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Rewarding Courage

November 25, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Another winner of the International Press Freedom Award this year was Goenawan Mohamad, founder and Editor of Tempo Magazine, Indonesia’s most widely circulated weekly. His magazine was officially banned in 1994, but reopened in October, following the ouster of Indonesian President Suharto. Mr. Mohamad is also a poet. And we asked NewsHour contributor Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States, to read one of his poems.

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: Goenawan Mohamad has related poetry to political life by saying that for him poetry resists the totalitarian political regimes’ program of transforming the individual into a new kind of person, according to an ideology. Poetry, he says, by providing a sane, private space of integrity, resists totalitarian power. Possibly that idea is related to why Goenawan Mohamad’s poem about an election-time murder ends with a paper hat, a kite, and a description of birds against an evening sky. Here is the poem, as translated by John McGlynn:

About That Man Killed Sometime Around Election Day.

“Dear God, give me your voice.”

The silence was the silence that followed the dog’s howl when the watchman found the corpse behind the dike. Face down, as if seeking the paddy’s fragrant warmth. But beneath the moonlight the acrid smell and the man’s cold cheeks were strange. Then others came – with flashlights, torches and fireflies – but no one recognized him. ‘He’s not from around here,’ the watchman said.

“Give to me your voice.”

Beneath the lantern in the ward office they discovered the gaping wounds. Shadows swayed rapidly, the verandah was flush with whispers. The man had no identity card. He had no name. No party affiliation. No party symbol. He had no one to cry for him because we could not cry. What might his religion be?

“Noble Cartographer, where is my homeland?”

The day after the next they read about it on the front page of the paper. And there was a person who cried with no one knowing why. And a person who didn’t cry, no one knowing why. And a tired boy who fashioned a hat from the morning paper, that was later stolen by the wind. Look! See the kites pasted to the sky, resting on the breeze. And the flock of evening birds alighting on the wires, as the cranes flee toward twilight’s end, crossing the barren field and long streaks of color like dissipating smoke.

“Dear God, give to me your voice.”