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Book Review: Borobudur by Jennifer Mackenzie

29 September 2009

Written by Stephen Atkinson

Journeys, actual and metaphorical, geographical and spiritual, and the cultural exchanges they facilitate, are at the heart of Australian poet Jennifer Mackenzie’s epic Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), in which the pilgrimages of Borobudur’s priest-architect Gunavarman are a reflection of the writer’s own travels through the region and the writing process. For Mackenzie, wandering and poetry are in many regards the one thing, both conducted along similar trajectories and according to the same states of mind. Of the creative process of writing Borobudur she has said that, ‘texts, my own travels and experiences pointed in a certain direction and I followed’. Along the way she came upon the poets of the Javanese epics, and Kukai, the peripatetic Japanese monk in whose poetry, to her delight, Mackenzie found echoes of the voice she had worked hard to establish for Gunavarman.

Soon, we are in lockstep with the poet and her guides, feeling the path beneath the soles of their ‘iris-dyed sandals’, embarking on voyages and alighting in sometimes unplanned destinations, hoisted on palanquins, and treated to the hospitality of princes, sages and scribes. The mandala-like structure of the 8th century Buddhist sanctuary of Borobudur was itself designed to be walked, successive clock-wise circumambulations allowing novices to ascend to progressively higher levels on the path to enlightenment, and so the figure of the journey acquires another layer of meaning, welding the experience of space to the rhythm of steady footfall, and to meditation, movement and poetry.

Thomas Stamford Raffles, who governed Java for the British over a brief period from 1811 to 1815, is said to have been sitting in his stately residence in Semarang on the Java Sea when he first heard stories of an immense ancient wonder that lay part buried near the plain of Kedu in Central Java. Borobudur, though the subject of lontar texts and folk tales, and clearly known to people living in the immediate vicinity, was nevertheless shrouded in a mystery maintained by a curse: for members of the Javanese nobility, to visit the site meant certain death. It is said that a young prince, who determined to see for himself the ‘warriors in cages’, vomited blood and died shortly after his return.

Raffles was a product of the English enlightenment, a linguist and scholar fascinated by the cultures, history and antiquities of the places he was assigned to govern. After hearing these fantastical descriptions, he summonsed the Dutch superintendent of historical monuments, Hermann Cornelius, who gathered a team to begin the task of locating Borobudur and disentangling it from centuries of obscurity. After months of steady labour, the extent of the structure and the technical and artistic virtuosity of its creators were revealed. This was almost fifty years before Angkor Wat was hacked from the jungle by a team led by Henri Mouhot, and so constituted Europeans’ first glimpse of the elaborate splendour of the Southeast Asian civilisations that predated their own. Such discoveries could have unsettled some of the presuppositions of superiority that increasingly came to underpin the whole colonial project, but the relatively new field of archaeology, and other disciplines like ethnology that busied themselves with the collection of artefacts, data and knowledge, at the same time constituted another form of conquest.

Mackenzie’s project in some ways runs counter to the task of archaeology because it is more concerned with the limits of knowledge, the restitution of mystery and a return of some of the dust so assiduously swept away. If archaeology undoes the work of time, Borobudur reaffirms it. Central to all investigations into the past, though often unacknowledged, is the matter of mortality. And if Borobudur has something to teach us, it could be that we are all, like everything else, subject to the same processes of transformation, and that the change inherent in movement and time has somehow to be embraced. While staying with a family of dancers in the Indian Buddhist centre of Nalanda, Gunavarman learns ‘that stone and dance could be equivalent’, and

that in the weathering of stone
I anticipated my own weathering
in the elegance of the gesture
I could traverse that weathering like a god (65)

While Raffles’ caretaker administration was short-lived, the West’s fascination with Borobudur and structures like it continued, scented with a romance and taste for the exotic not satisfied perhaps by the more austere relics of Europe. The nature of this continuing fascination, Mackenzie’s included, is interesting to ponder. In part it seems to be a case of sunlight and climate, a brightness and clarity that shimmers, sensual and fragrant, and Mackenzie’s verse is full of allusions to colours and light that fill the eyes to aching. Take for example, the sibilant whisper and crystal stillness of:

the lake’s transparent water
luxuriant with lotuses
the blue mountain’s snow-capped
summit moves easily
on its surface (p.62)

Here, what is more, is a striking image of a time before time, before the white noise of the present, and core to the affect of Borobudur is its concern with time’s passing, with the difficulty of grappling with either eternity or mortality, and with the poignancy of grand endeavours to achieve posterity that tumble into pointlessness, leaving, at best, an enigma, whose meanings are spent and purposes lost just at the moment of their realisation.

Borobudur gathers together lifetimes lived more slowly and with more conviction, to when journeys embarked upon in the pursuit of wisdom and higher learning could easily stretch to decades. A feature of Borobudur’s strength as a work of poetic cross-cultural interpretation is that it progresses through an engagement with, and imagined dialogue between, the lives, travels and works of the old Javanese poets whose witness offers another glimpse into Borobudur’s historic and cultural significance. In addition to her debt to poets such as Monaguna and Kertayasha, Mackenzie draws inspiration and insights from Prapanca, a documenter of the Majapahit Empire, whose fourteenth-century Negarakertagama makes reference to a Borobudur already long abandoned. That these writers were not all absolutely contemporaneous allows her to eschew the tyranny of chronology to explore what we mean by timelessness, that is, what we mean when we describe a monument like Borobudur as timeless.

Borobudur can be read as a companion piece to more conventional guidebooks and histories: one that sets out to complicate as the other explicates, to obscure as the other reveals, to propose dimensions less measurable, to replicate Borobudur as it condensed in the mind of its architect, to explore the conditions of its conception, and to remind us that stone is as ephemeral as the people who shift, shape, and attribute meanings to it. Mackenzie renders it all lyrically as clearly as Gunavarman choreographed his epic dance of stone. It presents a Borobudur that visitors today might not immediately recognise as they pay their admission and run the gauntlet of souvenir vendors, but which lingers in the atmosphere, in the evidence of the chisel, in the favourable aspect of the site, and in the spectacular views and blossoming trees that led in part to its selection.

While the poems in the remaining section of this slim, beautifully designed volume, ‘Angkor and other poems’ arrive via different routes, they are similarly the product of Mackenzie’s personal engagement and fascination with the region and they also explore the relationship between wandering and poetry, people and nature, the material and the ethereal, time and disappearance. The haunted final poem of the collection, ‘The Botanist Lost at Lake Maninjau’, suggests the existence of portals to realms outside of time, asynchronous and invisible. For Mackenzie, to be lost in the jungle is to cease to exist or to have entered a world of disappearances. It ends:

he entered this light-filled canopy
walked ten minutes
broad leaves coalesced, undergrowth clotted
the air streamed with the inky curlicues of vines
the matte white of a sketch pad appeared iridescent
he turned around. the exit had disappeared.

Jennifer Mackenzie will be a guest at this year’s Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, 7 – 11 October 2009.

Stephen Atkinson is an Australian freelance writer currently living in Ubud.

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