Photograph by Ernest Goh

The world is rarely an ordered or orderly place.  Poetic forms often seem to try to impose order or uncover it by using rhyme and repetition.

Repetition especially indicates an order that may, in fact, not be in our experience of the world, yet it can be one of the most comforting uses of language.

When the tsunami of 2004 hit coastal Aceh, Indonesia, it turned their world upside down — in some very profound and powerful ways. So much destruction was left in its wake, yet the tsunami also brought rebuilding and healing to that region. Where there had been strife and conflict, the people came together in the wake of the disaster.

Ernest Goh‘s photographs of the post-tsunami devastation in Aceh were the subject of a competition some time ago, which solicited poems in response to the images.  Because the pantoum originated in Malaysia in the fifteenth-century, I thought it a particularly useful form to approach the subject matter.

The pantoum is composed of four-line stanzas with the second and fourth lines of each stanza becoming the first and third lines of the next stanza, and the last line of the poem repeating the first line.

Here is my poem, “A Pantoum for Aceh”:

 

Think of the world turned upside down,

The boat on the mud simulating the sea.

The wave beating down on the coast was brown.

Two-hundred-thousand swept into the sea.

 

The boat on the mud simulating the sea;

Remember the baby doll rising out of the flood.

Two-hundred-thousand swept into the sea.

The mosque, still standing, is covered in mud.

 

Remember the baby doll rising out of the flood?

Think of the houses, each righted by mercy;

The mosque, still standing, is cleaned of its mud.

Can you ever get dry after soaking in sea?

 

Think of the houses, each righted by mercy;

Building back better, lifted up from the ground.

Can you ever get dry after soaking in sea?

Rebuilding a land that was altered and drowned.

 

Building back better, lifted up from the ground.

The wave beating down on the coast was brown.

Rebuilding a land that was altered and drowned:

Think of the world turned upside down.

 

–Scott Edward Anderson, 2009

I’ve had a love affair with Indonesia for a long time now. Curiously, it started with its poetry long before I ever visited the country. But the people and the place are the real magic for me. Indonesia is a land (and waters) of stunning beauty, a people of peace and wonder, and a remarkable, storied culture.

I long to go back and when something like the bombings in Jakarta this week happens, my heart sinks that Indonesia and its people may suffer.

A few years ago, after the Bali bombings that killed 20 people and injured 129 and reports of other terrorist activities surfaced, I wrote a poem called “Sons of Abraham,” which has not yet been published. It may be too difficult a subject to be published. (Of course, it also may be that it is not yet finished or polished enough for publication!)

I want to share it here in the wake of the Jakarta bombings and in honor and memory of all victims of terrorism everywhere:

SONS OF ABRAHAM

We are all strung together
by thin filaments of air,
fragments of faith and our burning desire
to please God, to engender
a kind of blessing. Time
is the fragrance of one age
evoking another; essence
is our connection on earth.

I harbor neither empathy nor anger
for people who set off bombs in Bali,
only pity. I am sorry for them,
honoring their God in this way:
beheading Christian village leaders,
decapitating young girls
on their way to school or attacking
women because they wear a burqa
or pray to Mecca.

How sad to think God can be appeased
by such actions, that He wants
such a fate for you—

As for God, I forgive His negligence
or lack of supervision, all leaders are flawed.
We are all Sons of Abraham,
that model of faith, and we are all
struck down by hearts of stone,
leaden particles of dust
shattering between us
in the opaque calculation
of suicide bombs—
“Forgive them, Father,
for they know not what they’ve done.”

–Scott Edward Anderson
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(Note: There are families in eastern Indonesia who have married two faiths, Christian and Muslim. The first-born son or daughter is baptized; the next is raised in Islam. We are all connected. I love my Muslim brothers and sisters as well as my Christian, my Jewish, my Buddhist, and my Hindu families. There is only one God.)

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