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The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The Goldfish by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul Illustrated by Emma Wright (The Emma Press)

The poems of the Indonesian poet Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul featured in The Goldfish trace a journey of self-awareness and rebirth from the limited world of a fishbowl to a freedom that was difficult to achieve. The narratives are surreal and thought-provoking and challenge stereotypes concerning femininity in an often-fragmented discourse. Ayuning Maharsi Degoul’s explorations play with the ‘inhuman’ qualities of the fish but also evoke the realistic condition of a woman being constricted because of her limited environment. Her anger and disillusionment are expressed in continuous provocations that envisage sheer rebellion and suggest alternatives:

Stars are starving

Cats are getting mad

My mouth

                   wide open

O what I – 

I need to be a newborn


                                                    delivered by a long river

O what I – 



                       to give birth to the newest me            every day

Ovulating my apperception.                   (‘The Goldfish’)

         ‘O revolt!’ is announced in the poem ‘Rebellion Red’; she refuses ‘to be a clown anymore’ and wishes to change her perspective. It seems to be a problem that concerns surviving a reality that entails trapping her, and it needs to be transformed. Stereotypes about women, such as the idea that they should ‘be joyful […] be accepting’ are questioned in a new view of displacement where the self finds her home ‘everywhere’, a vagabond by choice in a voyage between earth and sea (voyage entre terre et mer) that echoes Jules Verne’s novels such as Voyage to the Bottom of the SeaVoyage to the Centre of the Earth and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. The reference to Horace’s ode ‘Carpe Diem’ (‘Carpe Diem pour de vrai’) emphasises the wish to change and live life to the full despite possible future risks:

carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero

seize the day, to the least extent possible trusting in the next one

(Horace, ‘Carpe Diem’, Ode 1:11)

The poems are superbly illustrated by Emma Dai’an Wright, the founder of Emma Press. They are black and white watercolour pictures, except on the front cover, where the goldfish is red. The pictures enhance the poems through the simple yet skilful rendering of them that adds movement to the dynamic and flow of the lines. The colour red recalls the goldfish and is also linked to red lipstick and to the passion of love:

Red for statement, not solely for existence

Red for braveness, to conquer the day

Like all mothers of my mothers      Lipstick stains are a symbol 

of beauty and sadness

passion and craziness                   (‘Lipstick Stains’)

Transformation finally happens in a celebration of women’s love. The poet feels ‘vibrations everywhere. […] My soul is vibrant.’ It is like ‘a breeze on a dry day’ and a ‘statement of femininity’. She invents a new self and a new language that breaks her free, mixing some words in Indonesian and Japanese with English. Although the final poems celebrate happy days of ‘laughing and singing together […] holding, hands in trust and true honour’, they also reveal some worries in the final lines of ‘Highball’: Abunai yo!, which means ‘watch out’ in Japanese. 

The ‘super ugly goldfish’ is eventually flushed down the toilet, but its shadow might come back in unexpected shapes.

Carla Scarano D’Antonio 15th February 2022

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