Master poets of the Timor area


For more than a decade, working with two of his former students, the late Dr Tom Therik and Dr Lintje Pellu, Professor Emeritus James Fox has been recording the oral poetry of the Timor area. Since 2006, Professor Fox has succeeded in bringing master poets from the islands of Rote, Semau and Timor to Bali for week-long recording sessions. This ‘Master Poets Project’ has recorded the oral compositions of some thirty-two poets, many of whom have come more than once to continue their recitations. To date, there have been ten recording sessions on Bali.

A gathering on Bali of Rotenese master poets from different dialect areas on the island of Roti  

Most of the recorded recitations are in a distinctive form of poetic language, known as parallelism, which requires the strict pairing of all words and phrases. The Rotenese recitations include long origin narratives that tell of epic encounters of the Sun and Moon with the Lords of the Sea who provide the world with its riches. They also include funeral laments that are deeply allegorical and often expressed in botanic metaphors to describe human life.

Hendrik Foeh

The poet Hendrik Foeh from the domain of Oenale at the western end of Rote joined recording sessions in 2009 and again in 2017. He is a quiet, thoughtful individual whose poetry is so full of metaphoric allusions that it has a mystic quality. Here are excerpts from his lament at the death of an elder.

A Funeral Lament in Botanic Idiom

A storm rises in the ocean
A cyclone strikes in the sea
Choosing the forest’s roots
Selecting the wood’s trunks.
Tearing out the wood’s trunks
And pulling out the forest’s roots…
A wood of numerous progeny
The forest of many fruits.
Forest hens, the forest’s children
The wood’s cockoo, the wood’s fruit…
The red snake of the forest
Fruit of the forest
The green snake of the wood
Progeny of the wood…
The wood lifts its trunks
And the forest lifts its roots.
It does not tremble
And it does not waver
It suffers grievously
And endures painfully
Its progeny are many
And its fruits are numerous.

Piet Tahu Nahak

Piet Tahu Nahak is the Makoan, the principal spokesman of the Tetun- speaking domain of Wehali in central west Timor. He has joined the group on two occasions: in 2013 and again in 2017. He has set out to recount and record the ritual traditions of Wehali beginning with the creation of the earth from a great banyan tree:

From the Ria Lian of Wehali

The Bright One provided a fine banyan tree
Its shade sheltered the chest of the house
Its shade sheltered the ribs of the house.
Four side branches grew into each other
Sei Bere Lelo Babesi was a fine banyan tree.
One half was the female place
One half was the male place
The female and male places were in shade.
Then an umbilical cord grew through the banyan:
Land as small as a chicken’s eye
Land as tiny as an areca nut came into existence…

Two books have so far come from this project. Both are available free-for-download from the ANU Press:  

The ‘Master Poets Project’ continues: the next recording session on Bali is now being planned.The next recording session, it is hoped, will include poets from Atoni Pah Meto population of Timor along with poets from Rote and Wehali.

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