Quenching the Thirst for Religious Meaning in Denny JA’s Poetry
by Dr. Phaosan Jehwae (Instructor, Fathoni University, Thailand)
Denny JA’s poems are not ordinary works of poetry, nor are they poems that can be understood after one reading; this holds true even more so for common readers among the general public. It is likely difficult for them to comprehend the implied meanings that can be inferred in reading these poems. However, this does not mean that Denny’s poems are unfathomable.
Thus, anyone who wants to appreciate works of literature, especially poetry, needs to realize and agree beforehand that a poem represents a work of art (literary art). A work of art always springs from the imagination of the poet, who engages in a process of contemplation toward events that have occurred within a society or a spiritual experience that the poet has personally undergone. At the same time, poems are also works of art that employ esthetic language as a medium for conveying the poet’s ideas to his readers.
It is important to affirm that a poem represents a literary work that is imaginative and is dispensed into the esthetic medium of language; however, it is not free of noble values and messages which are conveyed to the reader. Esthetic language is an instrument that the poet uses to communicate messages through poetry. This esthetic language can appear in the form of symbols, logos, and figurative language, such as metaphor, allegory, and similes. Thus, poetry is appealing, meaningful, and lively. This is certainly true for the assorted poems written by Denny JA.
Through esthetic language, various connotations and messages can be inferred, like those that serve as the ideas that the writer wishes to convey through his poem. Unfortunately, however, not every reader is able to discern the beauty and meaning of the language in a poem. This is often precisely what Bisri (2014)  contends, i.e. that the best poetry is the most difficult to comprehend. If you are included among the majority of people in this regard, you shouldn’t expect to understand poetry. Poetry that is simple to understand, like the experience of reading a newspaper article or listening to a speech, should not be considered true poetry. These are the opinions, idle chatter, and complaints that we often hear. However, it may be that these viewpoints, chatter, and complaints are extraneous to the issue. Who knows, this may just be the reality of high-quality poetry. Hence, poetry that is difficult to understand is truly more enjoyable and appealing for the purpose of meditating on various interpretations that a first-rate poem affords the intelligent reader.
Reading Denny JA’s poetry can be an unfortunate experience if the messages and values that can be inferred within the body of each poem are neglected by the reader. This holds true even more so for poetry in the form of essay poems, which are communicated in the form of a story. Therefore, in order to comprehend the meaning and appreciate the general concepts within Denny JA’s poems, it is advisable to read the following analysis or examination of his ideas beforehand:
Life should be similar to meeting and departing, in defining what is apparent and what is real. This is the main idea that Denny JA pours into his poem, A Plenary Session on Religion: What is Apparent and what is Real. For many centuries, religion has been an inspiration to the lives of millions of people. Indeed, religion has become a way of life that can guide people to understand every aspect of life. In discussing religion, what is clearly apparent cannot be separated from what is real, and Islam is not an exception in this matter.
Reality represents truth or something that is authentic. In Islam, man needs to recognize the reality within himself so that his intellect, which he uses to control nature and the universe, can be directed by faith. On the other hand, man also needs to comprehend the scriptural verses pertaining to Allah to be able to bring meaning and purpose to his life by obeying His commandments. Finding meaning in life is accomplished both through what is apparent and what is real. These two concepts must accompany and balance each other.
In Denny JA’s poem, Ahmad, the protagonist who is portrayed as a policeman (who serves as an enforcer of religion), is confronted by questions of life: Should he defend the truth and help the weak in the name of religion, which represents his life principles? Through the character of Ahmad, Denny JA is conveying that not all human behavior corresponds to the essence of religion even though mankind strives to behave properly in the name of religion. This issue is expressed in the following excerpt from the poem: Have mercy, Oh God. Bestow mercy, Divine One. // A young maiden was nearly beaten to death // Ani had just been protecting her merchandise // Ahmad had acted in the name of religion // Ani was lying in a pool of blood // Among some broken bottles of liquor // “Oh, God, it was not my intention to kill” //Ahmad was trembling, soaked with sweat // Yes, yes, yes… Ahmad was his name; for three years, he had been a policeman who enforced religious tenets //. In this excerpt, fervent religious fundamentalism is evident.
Emerging from this subject, Denny JA tries to articulate fundamentalism within religion. Religious fundamentalism has two compelling but problematic features that lie across from each other, ideology and politics.  Religion can always be found midway between these two poles. People do not really understand this matter, in that fundamentalism in a haphazard manner is considered to be an integral part of the substance of religion. So too with Islamic fundamentalism, political poles of attraction and fanatic dogmatism have already developed ideological constructs in people’s minds. This is what compels some people to act indiscriminately, temporarily disregarding the true values of religion.
Power and forgetfulness represent two influential entities that appear in discussion of human nature. Struggling to reveal the truth through an amalgamation of religion and authority will always cling to one of these two forces. In this regard, it is appropriate that Islam be uprooted from the foundations of its doctrines to the point that it becomes unclear and bereft of meaning. This notion is also conveyed by Denny JA via the following poetic excerpt: In his youth, he had not yet indulged his senses in the colors of the world // It was as though he had been wearing horse blinders // Harshness and rigidity were applied as standard practice // “There was only one word: Oppose // Against the violators of God’s laws // Through the application of one’s tongue or violence // “The world must be saved!” // In this manner Ahmed led a division // He wanted to normalize the inhabitants of the country // Several times he had to deal with the police // Faith had made him fearless of death //. This is one form of merging religion and power. As a result, man acts indiscriminately, neglecting social norms of behavior.
In observing this situation, religion does not really need to be dragged into political conflicts. Islam is sufficiently understood to be limited to religious concepts and issues of faith. The same can be said for power, which adequately encompasses political actions and the objective of wielding authority and control. However, this hypothetical situation is diametrically opposed to reality. This happens because man is a creature whose behavior contradicts his own best interests. In the midst of his awareness which is exerted by applying common sense and righteous religious faith, man is not entirely mindful of religious exaltation (Fouda, Faraq, 2007) .
The glory of human faith frequently appears when witnessing upsetting behavior. Human instinct emerges when people become aware of unexpected events. This motif is also evident in the poem A Plenary Session on Religion: What is Apparent and what is Real. However, Ani had almost died // Causing great agitation to Ahmad who possessed a heart //It was as though he had seen his own mother // He felt that he had already surpassed his limits // For the past three days Ahmad had secluded himself // He had pleaded for divine forgiveness // “Have mercy on me, Allah…” // “Please forgive me…” // “Please grant me enlightenment before my mind deteriorates” // “The remorse within my soul is echoing” // “My room is full of tears” //. In this excerpt, Denny JA capably knocks on the door of man’s sense of compassion, even though people frequently behave in a manner that transgresses against social norms.
What Goenawan Muhammad calls “faith as a beacon” represents religion that resides within faith. Thus, faith that is inspired by truth will always need to be corrected because truth itself is always fractured; it experiences tremors. Like a torch which distinguishes reality from a less radiant source of light, in this manner, too, is the faith of religion. People always exist within an environment that continuously demands truth for the purpose of summoning goodness and respecting differences. It is not impossible to shift or reposition faith so that it touches matters of conscience. This is where the conflict between faith and conscience emerges.
A person’s convictions are continuously tested through many of life’s tribulations. In this modern era, mankind can easily lose balance in the absence of strong convictions. Moreover, modernization also generates tension between religion and authority. The conflict between these two entities is more directed against religious symbols that have become instruments that accumulate power. This perspective is presented in the following excerpt from the poem: What made Ahmad so astounded and stunned // Was that the shop was trading in religion // They were competing… They were highlighting their advantages // In one store was a sign: Please line up in a disciplined manner; this is the newest religion” // We guarantee you won’t find anything newer // The price is negotiable // In this night market // The price of religion is declining // Ahmad was quite bewildered // Is this what was happening nowadays? //.
A concept of religion that tends to effect security and tranquility truly abandons the values and wisdom of religious teachings. This reality clashes with Professor John Caputo’s assertion that any religion would be enhanced by specifically “not” proclaiming itself as the only valid religion at the expense of all others, as though some religions exist within the context of relinquishing one another for the sake of religious truth; they must discard the concept of being the pre-eminent truthful religion . In the real world, religion does not concern politics and power. Thus, the spheres of religion, politics, and power are already divided among themselves. Each of these three entities has its own nature in the real world.
The nature of mankind is to realize the truth that only the human species is capable of being religious. In leading our lives, the essence of religion and what is apparent in our daily lives need to be balanced. Everything will appear futile if man does everything for its future benefit (which is apparent) without paying sufficient attention to his true nature. This issue is evident in the following excerpt:
//”Is this pious teacher a symbol of the prophets?” // “From the garments and pottery which he brought “ // “This pious teacher has come from a different century // He has brought water to give to every person // One teacher has brought red water // In a copper vessel // A different teacher has brought blue water // In a terracotta vessel “ // But what happened in a subsequent century? // The people in that land fought with each other // “Life-sustaining water was brought in terracotta vessels” // “You are all wrong! The vessels that contained that special water were made of copper” // “No, you’re all wrong! The truth is that the vessels were gold-plated” // Ahmad winced // They are only fighting over what is superficial // Not about what is essential //. Denny JA’s poetry implies that substance is often overlooked by people because they tend to appreciate specifically external aspects.
Denny JA’s poem Terkejut Oleh Riset (Astounded by Research: Happiness and Religion)is generally and truly written in a soft voice concerning human and world affairs, in which the mundane world offers substantial inspiration: regarding happiness and religion, praise for God, and the nature of happiness, which are signified in the poem via the perspective of empirical science. If we refer to the writings of Sheikh Aidh al-Qarni, one sign of happiness of a servant is concealing secrets from him and planning the path of his life . The connection to the issue of happiness is that anyone can spread grief, and consequently, people will generally experience feelings of regret.
Happiness and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. They always accompany each other, but only one of them will be evident at any time. In connection to this topic in Denny JA’s poetry, the author stipulates that happiness, peace, and serenity are invariably derived from religion and science. This is because both religion and the empirical sciences are able to penetrate what is obscure, find what was lost, and reveal what is concealed. In addition, instinct and the human spirit always endeavor to discover new ideas and express something interesting.
Religion, the empirical sciences, and happiness frequently accompany each other. An explanation for this has generated an Arab proverb which is familiar to the ear of many Indonesians. Indeed, in the following excerpt from this poem, Denny JA expresses the co-existence of the three sciences of religion, knowledge, and happiness. // Pursue science all the way to China // This is a religious commandment // Be appreciative if this makes you happy as it is also a religious edict” // This was often recited by heart by Ustaz Jaka // Both inside and outside the prayer room //. Religion provides shelter for scientific inquiry and also increases happiness. These three interwoven concepts possess a great influence on each individual.
The connections that tie religion, the empirical sciences, and happiness together represent a complex reality. They form a complicated network that rests on two divergent aspects of reality, namely the abstract/ ideological and the concrete/ operational. These three elements are interdependent to the extent that analysis that considers the relationship among religion, the physical sciences, and happiness must (one way or another) rely on the relationships among these aspects. Any related study that neglects one of these aspects would only produce lopsided conclusions. This notion was also elaborated by Dr. Suryo Ediyono who contends that a simple resolution regarding a certain relationship of this complex reality does not exist .
In Denny JA’s poem, Astounded by Research (Happiness and Religion), he conveys the idea that man’s intellectual capacity cannot grasp the benchmark for happiness. Is this benchmark related to the religious faith that individual people adopt to secure happiness, or could it be that happiness can be felt even by individuals who have never espoused religious beliefs? This issue is presented within the following excerpt from this poem: //Again and again he read it // The conclusions of the research concerning happiness // Of the nations of the world // He made a connection with religion // He brought the news article with him to the college campus // The place where his close friend worked // He asked Professor Daus: “Try to read this; could it be that these are the happiest countries in the world?” // “Countries that lack religious belief…?” //. This excerpt indicates that happiness does not have a precise benchmark. Happiness cannot be correlated with any specific aspect.
This borrows from Socrates’ maxim that true happiness is not located in possessing an abundance of external goods, such as material luxury, political power, or good health. True happiness resides in a lack of dependency on anything that is random and variable. Because the benefits of happiness are like this, any person can obtain it . This is what Denny JA is also saying in his essay poem: // “Switzerland is the happiest country” // “Followed by Iceland, Denmark, and Canada” // What is being measured is not merely financial success // Honesty is also being measured // Justice and freedom are also assessed // So then, what is your problem, Jaka? //. Happiness cannot be measured by external evidence only.
According to his conceptualization, Denny JA asserts that man is a creature that seeks truth. The truth often collides with reality. In this regard, both religion and scientific inquiry play an important role in analyzing truth. Methods of scientific inquiry are used to comprehend concrete systems that have structures and rules regarding certain matters. On the other hand, religion in this context is signified as a system of human beliefs and convictions. Religion and the empirical sciences have a similar vision, namely pursuing the truth. Religion and its characteristics provides answers to basic questions, including those concerning happiness, that people often ask.
Occasionally, reality and happiness are out of step with each other. People cannot appraise the value of things only from an external impression. This matter makes speaking about happiness difficult to analyze. In the following excerpt, Denny JA conveys this difficulty: // “Yes, Jaka; it’s a fact” // “You can’t expect an apple to become a date.” // “Don’t perceive a ball to be a coconut.” // “Accept reality, whatever it is.” // “In Switzerland all the way to Canada.” // “The public is abandoning religion” // “But the inhabitants of these countries are happier.” // “What can be said?” //. Idealism according to one’s way of thinking often does not correspond to reality. However, accepting a certain aspect of reality can promote happiness.
It is difficult to find the endpoint of matters that concern religion and happiness. Denny JA uses an interesting analogy regarding happiness and religion, as follows: // For many hours, he paced back and forth // squatting and stooping like a fool // His neighbors came to visit him // “Hi, Nazaruddin, what are looking for?” // “I’m searching for the key to my room” // “And you still haven’t found it?” // The neighbor asked again: “Where did you lose your key?” // Nazaruddin said, “I lost it somewhere over there.” // “But it is pitch black where I lost it.” // “Thus it is better for me to search here.” // “There’s light, and it would be easy to see it.” // “Ha ha ha ha ha ha…” // The Professor and Jaka burst into laughter. // The story of Nazaruddin and his misplaced logic // The key disappeared somewhere // But he looked for it somewhere else //. The meaning that can be deduced from this analogy is that it’s possible that happiness can enter someone’s life if he looks for it in the wrong place.
If religion is not able to make people happy, this is an inaccurate perception. What is wrong is not religion but rather how people fulfill religious precepts. A middling understanding of religion creates a negative perception within people. This is the reason that recommendations to comprehend religion with great dedication should be followed so that man can attain true happiness. Thus, Denny JA concludes his essay poem in this spirit: // Jaka said, “Please wait… This is exactly what I have trouble agreeing with…” // “Is it really true that religion…” // “Fails to make people happy?” // Jaka then quoted various verses. // With a slashed heart // How great religion is as a source of joy // Tear drops… there are not even two // The professor replied, “That’s the main idea…” // “If religion failed to make people happy…” // “Some things are amiss in this world…” // “But not specifically with religion...” // “Instead, it is with how we engage in religious practice.” //. This means that happiness depends on how mankind perceives everything that exists. On the other hand, happiness can also be acquired from a complete understanding of both religion and scientific inquiry.
Mimpi Sepeda Ontel (The Dream about a Bicycle: Daring to be Different)
Writing poetry is not a simple matter of just choosing elegant words. Composing poems is also not just about expressing ideas through typography so that they will be thought to possess esthetic value. More than that, writing poetry also records traces of history and expresses matters of reality. Because of this, social sensitivity, proficiency in processing language, and intelligence in processing thoughts are required of writers. This concept is also found in the poem, Mimpi Sepeda Ontel (The Dream about a Bicycle: Daring to be Different), a work of literature by Denny JA.
Denny JA, who is known as an intellectual entrepreneur, has achieved many breakthroughs in the literary world and in Indonesian culture. One of these innovations has been his creation of essay poems. Denny JA’s essay poems are beautifully narrated to the point of shaping a story that is packed with meaning. This is true of the poem, The Dream about a Bicycle: Daring to be Different, which contains the message, “It is preferable to live alone than to live together among a throng of people with whom you are incompatible.”
Denny JA selects Nadia as the protagonist who plays a major role in this essay poem. The restlessness of this 21-year-old woman is caused by confusion in choosing between following her intuition or supporting a religious organization which has been embraced by her. Nadia is described as a young woman who is working as the bookkeeper in a certain Islamic organization. She appears agitated because what she does often conflicts with her principles. The financial discrepancies that were carried out by the organization where she worked made Nadia feel dispirited and made her want to resign. Meanwhile, the people around her, such as her parents and boyfriend , were becoming more supportive of the religious organization where she worked.
Through the character of Nadia, Denny JA endeavors to convey that several years ago, there were many cases of human behavior that involved defamation of religion. They were shielded by religion, but they executed random acts of corruption to the point that they disregarded the true essence of religion. In the following excerpt, Denny JA describes this situation: // The houses of worship of the heretics were closed and squashed // The households of the heretics were assailed with curses // The beleaguered sect experienced both fear and misery. // In a resounding voice, they cried out the name of the one God //What about a response from the country and the police? “We are the religious police. What do you want?” // Through this fragment of poetry, it is evident that Denny JA is expressing heroism shrouded in the guise of religion.
Religion as a pathway to holiness is oriented to a mechanism that lies between nonexistence and complete faith. Religiosity and spirituality may differ but are correlative. Religiosity itself is defined as what refers to participation in rituals based on belief in conjunction with experiences encountered by a religious community. On the other hand, spirituality contains a more extensive meaning. Spirituality refers to a personal perspective regarding the meaning of life and its connection to transcendental aspects of efforts in reaching one’s objectives. There is confusion between the definitions of these two terms, which occasionally causes differences in perception.
Negative political phenomena have captured the attention of the public; one of these involved a case of violence tinged by religious sentiment, which occurred in Sleman (Yogyakarta) in May, 2014 . The attack, directed against the Catholic community who were in the middle of a prayer service (which ended tragically), was executed by a group of Muslim radicals wearing long robes. This incident, whose motives were unclear, caused extensive damage and loss. A young child became the victim of torture carried out by a group that declared itself a civil organization. This event represents practical evidence that savagery is conducted in the name of God.
Religion is a very sensitive subject. Thus, Denny JA records the role religion plays in public life within his poems. Nadia, a figure who serves as a protagonist in the poem, The Dream about a Bicycle: Daring to be Different, is depicted as having experienced some turbulence in her life. Here is an excerpt from the poem: // Nadia had been meditating daily for a long time // This always brought her attention back to her heart // Sometimes she was carried away in dreams // Her heart beat sharply as if it was consumed by flames // “Enough already,” Nadia convinced herself that “My heart is no longer there” // But leaving the organization // Turned out to be a more difficult task than she had anticipated // Oh, it is so unfortunate… My father, my devout teacher, and my boyfriend have become obstructionists…” //. Nadia experiences an uncomfortable feeling that encourages her to rebel.
When one’s conscience and thought s are diametrically opposed… This is the description that is most suitable for describing Nadia’s situation in Denny JA’s poem. The activities that were pursued in the organization she worked for were often done in the name of God. Defending religion arbitrarily with deceitful behavior snatches away civil rights, and this is often done by certain religious organizations. This is the basic rationale that compels Nadia to leave and be free of the organization. Based on the Broad Guidelines of State Policy (GBHN), the organization’s mission contravenes the functions and responsibilities of religion . The function and duties of religion are to lay a sturdy moral, ethical, and spiritual foundation for the life of the people, nation, and country.
When the role of religion clashes with religious principles, this causes anxiety for the public. In Denny JA’s poem, Nadia represents a character who is troubled by fraudulent behavior that deviates from religion. If we link this to the reality of daily life, there are times when certain religious parties damage the general public’s view of a certain religion. An example that hints at this would be the violence that took place in Ambon and Poso. Other examples are the bombing of night clubs in Bali in 2002 and the bomb which shook a traditional pork market in Palu in 2005. How is it possible for events that sacrifice human life to be reconciled with pretexts that appeal to conscience on the basis of religion?
Religion is closely related to faith and moral character. This notion is also evident in this short excerpt from Denny JA’s poem: // Because Nadia wanted to focus first on college, she greatly desired to acquire a strong grasp of science // “Don’t do that, Nadia,” her father said harshly // “This organization is dedicated to faith” // “Science is actually quite important” // “But charitable acts are even more significant” // “What authority does science have without charity? This organization is charity” // It was Father who invited you to go there, but now Father needs to supervise you” //. Joining them is a form of charitable activity in religion. This is also the conceptualization of a certain group that invokes religion as the basis for every aspect of life. On the other hand, deciding to leave the organization is not an easy task. The people who are closest to Nadia frequently impede her efforts to leave.
In his poems, Denny JA explains in great detail the power of prayer through the challenges that Nadia experiences. Nadia becomes closer to God through submission and praying to request guidance for finding a way to leave the organization. Through the efforts that Nadia makes, the poet Denny JA articulates ideas regarding divine assistance that people acquire through their dreams. This concept is presented in the following excerpt: // In a dark and mystical night // Nadia offered up a prayer for her grandmother who had been her close companion // She cries incessantly // She imagines that her grandmother comes to her heart // That night // And the following night // Each night she sends the same prayer to her grandmother //”Oh, God, please give me a sign. Open my heart to have an eye to see with” // Nadia was drowning in her tears (air mata) // She hoped the spring (mata air) would open // At that moment, a bicycle appeared // “Yes, Grandmother, a bicycle, just the three of us” // “The dream was so symbolic (simbolik) // I hope it came from the Creator (Sang Khalik)” //.
The essay poem, The Dream about a Bicycle: Daring to be Different, discusses divine assistance that is granted on one condition. The pathway for leaving the organization is conditional in a manner that relates to the bicycle in Nadia’s dream. // In the village, they took turns riding one behind the other. They pedaled the old fragile bicycle. // The villagers saw them. They kept scolding and reprimanding the couple. // In the next village, they just walked the bicycle // Grandmother strolled on the left-hand side // Nadia walked on the right-hand side // The villagers who saw them walking by also scolded and reprimanded them // “Why is each way wrong, both Grandmother and Nadia asked?” //. Nadia’s dream indicates that every path that man chooses entails risks, even more so regarding religion and truth. We should remind ourselves that there is no genuine truth in this world. The truth depends on the distinct perspectives that different people have.
Departing from that issue, Nadia views Islam not as a religion that is synonymous with violence. This belief manages to influence her perception to the point that Nadia is able to make a decision. // That very morning Nadia motivated herself to write a letter // To resign fully and completely //From the hard line religious organization //However, her recollection of the three bold men was still intensely lodged in her heart // She had just composed the first line // Her hand stopped writing // “Am I brave enough to be different? Among shades of the color green // Am I brave enough to be orange? In the midst of a jasmine garden // Am I brave enough to become a rose?” //. This excerpt implies that becoming your own self is preferable to living within a crowd of misguided people.
In brief, within his essay poems, Denny JA expresses the idea that religion is suffering from credibility issues that are very difficult to change. No organized religion teaches its people to engage in violence. Organizations do not intend to shape religions to overlap each other. If this matter resides in our midst, do not fear being different.