Panggil-Panggil: Rimbun Dahan Herbal

Panggil-Panggil is a poem I wrote as part of a collection of artworks by resident artists of Rimbun Dahan (period: January to April 2017), invited by artist Richard Orjis of New Zealand to make something in response to the residency’s indigenous Southeast Asian herb garden, Taman Sari.

When I bring visitors to tour the garden, I often pluck kesum leaves from the South-East corner of the garden — one of the few plants I can identify, unlike my more botanically proficient boss — and crush them to release the fragrance. Local visitors locate the smell immediately: asam laksa. So when it came time to choose plants as inspiration, I went with my sense memories from my childhood. The earthy dirt smell and cool mud feel of inai, the silk-waxy white petals of kemboja blooms, the fragile yellow-green tendrils of kenanga flowers, peek-a-booing from similarly green leaves.

As I looked through the list of plants, my attention caught on one I’d never heard of before. Clerodendron paniculatum or known in Malay as panggil panggil can be found in Myanmar, China, and Java and “summons spirits.” Summons spirits! That’s all it says in the description! “One of the plants used to sprinkle tepung tawar in weddings, blessing fish stakes & ‘in the taking of the rice-soul’ (Burkill). Infusion is purgative.” It can also be used as “elephant medicine, to protect them from harm.” The concept of calling (panggil) or inviting spirits is one I grew up with — Malay superstition states that many benign things can “call” spirits. This plant was the last in the bouquet I plucked, and from that came a poem about my childhood memories, the smells that came from my school holidays in Kedah, the hometown of both my parents, and the magical thinking of a young girl who’s lost her mother.

The poem can be read online on page 14 of Rimbun Dahan Herbal, which features 7 other artists, all of whom I’m happy to say I’ve had the pleasure to work with and witness as they worked. Feature image by Richard Orjis.

Excerpt:

home —
in all states, all towns, all countries,
all times —
home has a big steel pot on the stove,
wherever it lives in the belly of the house,
the bottom blackened and pockmarked,
like a weary battered asteroid.

put these in the pot —
ikan kembung, ikan selayang,
belacan, bawang merah, cili kering,
asam keping, bunga kantan,
daun kesum — satu ikat.

wait for the fishes’ flesh and bones,
the aromatics and the spices and the herbs,
to melt and mulch into thick gravy
just like you used to make.

let the hours pass and wait
for the broth
to bubble and steam
and fill up the house
to beckon the family in
to eat
to call them
home
to stay.