“Considering My Silence: On Not Writing in the Jungles of Papua, Indonesia” by Erik Campbell

Erik Campbell


“Between thought and expression there lies a lifetime.”
       —Lou Reed

In the jungle you have only bound horizons.

For a time it seemed that the jungle had swallowed me Jonah-like and whole. I existed somewhere between private expectation and unheralded oblivion—out of context, overawed, and incapacitated in this antipodal, green world.

Certainties here are in short supply; every thought and impression is predicated by culture and expectation. Every conclusion is couched in an escape plan; every reality and morality is relative.

The intention was to write here. To try my hand at being Paul Bowles, Henry David Thoreau, or Han Shan.

Romanticism has always been my wooden leg.

In undergraduate school in America, where I started taking poetry writing and reading seriously, most of the writers I knew spent most of their time not writing. Instead they perfected their drinking and pot smoking; they fell in and out of violent, Henry Miller-esque affairs; they wore earth tones; they entertained pseudo-Marxist ideologies because they had no money (too lyrical and Coleridgeian to get jobs); they waxed ecstatically about writing, but did little. I tried not to be one of them with variable success.

I am still trying.

It is difficult to want to be a writer, particularly for us hopeful poets. One of the most debilitating stumbling blocks is that, for the most part, the moniker of “poet” is always pending. Put another way, one receives their CPA and is an accountant; there is no question of conditional self-image involved. Even a lousy accountant is still an accountant so long as he or she passes the requisite tests. A poet, on the other hand, only truly feels like one when recognized as such by “another” (ideally, a reputable publisher). Self-proclaimed poets, like self-proclaimed philosophers, are embarrassing and usually incorrect; this, to my mind, is the reason why poets, long suffering from “Tantalusitis,” form “schools” and cliques from the Lost to the Beat Generation. They require mirrors that flatter on every proverbial wall, without which their poetic identities are dangerously evanescent and they risk becoming slackers, dreamers, or perhaps accountants.*

Poets espouse what society deems “a hobby” as self-definition; this is tricky business. Introduce yourself as a poet at the next party you attend. Watch the people ripple away from you like so many metaphors. Those people still near you are only waiting for a punch line. Don’t be fooled.

And don’t blame them.

It was easy to have a poetic identity at university; everyone, it seems to me now, was troping and scheming about writing poems and stories.

For myself, university was a four-year intellectual summer camp that now resembles Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, it was a place where “promise” alone could sustain you, inky cloaks were encouraged, and solipsism was consistently mistaken for complexity.

Ultimately you leave university and reality descends, blinding you with paradigmatic incongruity. You come to realize that most of your thoughts—hell, most of your emotions—have been heretofore plagiarized, and that the world doesn’t give a farthing about your “potential” and deems sitting up all night in a smoky room debating aesthetics untenable at best. You have descended the mountain, but you are still Hans Castorp, waiting in vain to cough up conspicuous blood. To echo Charles Baxter: You are an object of contempt or therapy.

Or it happens that once reality cascades all of your answers need more questions. The good ideas come too late. You still want to write, but no longer have time; you have lost your symbiotic fellaheen; your wife doesn’t want to discuss Proust; you get a job and try to pay for things; you write down ideas that you will never have time to pursue without a government grant or serving jail time. Your romantic bravado, your eyes full of angels, your dreams of The Paris Review ever knowing your name—it’s all fading. Everything is becoming an alternative that does not rhyme. You wonder if it’s America’s fault. You move to the jungle.

Just above my desk I have a photograph of Yeats’ tower that a former teaching colleague gave me, its corners now curled with damp. I look at the photograph more often than is healthy and think of all the good work he accomplished there, laboring for hours over one word.


Here I am, now living in the jungles of Papua, surrounded and isolated by the sublime and the beautiful. My “neighborhood” consists of wilderness that Thoreau would die for. From my balcony I watch Birds of Paradise and hornbills fly by. I live in one of the most impenetrable, astounding environments in the world (a “tower of green”, so to say). I am as free as a Romantic poet with an affluent patron. I have time. I should have a book written by now.

Yet I’ve spent the first seven months here artistically incapable. Proof of my failures comprise a folder I labeled “Aborted Ideas,” a sad time capsule consisting of dozens of ideas that didn’t run: various poem ideas and lines too numerous to list; the first-third of an Edgar Alan Poe screenplay (amazing that no one has attempted this when the story tells itself, where nothing need be altered); a story about Sherlock Holmes being Jack the Ripper (an idea which I think I stole from somewhere but that has amazing possibilities, Holmes being a confirmed bachelor and misogynist [perhaps seeing all woman he slaughters as embodiments of Irene Adler, the only woman to ever “best” him], a drug user [a means of coping with and committing his crimes], and an expert in Scotland Yard’s “sophomoric, pedestrian” methods [thus ensuring his safety from detection]. In my notes Holmes ends up “pursuing himself in various ways. The narrative vehicle is, of course, Watson, who suspects Holmes all the while, but is hugely conflicted in that silly, Victorian fashion); a story about the New Critic married to the Literary Biographer (their son, consequently, becomes an Existentialist and tries to repeatedly “will himself dead”); Hamlet Action Figures (just think about it a moment, it’s hilarious); a Vonnegut-like story about a man who travels back in time somehow to the late 19th century and, since he’s an English teacher with no marketable skills, winds up on the street. So, in a final, desperate attempt to make a living he tries to remember all of the great novels he has read from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and proceeds to (re)write them from memory. Of course, his memory “edits” and fickly forms this intellectual larceny, allowing him to develop his own distinctive and indeed original voice. He still dies penniless, but ironically fulfilled (after all, is it plagiarism if you’re pilfering from the unborn?). He is discovered 100 years later and heralded as a literary genius, a profound visionary, and the inspiration for sundry schools of craft and criticism; a retelling of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis from the perspective of Gregor’s father, who is thoroughly pissed off that his son decided to become a difficult-to-explain allegory rather than something respectable. The setting is a bar.

Throughout my “Aborted Ideas” journal I have written on almost every page: WRITE ABOUT PAPUA. But I haven’t.

My friend, Dave (who is widely published in everything from Men’s Journal to Rolling Stone), couldn’t understand why I never wrote about life in Papua. He suspected writer’s block and suggested I call up big magazine editors and say, “Hello, my name is Erik, and I am calling you from the Stone Age!” That, he wrote me, would get your foot in the door.

Such histrionics just aren’t my style.

I am still in all likelihood too close to Papua, too prone to exoticize to pull it off. There are (someone says) so many more pressing matters to consider than my morning’s minutiae, wry observations, and poetic attempts. There are the riots in Aceh and the East Timor debacle; there is Islam in general**; there is the still-lingering proposed partitioning of Papua that resulted in riots and death; there is Bali bombing; there is the Marriott bombing; there is the slowly disappearing Papuan culture to consider in depth, their customs and history, that this island, the second largest in the world, houses .01% of the world’s population and yet represents 15% of known languages, there is president Soeharto’s 32-year reign to consider*** and the current mess that is Indonesian “democracy” under Megawati Sukarnoputri; there is the 1969 Papuan Act of Free Choice to consider (the most egregiously shameless misnomer since “The Great Leap Forward”) wherein 1,026 Papuan “representatives” out of nearly a million Papuans voted somehow unanimously to be part of Indonesia****. There is so much. Writing anything about or in light of the above seemed impossible. Somehow irresponsible. But it’s not so much about not writing about Papua, it’s about writing anything at all despite the exploding world. How to play with words in spite of these damn footnotes?

Joyce’s thoughts on the nightmare of history are incomplete. It’s the present that is often impossible to wake up from.

It has taken me nearly a year now to become my own version of Hemingway’s lost suitcase—to throw away armfuls of poems, essays, and stories that did nothing but mythologize my experience and ignore yours. It will take more time to understand Papua, much less Indonesia. I am still trying to understand America; I am still trying to understand poetry.

Lately I’ve found myself thinking of the epitaph on Charles Bukowski’s grave: Don’t Try. An ominous declarative statement, to be sure, and although I’m not precisely certain what he meant by it, I hope the message isn’t intended for us poets in the rough. Trying to give the world a meaningful shape is all we have.

I am not concerned with getting my proverbial foot in the door; I am concerned with learning to walk lightly, yet sure-footed. The truth is that Thoreau didn’t need to live on Walden Pond for those solitary, literary years; it was a mythically fecund, romantic gesture. But it wasn’t necessary.

Thoreau took Walden with him wherever he wandered. He was Walden while studying at Harvard, wandering the streets of Concord, or taking in a Boston play. Teachers neglect to tell you this.

I would quote from Eliot’s “Little Gidding” now, but that would be too much smooth certainty.

In lieu of something lyrical I leave you with this image: my putting the pen down, framing the photograph of Yeats’ tower and hanging it, albatross-style, around my neck.

Like so.

from Rattle #22, Winter 2004
Tribute to Poets Abroad


* Correspondingly, the reason why there are so few “poser” novelists is because writing a novel, even a Kerouacian, masturbatory tome, is difficult, linear, sustained work that tends to get in the way of drinking, pot smoking, and pining after impossible love. Poets can take more breaks from the particularities of their craft because their craft is too often trumped by their experience. Hence, the less a writer is seen in public, the better; such solitude denotes that he or she is in a room somewhere trying, and is presumably sober.

**In this increasingly bisected world, it seems that Samuel Huntington’s “cultural war” thesis was sadly prophetic. However, my experience living in the most populous Muslim country in the world is that the vast majority of Muslims here make keen distinctions between America and its government. They understand that when Bush uses terms such as “crusade” he isn’t aware that the term is in any way allusive.

***According to Reuters (9/03/03), out of a sample of 1,976 Indonesians, 56.4% preferred life under Soeharto whereas 25.9% voted for life under the current president, Megawati. Noam Chomsky, in his book Understanding Power, estimates that Soeharto was responsible for the death of 500,000 Indonesians during his reign.

****According to the Times Literary Supplement (9/19/03) 100,000 Papuans have been killed by their “Indonesian masters” over nearly 40 years of violent repression.

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