Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2020

Navigable Ink (2020), by Jennifer Mackenzie

This is such an unusual book of poetry, I hardly know how to begin…

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I have reviewed four books by the great Indonesian author and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). Well, this book of poetry derives from the Melbourne-based poet Jennifer Mackenzie’s contact with Pramoedya, when in 1993 he sent her a copy of his MS Arus Balik (Cross Currents) for translation.  (The book was eventually published in 1995, but not yet in an English translation).  This collection of poems were created out of episodes from the novel.  This is the blurb:

Indonesian writer and activist Pramoedya Ananta Toer spent most of his adult life in jail, imprisoned first by colonial powers and later by Indonesian governments. In 1993 Jennifer Mackenzie received a copy of Toer’s manuscript Arus Balik and the author’s blessing to translate it into English. This was at a time when the author’s now celebrated work was banned in Indonesia and he was under house arrest in Jakarta.

Jennifer Mackenzie’s own Navigable Ink is a rare poetic exploration of Toer’s tragic, visionary and ultimately triumphant life. With skill, knowledge and sensitivity Mackenzie captures the beauty of Indonesia and Toer’s fight to preserve its integrity and essence. Throughout our world, his concerns for the environment, gender equality, free speech, non-discrimination and freedom are now more crucial than ever.

Navigable Ink is a work of poetry that is at once activist, lyrical and heart-wrenching. You don’t just read these poems – you feel them.

‘Each injustice has to be fought against, even if it’s only in one’s heart – and I did fight.’ Pramoedya Ananta Toer

‘Village meeting’ refers, I think, to the arrival of colonial aggressors:


In the dark forest one light in the meeting hall
a village losing out to tribute
shivering lamp rays stain a chill breeze

in this wind we feel in our very bones
incendiary words will flow
coursing through the irrigation
channels we ourselves constructed
the courts will hear them
the dewa [god] too
from us, for our labour
a divine insurgency

raised arms punching the light
resist, revel, agitate! (p.16)

The second stanza shows the fate of those who were troublemakers… but the irony of this, is that it was Indonesians themselves who caused Pramoedya the most grief.

I think many writers will relate to the poem titled ‘Writer’s Block’

typewriter   1995                    slow click

the day passes slowly
A session of push-ups

cleaning the yard

making tea

click click click (p.19)

But look how Mackenzie continues the poem, with a reference to what happened after the coup in which Suharto took power and the destruction of Pramoedya’s work:



I. Library ransacked

II. hysteria of flags

III. discourse  a burning tyre

IV. imprisonment to the EAST (p.19)

It makes one realise the terrible conditions some of our bravest writers have had to endure to create their works.

This theme recurs in ‘Banned’:

my father’s home school
our house a hive of villagers and kretek
talk, tea, putting words to paper
tantalising possibility of a call-to-action


typewriters, printing and stencil machines

paper boxes
a bicycle just outside the back door

our house
lamps unlit, shadows blurring the darkness
my father, gambling with friends

a banned book floats down the Bekasi River (p.46)

‘Manuscripts in My Library Destroyed by the Mob’ (p.54) lists the losses: manuscripts of works about Kartini (1879-1904), (the Indonesian national hero who pioneered education for girls but died in childbirth aged only 25); the two books that were to complete the trilogy for the novel Girl from the Coast and other studies.

‘Writing Materials’ is about Pramoedya’s anguish about being denied materials to write with while in prison:

there was no pen, no paper
then there was

after many years

pen and paper
I wrote
in delirium

I remember none of

I wrote (p. 55)

(I am going to remember this next time I rage in frustration because my computer is playing up).

‘Girl from the Coast’ is especially moving if you have read Pramoedya’s novel of the same name.  She remembers her idyllic childhood before being plucked as a practice wife/ for an aristocrat/ but in her old age what she remembers always somebody stealing her life.

There is also a very powerful poem about the forests burning in ‘Kalimantan’, bringing particles of death to the lungs.

If my Indonesian bookgroup resumes, or finds a way to meet remotely, we should be having a session about Indonesian poetry.  I think this book will make a fine addition to the mix.

Author: Jennifer Mackenzie
Title: Navigable Ink
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2020
Cover image: Hengki Koentjoro
Cover and book design: Peter Lo
ISBN: 9781925760521, pbk., 80 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available direct from Transit Lounge  from Fishpond: Navigable Ink and other good bookstores. Remember to support your local bookstore!



  1. Thank you for the review, Lisa. Such moving poetry. I’ve ordered a copy.


    • Ah, yes, with your interest in Indonesia, I think you will find it very satisfying reading…


  2. Me too. I will read and pass on to Indonesian woman who impresses me every day with her smile and love of life.


    • It’s always nice when you can pass on a book to a good home:)


  3. […] Navigable Ink (2020) by Jennifer MacKenzie (Poetry) […]


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