not recognise the city –

where is that abandoned map

with its markings, scribbles, crossings out,

map of the injuries of life?

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