Sitor Situmorang

Sitor Situmorang is an award-winning poet, essayist and writer of short stories from Indonesia. Born in 1924 and active as a journalist in Medan, Jakarta, and Yogyakarta in the days of the Revolution, Sitor belonges to the So-called Angkatan ‘45, the “Generation of ‘45,” a term that has been coined to refer to the loose group of anxious artists who came of age during the Japanese occupation and the Revolution and shared a certain attitude towards life. They were iconoclastic, vibrant thinkers, uprooted from their place of birth, open to the world, obsessed with the idea that everything should be different. However, it was difficult to find one intellectual leader who could give voice to this generation and forge a cohesive agenda. Sitor Situmorang had arrived in Jakarta from faraway Medan in 1946 as a young and restless journalist, looking for a footing in this world in motion; it should not come as a surprise that he, too, was inflamed by revolutionary fervor. Feeling close to those vociferous intellectuals and artists who had stormed the stage, he managed to become acquainted with some of them – and before long he was accepted into their circle.


Once the world had recognized Indonesia as an independent nation in 1949 and the turbulence abated, these men of letters were forced to redefine their revolutionary anxiety and reflect upon the role they were supposed to play in the new Republic of Indonesia. Before long their excitement faded, their elation evaporated. There is irony in the fact that critics canonized the term “Generation of ‘45” to refer to almost everyone who had produced literary work during the Revolution and shortly thereafter while this loose configuration of Jakarta friends and sympathizers was quickly dissolving. In retrospect, it could be said that as early as 1950 the stage was being set for the heated polemics that were to dominate cultural life in Jakarta in the early sixties, leading to the showdown in 1965 that landed Sitor Situmorang in prison, “the longest address of my life, the longest place I have ever lived without a break.” In his essays Sitor returned to the same point again and again: a truly Indonesian identity would be a long time in the making, and the intellectual discipline of his generation was still too weak to give it shape. Members of his generation did not fully realize that the experiences of the Revolution would soon fade as a source of inspiration and that other issues should be probed for the national cause.


From the start, Sitor Situmorang found himself somewhere in between the two extremes that were represented in concrete literary work as well as in criticism. On the one hand, he did not agree with the idea that art could be appreciated solely on its own merits. Art should reach out for readers and make them aware of the world around them; it should give rise to discussions about life in Indonesian society as a whole, and not only about its artistic qualities. On the other hand, Sitor couldn’t relate to the communist analysis of society and the idea of a “People’s culture” either. It all was too strict, too grim, too totalitarian. He believed that creative activity should explore the possibilities of finding a “national culture,” which might serve as a meeting place for all Indonesians. 


With the publication of Green Paper Letters, Sitor established himself as a prominent poet, respected and admired.  In an essay he wrote some thirty years later he would state that the poems of this collection expressed a single theme only: “love and wanderlust being two aspects of one and the same experience.” 


At that time, Sitor was a prominent member of the Institute of National Culture (Lembaga Kebudayaan Nasional/LKN); he supported the idea of providing the Indonesian Nationalist Party (Partai Nasional Indonesia/PNI) with a cultural agenda that could compete with the PKI’s efforts to implement the communist or radical nationalist ideas of culture encouraged by Lekra. That agenda could also compete with the efforts of Muslim parties to formulate an Islamic concept of culture through organizations like the Indonesian Muslim Cultural Association (Lembaga Seni Budayawan Muslimin Indonesia/Lesbumi).


Sitor and the LKN did not hesitate to take sides with Soekarno. As the self-proclaimed helmsman of the unfinished Revolution, the president tried to stand above all conflict and dialectic in order to preserve some form of harmony and prevent Indonesia from disintegrating. The conflicts in the cultural field – even when looking back, personal and ideological confrontations are hard to disentangle – found their climax in the polemics around the “Cultural Manifesto (Manifes Kebudayaan),” published in August 1963 by a number of leading intellectuals who made an appeal for the defense of creative freedom and held up Chairil Anwar as their exemplary hero.


When nine months later the Cultural Manifesto was banned as being anti-revolutionary in intent, both Lekra and the LKN applauded the decision, loudly and triumphantly. In 1965 all possible polemics were brought to a violent end: the military seized power, pushed Soekarno aside, and did not stop the large-scale killings of people accused of being communists. Many of the prominent members of Lekra were imprisoned and their publications banned, communism being declared anathema to the Indonesian state ideology. Sitor found himself in jail in 1967. His poetry was silenced.   


Sitor Situmorang was released in 1976, without ever having faced trial. Not surprisingly, he kept a low profile in the following years. New collections of poetry were published. On his return to the scene, his search tor roots and origins intensified. His work was discussed, reviewed and studied. The large selection of his poems that appeared in 1989 under the title Flowers on Stone: The Prodigal Son (Bunga di atas Batu: si Anak Hilang) can only be seen as a definite monument to his poetic persona.


Most of the work is of such a personal character that it tempting to fuse Sitor the man with Sitor the poet. Time and again we are told of the poet’s journeys, love affairs, longings, and reminiscences. This occurs in such a repetitive and obsessive manner that we are tempted to think we know much of his personal life, a temptation that does not always make it easy to ignore the poet’s personal biography. One can decide, too, to make the verbal leap and undertake a poetic reading that goes beyond the personal, beyond the referential.


The main characteristic of Sitor’s poetry is the simplicity of its wording, the clarity of its syntax. The tales and descriptions bear a deceptive transparency: they suggest a coherence and control that is only confirmed in the regular rhymes and rhythms – but once readers set themselves to a serious interpretation that transparency fades. The very lucidity leaves many open places that are not filled by making connections with other poems. Sitor’s poetry is a poetry of words, evoking concepts, calling up series of pictures and images that never come full circle. 


(The poems below as well as the introduction is excerpt from a longer version by Henk M.J. Maier first published in English in the book To Love, To Wander by the Lontar Foundation in 1996.) 



Incommunicado (Hostage)


The cell is solid black,

the locking-up proceeds

from cracks in the door electric lights

pierce the eyes.

(at the nearest mosque

the call to evening prayer

has just finished)


A civilian informant looks around

then strikes a match,

checking to see

that his prisoner is still there

(while outside civil war rages)

He lights a candle,

a stub from last night,

then suddenly asks:

“So you’re sitorsitumorang?”

I stare at the candle

let my eyes grow accustomed to the light

and the buzz of that name


like the name of that one

in Eden

when God was looking,

and calling out: Adam! Adam!


Outside is civil war

History counts victims and dreams.

Between the informant and myself

is but the candle light

and a yawning gap

between God

and the first man.

From Peta Perjalanan (Travel Map) 1977

The Capital’s Full Moon


Moonlight shines on the bars and floor

of the isolation cell, a prison within a prison,

the cage of my own heart, battened down by longing.


What year is it now? The 7th, the 9th?


Outside the barbed wire fences

I imagine a million neon lights

and a prison outside the prison


the heart of a lover who has waited too long

(she who has forgotten)

Now I am sure –

this is the 8th year.


From Peta Perjalanan (Travel Map) 1977 




Forty detainees step down from two trucks

in ordered fashion

before the prison door.

The massive gateway gapes.


All goes smoothly, according to command

(the roar of the trucks now leaving

overpower the sound of the rows counting off)


The commander stares at the detainees, one by one,

as they walk by in twos

the eternal formation of the vanquished.


I am one of them

stepping over the threshold of my own heart

through the gateway between past and present


The single moment of existence

Man imprisoning man.


From Peta Perjalanan (Travel Map) 1977


Poem off the Top of my Head

for Margit


I make a silent note

(reading and writing

is forbidden here)

Between hope and anxiety

I reach for the future

with a mantra of love.


At the end of a long and darkened tunnel,

beyond the wire and walls,

I stand

but not in a dream.


The door opens to the world

(The clanking of keys and chains

is but an echo at my back)

and you are there, as always –

albeit mute.


Do you always think of me?

Just as I have never forgotten you?

Not a single word escapes your mouth

Not a single tear falls from your eyes.


Around me silence resounds

My mantra is blunted

on the prison’s gray concrete walls.


From Peta Perjalanan (Travel Map) 1977


Dream in a Dream, 1


Last night I dreamt I was on a train

– it was wintertime –  

heading towards Paris

through falling snow 


I dreamt of being released, 

of leaving the Jakarta prison 

after nine years of confinement 

as detainee No. 5051 


thinking of this now 

it seems to have been a different man, 

one who happened to share the same name as mine 

in a space called time 


and time, another name for memory, 

took the shape of Jakarta, a prison cell 

the longest address in my life 

the longest place I have ever lived without break 


on my own as No. 5051 

until the moment I stepped forward, 

my back to the gateway, 

hesitant to proceed to a free world 


when suddenly there came the loud scream: 

Detainee 5-0-5-1! Report immediately to the guard post! 

So shaken, I was bathed in cold sweat


trembling on a worn mat 

in a 2 x 3 meter cell 

I awoke in my seat on a train 

still drowsy as I looked at the scene outside the glass


a foreign world blanketed in white 

a layer of falling snow, snow falling 

stifling a scream tearing open 

the Paris sky, one bright morning... 


I awoke 

in my cell 

to hear an early morning rain 

falling on the tiles of the prison roof 


as is usual in December.


Bunga di atas Batu (Flower on a Stone) 1989


Dream in a Dream, 2 


Yesterday, when seeking an address in the Salemba area 

I got lost, and suddenly saw before my eyes 

the wall of the prison where I was confined 

for quite some time, a number of years ago 


I suppose – after being free so long – 

I had always avoided that place 

but now found myself standing close by, 

almost close enough to touch 


A deep longing welled in me 

to enter, to peer inside, 

so attracted was I by something I sensed 

had been left behind, forgotten 

      in my cell. 


The guard out front ordered me away 

and I, immediately, shrunk – with the same fear 

I had felt before –

but after having given the place sufficient distance 

I turned back, as if in a dream, 

      observing the silence 


holding the prison in its stranglehold, 

fusing with the wall, 

becoming more silent than silence itself, 

exactly what I had felt when I was still inside


      And suddenly I knew that in that cell

      I did leave something behind 

      that something there was waiting – something 

      not to be expressed by words


      buried deeply, with roots entwined 

      like veins around the heart 

      holding tightly to the mold on the damp walls – 

      and calling weakly, the voice of a wounded animal... 


      and I awoke – 

      in my old cell. 


      I was dreaming, 

      as usual in December 


      listening to an early morning rain 

      and the sound of cats in heat 

      on the jail’s tiled roof.


Bunga di atas Batu (Flower on a Stone) 1989




My sister’s letter came

along with a woven grass mat, 

a parcel from the village 

that I received in jail: 


“My dearest brother, 

I hope you like the mat 

I wove myself for you, 

to keep away the cold 

of nights on that tile floor.” 


Long after I was free 

I read the letter again, 

thinking to make it into a poem, 

but did not succeed 


knowing as I now know 

it would suffice 

to write it down as is 


for nothing could be more beautiful, 

or written with greater purity 

than the embers of affection 

found in her ill-formed words


Bunga di atas Batu (Flower on a Stone) 1989


News for a Friend

      for Atun, in memory of Tines


Upon receiving your card 

asking of news from abroad 

I dreamt: 


of being imprisoned 

for another eight years, and then 

my freedom. The reporter: What is 

the very first thing that comes to your mind 

when you think about 

your release? 


Without a second thought I answer: 

to walk in a snow-covered field 

to smell the lake air 

to feel the breeze off the bay 

in the valley 

I was born. 



the very first thing 

just as I stepped 

outside the prison gate 


I turned my eyes 

to the southern sky 


in search of two blue shapes in the Priangan Range: 

Mount Gede and 

Mount Salak 

which I know each morning rise, 

without fail 

to float above 

the scrub and clouds






ready for the moment 

that I would appear 

from behind the high walls. 


Startled from my sleep 

I hear the words: 

“Man! This guy’s never going to learn his lesson. 



In Tines’ voice 

such loving reproach.