Bruce Roberts on Khary Jackson’s poetic imagination: review of Any Psalm You Want

Any Psalm You Want

A collection of poetry

By Khary Jackson

 

Great poetry should be read aloud. And that’s why it has taken me so long to write this review. From the moment I began Khary Jackson’s Any Psalm You Want, his intense, electrifying language said, “Speak me!” so I did. And then, of course, I had to do it again, still allowing his words to fly trippingly from my tongue, and focusing on meaning, the sum total of passionate imagery, metaphor, symbol, historical allusion—of communication vibrant and intense. This is a brilliant book.

In poem after poem, Jackson impresses with wonderful connections between the mundane and the symbolic. In “From Antonio(Stradivari)”(p. 82), he connects the shape of Stradivarius’ violins with the shape of his first wife, Francesca, so the tender care with which he shapes his instruments becomes a love poem to his wife.

In “Abandoned House – for Detroit,”(p. 22) the emptiness of walls and floors becomes painful embarrassment to the life that once lived there—the loves, the hates, the arguments, the happiness: “When you’ve become an abandoned house,/your job is to remain still, to apostle your pride, to deny the mother’s voice in your bedroom ceiling,/ deny the father’s peppered steak in the kitchen,/deny the son’s fantasies in your shower.”

In “Enactment,”(p. 13) he twists the concept of a Civil War Reenactment, so that’s it’s gang versus gang in a drive-by, leaving a young boy “to twist his torso, yank his limbs to the choreographed puncture of lungs, thump the grass without bracing his fall, . . . and from somewhere near, from everywhere, a forty-year old black woman will howl for her boy. Her hands will shred the air.”

The historical fact of George Washington getting false teeth from the mouths of slaves, in “The Borrowed Mouth,” (p. 63) becomes an ironic speculation on why those teeth did not assume control, why their voices did not take over and speak through him in his political addresses, bewildering his audience with visions of a slave’s life from the mouth of the president.

In “Apologies to a House Party,” (p. 49) Nina Simone’s voice is background music at a party, yet the chatter goes on, no one’s really listening, and he wants to rage at them for silence, for the bluesy passion of her voice symbolizes the gritty injustice of Black experience: “Nina Simone’s giving birth while we stare at the wall./She is hunched over the coffee table wailing Mississippi Goddam!”

Jackson also impresses with the range of his poetic material. His titles alone document that he is well-read, constantly listening to the pulse of the world, and finding ways to intertwine the historical and modern: Such titles as “From Leadbelly to Kurt Cobain,” “John the Baptist—2nd Coming,” “Frida in Detroit,” “George Gershwin Writes Janis Joplin upon Hearing Her Version of Summertime,” “Esperanza Spalding Plays Her Bass At The White House show that he tunes his poetic ears and eyes to the world.

In “Rosa Parks (or Blue Grass, Part II,)” (P. 70) Rosa Parks, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith and Scott Joplin, intermingle with 50 Cent, Lil Kim, Eminem, Dr. Dre, and John Legend in a musical, historical collage reminiscent of the old tv show “Meeting of Minds,” where say Thomas Jefferson would sit and talk with Genghis Khan, Plato, and Queen Victoria. A wonderful imagination is at work in these poems.

In short, this is one terrific book by one terrific author. For intense beauty of language, for impassioned feelings, no matter what the topic, for poetic significance found in simple, tangible objects, read Any Psalm You Want, by Khary Jackson—aloud!

 

Bruce Roberts, April, 2013   

‘Salem’ and other poems from Alexandria writer and pharmacist Jaylan Salah

 

Salem

It was a cold November day
I prayed to reach the stakes, before midnight
The flight to the moon was full of gloom
The executioner said, I’d soon be dead
I’d kick the box by noon, he said, I would never forget
The road to death was full of screams, begging and pleas
I held on to the bars of rusting iron
I fought back all the scars of blazing pain
I sniffed all the tears of distant fears
I watched the stake, fire and wood
I watched the faces of the people

Hatred filled eyes, despise, fear and loath
All they did was point a finger, scorn a look
I took my last weeds of wisdom, shut my senses
No preferences, today was the day I’d slowly die
The fire burned so scarily high, Mary was there, her hair was rising up to hell

Sarah was hiding, her tears were washing all my pain
Elizabeth stood both strong and frail, she hoped her trial would just fail
I laughed my heart out at the stake, I was in a hurry to embrace it
Hands tied roughly behind my back, hair trimmed coarsely in a bun
faggots beneath my feet, soot and tar over my head

Eyes reaching the sky so high, ears deafened by church’s bells
I waited for the flames to flare, to burn my feet and burn my dare
But nothing came although the flames were piercing high
across the cloudy, foggy sky
they blew the fire and the wind, waiting for me to turn to dust

But I was higher than them all, saving my dignity and soul
I waited for the time to die, afraid to hurt my precious pride
The executioner’s vicious laugh was turned to gasps and doubtful glare
Maybe she isn’t guilty, someone shouted
But she must die, and die i should

Before I go and leave behind
nothing but ashes, dirt and slime
I had to say that I would pray, to see the day where they became
lesser than me and more than this

Their wings would succumb to distress
Their eyes would certainly behold
The death of an innocent lady, a woman with a heart of cold
A woman so pretty and bold, whose crime is turning dust to gold
They lit the fire and withdrew, that time, it hurt to watch it glow

My skin began to melt, my hair began to fume
But I would never beg, would sure not bend
The terror soon swept away, leaving a flower to decay
I wasn’t there when ashes sprang, from bodily hope and dreams and trance

I was above the cowards and whore
Flying across the distant stars, singing along the vale profound
smoke dancing with every single sound I made

I wasn’t dead, you pathetic twits
I was a symbol of resistance, a gale and holy princess
smoke that arose from me was twisted sending letters to the saints and children

Behold the witch in Salem lot
She was the bravest on the spot

 

Welcome to Egypt

Passersby in the cafes, Hollywood Stars in the corner,
me with a cigarette, sipping on my pain,
taking in the stabs from cardiac arrest
pushing limits of the houses downtown
And the monastries downtown
And the shops at the far-off corner, two inches away
I raise my glass and clink it with a war heroes phantom limb
He smiles through golden teeth
He reeks of musk and sour cream
Among the steam coated lies he whispers
“Welcome to Egypt”

 

Confessions of a Possessed Woman in a Sane, Sane World

 

If there’s a life and a death
If pain is avoidable in another body
I’d rather be possessed by this catatonic demon
than get dressed, work my lips and pluck my breasts
to be your slave
Your highness, I’m just a girl who chose wood over pearls
and walked on burning sand
to join the pilgrims in Neverland
where eagles cry and ants dream
where bubbling steam shoots from dusty craters, full of candies and white beet
Trick or Treat
it’s either this or a thousand splendid suns under my feet
I go for a bun and a cup of tea on a crooked table with some lunatic unable
to pay yesterday’s rent
than kiss your feet and scoop diamonds with cherry on top
I wait for a date on this decaying planet
I wait for a long walk on a beach, covered with peaches and cocktails
where pines are bleached and caterpillars fly away
I choose to stay in a body made of flesh and blood
than fit your shining armor
where heart is steel, legs are wheels and an egg stands for a nose
and drums for teeth

Jaylan Salah is a poet, dreamer, human rights activist, feminist, pharmacist and scholar in Alexandria, Egypt. Please visit her Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/jaylanpoeticmuses for a collection of her works. 

 

Bruce Roberts on Mark Schwartz’ On Third Street: Jack Kerouac Re-Visited

 

On Third Street:

 

Jack Kerouac Re-visited 

 

By Mark Schwartz

In Atop an Underwood, Jack Kerouac wrote, “So long and take it easy because if you start taking things seriously, it is the end of you.”

This seems a legitimate way to describe the “poetry” of Mark Schwartz, in his small book, On Third Street: Jack Kerouac Re-Visited. Schwartz, through his poems, seems to float through life and San Francisco from one disconnected image to another, a perpetual dream state of sex, drugs, booze, with some social protest thrown in for good measure. The overall effect is that of a wandering party, one that defies attempts to be very serious.

In terms of style, Schwartz is unusual. There’s very little that might be considered poetic language here. No similes, metaphors, symbols, irony? He does not seem to have a passion for language and imagery. Rather the way he embraces “poetry” in his writing is through the disconnect between his thoughts. In simple language, he jumps from one idea to another, leaving the reader to ponder the connection—or if there is one. If poetry is to make readers think, this works.

For example, “Could you imagine rule

by a leader

with a serendipity community?

 

Everyone talks with one another.”

In the world of Mark Schwartz, this is a complete poem, yet it leaves one wondering how ruling, a leader, a serendipity community, and talking to one another fit together. There seems to be a disconnect there, but it’s as if that’s what he’s aiming for.

One more: “On Montgomery With Alice Gould”

“And so I said,

‘what the fuck,’ to this chick I

saw on Montgomery,

and she said, ‘why not mister,’

 

and I said,’why not, what?’ ”

Again, this brief conversation is a complete poem, yet puzzling. Is he not paying attention to his own conversation? He begins, “what the fuck” and she responds “why not mister,” I assume she’s asking “Why not whatever he meant with his initial question.” His brain, however, seems to have wandered off and he doesn’t understand the conversation he started. A disconnect has occurred between his question and his answer, and it leaves the reader wondering.

Mark Schwartz is not Shakespeare, but then few are. His work, however, does create a counter-culture collage of images and life experiences that use his disconnected thoughts to perhaps stress the disconnect between this counter-culture and those who live more regular lives. Is this great poetry? No! Interesting? Definitely! Worth reading? Certainly.

 

Bruce Roberts, April, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

Q&A with Los Angeles photographer and painter Alexandra Dean Grossi, after her show at P.E. Deans Gallery, The Analog Internet

Alexandra Dean Grossi is a painter, photographer and webdesigner in Los Angeles, CA. Her most recent art exhibit presents an artistic look at the imagery pervading the Internet. This Q and A interview was inspired by her gallery show at P.E. Deans Gallery, The Analog Internet: Re-Imagining the Internet through Art. 
You may find Alexandra online here:  www.alexandradeangrossi.com  www.facebook.com/AlexandraDeanGrossi and @agentcoco is her handle for Twitter and Instagram.
Why and how did you choose the Net as a subject for your work? 
I was born in 1983 and I think I am part of the last generation who remembers what life was like before consumer computers, cell phones and the internet. I have been hyper aware of how much the presence of such technology has affected our lives. As as a fully mainstreamed hearing impaired person, I use a cochlear implant to hear (I speak and never learned to sign).  Email, instant messaging and texting became available just when I needed it most: the beginning of my disastrously awkward teenage years.
As soon as I entered high school I got my first laptop and  gone were the days when I had to have my parents call a friend for me. When I entered college, Facebook became available and the concept of loosing touch with people became obsolete.  There’s hardly an aspect of my life that’s untouched by the internet; from my career as a web designer, to finding my homes on craigslist, adopting my rescued pups through Petfinder, to meeting my boyfriend through OkCupid.
More specifically, I’ve developed a fascination for how the internet and smart phones have morphed from being primarily a tool for communication and information to becoming an important part of modern pop culture. The shared experience that brings people together is more widespread and accessible than ever before and we are still learning how exactly that affects us as a world wide culture. For the purpose of this show I focused on very specific themes: Facebook and what we choose to reveal in our profiles, Instagram and its most common subjects, Crowdsourcing, where I asked my Facebook friends for my subjects and what artist’s style they wanted me to emulate, and finally LOLcats, proof that the internet is run by our overlords, our pets.
 Are you taking any position on all the controversies surrounding the Net (i.e. privacy, safety, censorship, whether it’s ‘real’ social interaction or not?) 
My work in this series definitely explores the lighter side of the internet. There are without a doubt awful, evil and incredibly scary elements about the web, but I’ve also seen so much good come from it. The internet provides ways to raise awareness about issues, be inspired, and share a laugh with your closest 750 Facebook friends.
My “serious” online consumption is punctuated with ridiculous Steve Martin tweets and George Takai’s hysterical posts. I think it’s also important to note that this show represents an internet frozen in time. It is a time capsule, in this case, of April 2013. A year from now, 5 years from now, grumpy cat will be forgotten and Facebook may be as irrelevant as Myspace. This was another aspect that drew me to this subject. I’m curious to see how people in the future will react to my work in this series.
How do you think the Internet has affected artistic mediums? (Lots of people can now create and share work directly with the public, bypass gallery owners, but there are fewer filters, quality controls or even ways to organize information.)
With personal sites and portfolio sites such as Behance and DeviantArt as well as online shop sites such as Etsy, the need for a gallery presence to make a living as an artist has gone down tremendously. However there is a balance; when microwaves came out, people thought that families would be cooking their entire Thanksgiving feast in the microwave. That’s not the case. The stove and oven are still relevant and I think galleries have the same holding power.
Do you see the Net as a force for helping people be creative, or as reducing things to icons, memes, etc? 
The internet is so vast and encompassing, I think that the truth holds for both. On one hand, I think the internet has fed into our collective ADHD and is made up of underdeveloped ideas and thoughts forced into 140 characters or less, memes and hashtags.
However, on the other hand, the internet has made creativity accessible to people who may not otherwise create. The app Instagram is a great example — you may not have a Hasselblad or even a plastic Holga to produce “real art,” but if you have a smart phone with this app, you have a choice of filters and suddenly you’re Ansel Adams. Maybe this inspires you go invest in a camera and produce “real art.”
I think this also helps raise the bar for quality, when you are able to look at a million amazing works of art or hear a whole library of incredibly composed songs, you have to step up your game to have your work noticed.
How was the experience of showing something inspired by the Net in a traditional gallery format? Were people receptive to the concept? How was the gallery show? How did people interact with your work? 
It was really great seeing the reactions of people of all different ages with varying degrees of technophobia and technophilia. Those who were more tech savvy didn’t require much explanation and those who weren’t so knowledgeable about the internet were able to appreciate my work and humor on a different level. Though I needed to explain to them what Instagram does and what LOLcats are.
My Facebook and Crowdsourcing projects garnered the most attention from both groups, I think because they were the most accessible. I had the idea to have the full description of each piece available online with a barcode/ QR code next to the art for people to scan for access. This definitely would have made the show more interactive, but I ran out of time. Next time!
 What’s your creative process like? Does your work as a webdesigner inspire what you do artistically?
Like many people, I waste a lot of time on the internet looking at funny pictures, inspiring typographical quotes, cute animals and different blogs. Not long ago, I started an Evernote account where I started saving the best and funniest of what I saw online. At the time I didn’t know why I was saving these images and clipping. Then one day I was inspired to draw a lizard I saw in a picture online holding a cane and I gave him my own caption (The result is Inquisitive Lizard — attached with the original inspiration).
From there I went through everything that inspired me or made me laugh and decided to make art from them. This show is only the beginning, I will definitely be exploring many facets of the internet in work to come!

Borneo: A Travelogue from Lukas Clark-Memler

Borneo:


A Travelogue in Four Parts

 

 

Lukas Clark-Memler

I spent the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 in Borneo. These are the notes I took while on the island. A warning: the following account is personal, biased, unedited, and in some places, the truth has been stretched to make for a more interesting read.

 

Part I: In which the narrator experiences cultural fatigue, improper sleep cycles, and one particularly unnerving bridge.

 

 

29 November 2012, 6:08 AM

 

Watching the sun rise over the endless tarmac, the sound of jet engines humming in the background, it’s a new day. A new day and the final day of 2012 that I’ll spend on New Zealand shores. It feels good to leave. Airports only hold good memories for me. It’s as surreal as any departure, but by now the sensation is familiar: my eyes see a departure terminal, but my mind is still at home, asleep. I didn’t sleep last night, wired on the excitement of departure. I’ve been taking it easy for the past fortnight; detoxed and refreshed; flushed the alcohol, nicotine, codeine out of my system. It feels good to be clean; to be entirely free of chemical substances; to be stable and clear. Clean. I’m ready to leave, ready for something new, ready for the skies. I welcome new adventures with open arms.

 

Sitting at the boarding gate, the sky is dull and overcast, the sound of people in transit is soothing, everyone has direction, someplace to go. We are all history-less, anonymous. We are all leaving. In an hour I’ll be sitting inside a tin fuselage on the way to Borneo. Malaysian Borneo, via Melbourne and Singapore. The travel won’t be particularly pleasant: airlines are cutting their luxuries left and right, no free movies, no free meals; and they say the recession is over. While I’ve never minded flying, I’m anxious about this flight. My nose is blocked, I’m battling a head cold, and nothing kills the pleasures of the sky like blocked sinuses.

 

///

 

On a map Borneo appears close to New Zealand, In reality our overall flight time will clock in around 12 hours. Add the layovers, and we’re looking at 16 hours. With three flights, and layovers in Australia and Singapore, the travel will be taxing, but I’m not one to complain. I haven’t thought much about this trip. I’ve done very little research and only glanced over a Bahasa Malay phrase book. “Tak apa!” But I’m excited; excited to experience a new country, and to live in a foreign place, not simply ‘tourist’ it. Do as the locals do, when in Rome, when in Kuching.

 

Borneo, a lost world, mine to explore and plunder. I sit on an ergonomic chair in a tastefully decorated departure lounge. The sky is now a pale bruise spreading across the damp horizon. The people around me talk and laugh and pretend they are the only people that exist. I sit, with flight details flickering across an LED screen. I sit, on the verge of a tremendous expedition, my skin itching from lack of sleep, my eyes and lips dry from the stale air.

 

And this is my life.

 

The prospect of travel, the sterile smell of sanitary amenities, the dissonant chorus of flight announcements and lost baggage and missing passengers, I’m tired. I sit, my ears and eyes molested by speakers and screens, all of them heralding urgent warnings and friendly reminders not to trust anyone. Baggage left unattended will be destroyed. If you don’t watch your things they will disappear. It’s hard to remember when everyone got so fucking suspicious. People are anxious and waiting; ready to board, irritated at the delay, eager to arrive already. It’s not about the journey, it’s about the destination, and getting there as quickly as possible. Nobody thought the sound barrier could be broken, until it was. We were condemned to the earth, to the ground, to the land, and then we conquered the sky. Now we own the sky.

 

///

 

Small children scream, running through the lounge, smiling. Under-slept and over-excited they pay no attention to anyone, no concern for their appearance. Pure energy, pure emotion, pure joy; a purity that becomes stained by age and irony and experience. I sit, dressed in a button-up striped shirt, a pair of dark chinos and some faded Vans. Formal enough, but comfortable. Exhausted already.

 

A man across from me applies balm to a new tattoo, behind him a guy so-fat-he-can-barely-sit-down speaks seriously into a phone. It’s seven in the morning, November 29th and I’m sitting in the departure lounge of gate six. The sky is now the colour of children’s aspirin and I’m coming down fast. I will try to sleep on this leg of the journey; ‘try’ being the operative word. I will soon be in Borneo, the third largest island in the world. The oldest rainforest on the planet. I am the traveller of this story. The protagonist. The lead. I am nineteen years old with a beginner’s moustache, and the plane is now boarding. Take off.

 

 

 

30 November, 4:30 AM

 

Selamat Pagi. Good morning. Though it’s really still the night. The frogs and crickets and roosters have yet to begin the dawn chorus; the heat is bearable, but only just. The air is thick and tangy with the heady smell of rotting fruit and foliage, the sky is dark, but not for long. It is 4:30 AM on the lost island of Borneo.

 

I slept for six hours last night, which is reasonable considering my inevitable jet lag, but hardly enough to make up for the sleepless travel of yesterday. When all was said and done – layovers, delays, driving, flying – the travel time from Auckland, New Zealand, to Kuching, Borneo, was a little over 22 hours. It seems funny, because on a map the two islands appear close, very close, but it took longer to get here than it does to fly to the US.

 

///

 

Make no mistake, Borneo is not a country, it is an island that houses three different countries: Malaysia takes the top and most significant segment of Borneo, Brunei is merely a tiny slice on the West coast of Malaysian Borneo, and the bottom of the island is Indonesia. Malaysian Borneo is further split up into two distinct states: the cultural Sarawak, and the panoramic Sabah. From what I gather, Sarawak is far more ethnically diverse and is more authentic, more ‘real’. There are fewer national parks and glossy beaches and recommended destinations in Sarawak, but it is where life happens. Real life. Not a gaudy brochure or all-inclusive getaway. Far from the fat, burnt Westerners, uncomfortable without their television sets and high-speed wireless; tourists who are upset when their smartphone gets no reception, who complain mercilessly about the heat, who spend a week in a multi-level department store because it’s air-conditioned. Fuck the overstuffed, glass-eyed herd that ‘vacation’ at 5-star resorts and avoid the local culture at all costs – because it smells rotten and is bad for their complexion. “Here’s me diving, and here’s me holding a monkey, and here’s me by the pool, and here’s me eating noodles for breakfast – noodles for breakfast! – how local of me.” They bray and whine at the discomfort of the humidity, longing for the coolness of their suburban home, secretly looking forward to getting back ‘to civilization.’

 

“Here I am next to a Malaysian hamburger – look how different it is!”

 

I am in Sarawak, about an hour from the capital city of Kuching, in the small town of Bau. I will travel to Sabah in a week’s time, and will explore the beaches and coral reefs and celebrated rain forests. For the majority of my sojourn, I will remain in Sarawak and I’m happy to be off the beaten path, away from the Southeast Asia on a Shoestring crowd.

 

///

 

And here we are. Here I am. It’s 5:30 in the morning and I am happy. Grinning, even. The volume of the morning is rapidly increasing. Days start early here, since by midday the heat is unbearable. I’m in a new country. New experiences await. The smells have been familiar so far. Last night, after arriving in Kuching, driving away from the airport in my father’s Malaysian-made sedan, we stopped at a roadside restaurant and ate. Remember: we hadn’t had a real meal for almost 24 hours – after breakfast in NZ, we had croissants and coffee at Melbourne airport, and a pathetic four dollar packet of crackers on Jetstar – and after a full day traveling and lack of water, we were eager for some food and drink. Malaysians are notoriously bad drivers – they are nervous, lacking the assertiveness needed to function on a road, with poor skills and motor etiquette. They drive slow, but unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, they’re not constantly beeping at you. While their driving is bad, it isn’t overly dangerous. Or so it seems thus far. We pulled up at an Indian restaurant – though it really was just an open-air collection of tables and chairs, grills and stovetops, cooks and customers – and sat at a plastic table and ordered roti and mee goreng and lemon tea.

 

In Malaysia there are three dominant types of cuisine: Chinese-style food (sweet and sour, fried noodles and rice), Indonesian food (satay, more noodles and rice), and a kind of fusion Indian food (curries and rotis and spiced rice dishes). A roti is a lot like a small naan, dough is cooked on a stovetop, but it is folded around your choice of egg, cheese, milk, onion, or other filling. The hot bread is then served with a dish of curry – sometimes a lentil soup, or dhal – for dipping. The rotis last night were fantastic, roti telur (egg roti) – the fresh dough dipped in spiced curry was a unique taste to me. While I’ve had plenty of Indian food before, this was a special kind of flavor, a blend of India and Indonesia – we ate rotis alongside fried noodles – a fusion of taste that I thoroughly enjoyed. The meal for all of us – four rotis, mee goreng, about seven lemon teas – cost five NZ dollars. One roti will set you back around seventy cents. The cost of living is low here, of course. Obviously.

 

///

 

And here I am. I can’t believe I’m writing in Borneo. I can’t believe I’m sweating in Borneo. It’s just turned 6, and while the sun has yet to crack the inky black sky, the heat is noticeably greater than it was when I started writing this morning. Today we will take it easy, unpack, regroup, walk around Bau, explore the local market, adjust to the heat. It’s rainy season in Borneo, and supposedly it rains intensely everyday for at least two hours. The morning is divided from the evening with an afternoon of rain. I’ve learned how to say ‘good morning’ (selamat pagi) and ‘good evening’ (selamat patang), but skipped over ‘good afternoon.’ It rains heavily most afternoons, so we won’t be out walking. But I have a great book that I’m eager to start, plenty of research to do about Borneo, and this here chunk of steel and glass. I will be doing a lot of writing over the next two months. I’m ready to end this dispatch, the day has begun, the roosters are getting difficult to ignore, my attention is waning. I will set an intention to write regularly, and document this experience on the digital foolscap; a postmodern Beat. My fingers tap away, fortissimo, this ream of paper full of wayward musings affirms my existence; immortalizing my travels word by word. My head is clear, and I’m at peace for the first time in months.

 

 

1 December, 9:11 PM

 

Exhausted. Today was long and gruelling. Food fatigue, heat exhaustion, culture shock, jet lag. But what a day. What a full and rich day. From orangutan searching, to waterfall climbing, to rambutan and durian tasting, to general lack of food. Awake at 4 and retiring a little past 9, my first day in Malaysia, in Borneo. The lost island. I have so much to tell. For the first time in a long time, I have worthwhile experiences to document. But now I seek solace in the artificial breeze of the portable fan, the wafer-thin mattress and the thick night air. It’s still early, but I’m so far gone.

 

 

1 December, 5:45 AM

 

The first of December. A new month; new adventures. A new life, here. This is only my second night in Borneo, but it already feels like I’ve been here a week. A month even. I find that islands have this effect – the combination of relaxed ‘island time’, the heat and humidity, the intoxicating smell of rotting fruit that becomes familiar after a day or two… New Zealand seems like a dream.

 

On the arm of my brown faux-leather chair, a tiny translucent gecko rests. The rooster has been cawing for the past three hours. It’s coming up 6 AM, and the sky is thick and dark; the air is warm, but not uneasy. Everything still seems surreal, but when does the surreal become real? When does that hazy filter fade, and things appear as they are? The light here is dim: light bulbs, street lights, even the moon is dull; it adds to the surreal mysticism of the place. Like an unfocused projector, obscuring the images ever so slightly. It is a soft light. A calming light. I like it.

 

My body aches from yesterday. It was a full day, a good day. After a jet lagged and restless sleep, breakfast at a local food court in Bau – roti susu (roti with milk), fresh orange juice, a spiced rice dish – we drive towards Semenggoh Nature Reserve. The roads are tight, windy, potholed, and it doesn’t help that Malaysian drivers are, forgive my generalization, bad. We get stuck behind an industrial truck on the way, going 30 km/h, but the driver is either rude or oblivious, probably both, and doesn’t give us space to pass. Semenggoh is an interesting place. It only claims to be a nature reserve, but it’s also one of the only places in the world to see wild orangutans in an accessible location. Credit goes to the park for their relaxed attitude and brutal honesty – on arrival we see a sign that reads “in fruiting season the chances of seeing orangutans are close to zero” and the rangers certainly err on the side of caution regarding the possibility of an orangutan encounter. We’re told that there will likely be no orangutans and that we shouldn’t expect to see anything. Unfortunately the ranger is correct, and we don’t see any of the red-haired apes. While we don’t see an orang-utan (wild man), we see plenty orang-putih (white man). The park is one of Sarawak’s top tourist destinations, and by 9 it’s filled with eager white faces. We leave soon after the first feeding session, satisfied with the knowledge that we can come back another time (tickets cost 10 RM for adults and only 5 for kids – that’s $4 and $2 respectively).

 

///

 

The sky is light now. The jungle mist rolls in. Today we are heading to Kuching to wander the esplanade and explore the city… After Semenggoh, we took a back road through a number of tiny villages. By now it’s almost midday, and I’m sweating despite the air-conditioning in the car. I pull at my shirt, and sweat drips down my back. We stop in Benuk, a ‘home-stay village’ that’s been maintained for tourism. For authentic tourism. A village so authentic, it’s not. But the orang-putih love this kind of shit: local villagers dressing up in archaic costume and dancing around a fire – a sick kabuki enactment of ‘authenticity.’ Fake. There are few tourists in Bau, and everywhere we go people stare. White skin is strange, and while we can strive to fit in, speak Malay, do as the locals do, we will always be looked at as alien. In Benuk we buy ice blocks from a shack-like store. They melt before we open them, the sickly sweet syrup running down my hand. Nothing escapes the heat. Nothing can conquer the sun.

 

From a roadside stand we buy rambutan – an exotic red fruit, covered in green tendrils. The vendors are old women, and between the three of them, might have a mouthful of teeth. A full set of pearly whites is a luxury of the wealthy. Everywhere smells like durian. That large and spiky fruit, known for its fetid smell. It’s a local favorite and available for cheap at nearly every street corner. Eager to escape the heat, we drive up to the Borneo Highlands Resort – a gated high-altitude park covered with trails and gardens – but find that it is closed until one. This is common in equatorial countries where the humidity and heat is impossible midday. Attractions open early then close around 11 – they will then open again in the afternoon, after the worst of the heat is over. The heat is never truly over though, even at night the air is thick and heavy.

 

To kill time before the park opens, we wait at a nearby restaurant, the Love Café, and order a cool drink. Be careful if you order a tea, or even a soda, because it’s common for locals to put salt in them. The most popular drink around here is 100 Plus, an isotonic soft drink that tastes like a mix between Gatorade and Lift. The addition of salt to refreshments is actually a smart way to combat the excessive sweating, and I enjoyed the salty tang of the drink. A lazy ceiling fan moves dead air. The drinking glasses sweat. A cat sleeps under a table. The novelty of being white wears thin. We don’t take our shoes off before entering the restaurant, and only realize we were supposed to as we leave.

 

On the road up to the highlands resort I notice a waterfall and we stop the car. Off to the side of the road, across a bamboo bridge, up some ancient stone-cut steps, is Shangri-La. So close to the road, yet miles away from civilization, hidden from sight in thick rainforest undergrowth, two wooden Buddhist pavilions lie next to a grand waterfall. No gate, signposts or safety ropes, it felt like I had discovered a new land. A lost site. Xanadu:

 

[In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.]

 

Walking shoeless across a waterfall, sliding down mossy rocks, climbing hidden stairs – it was like an Indiana Jones film. And I was the fearless explorer. Venturing deeper, going further than anyone before me. Up a crumbling stone path above the waterfall was an old wooden bridge. A number of the slats had fallen away, and the whole thing was only supported by fraying rope and a rotting beam. Underneath was the waterfall, not huge but still very impressive. I climbed to the bridge. Across was another set of stone steps, leading up to nowhere. Or somewhere. Why would I try to cross? I had nothing to gain except the adrenalin rush and sense of accomplishment… I crossed. Slowly at first, then sensing the bridge’s sturdiness I ran to the end. Across. Accomplishment. I wanted to keep exploring, venture deeper into the jungle, up the stone stairs, into the unknown. The sense of adventure was intoxicating. My family were far below at the waterfall. A butterfly sat on a rock, its neon blue wings spangled with an orange band caught the sun in just the right way. It was huge, disarmingly beautiful – I close my eyes and realize that what it comes down to is that I’m a nineteen year old boy in the highlands of Borneo covered in sweat, jacked on adrenalin, above a waterfall, staring at the most beautiful butterfly in the world. Discoverer and conqueror of Shangri-La. Suspended above the world on an ancient bridge. If it were to break, if the support rope were to snap, I would die. Simple. Few things in life permit such clear calculation as the potential for death. The most basic binarism: if the bridge holds, I live; if the bridge breaks, I die. I live. A different butterfly, this one with petroleum black wings and a green strip across its body, flies above me.

 

///

 

I wasn’t scared about the bridge breaking, about dropping into the waterfall. What scared me most was the motor scooter parked across the road. From the bridge, I could see out to the road, and on the opposite side to where we were parked was the scooter, hidden by shadows, unremarkable, but still there. Its presence meant two things: one, my fantasy of secret discovery was ruined, and two, there were other people here. I’m not particularly paranoid, but the thought that there were people somewhere in the jungle, anywhere around me was unsettling. I imagined the worst – stumbling upon a drug deal, wandering into an opium field, being shot dead by Malaysian drug lords. Why else would there be a scooter parked across the road? Of course they were involved in some illicit act. I wandered into the jungle, scrambled up a bank and expected the worst. Caught in the middle of the Golden Triangle; VC in the trees; tattooed men carrying machetes; the smell of napalm in the morning. I would be an ignorant witness; the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course nothing happened. But just imagining it was enough. We descended back to the car. Nothing seemed real. It wasn’t Shangri-La, it was a roadside waterfall.

 

We continue up the steep road to the Highlands Resort. No cars are on the road. Healthy green vistas in every direction. Park in the visitor parking and walk up the path to the resort proper. It’s empty, renovations taking place; chanting leaks from discreet speakers placed around the area. The descriptor ‘Fellini-esque’ is thrown around more than once. The resort is lusciously manicured, with flowering gardens dotted around an expansive field. Horses trot in a fenced off paddock; gardeners in wide-brimmed straw hats tend to the flora. We’re not greeted by anyone. The last thing we ate was breakfast, and the sun is searing. Eager for a restaurant, for food, anything, we trek up the path to the ‘Clubhouse’ – 15 minutes later we’re still trekking; after an hour of walking, we decide to throw the towel in. Hungry. So hungry. Back to the car, down the road, salivating over imagined meals – half pound burritos, meatball subs, turkey melts, everything except Malaysian food – faint with hunger, tired, hot… Bitching and moaning in an air-conditioned semi-luxury sedan. Outside my window a boy carries an armful of durian up the road. A leather-skinned man sells fruit for five cents. A mother fans her child with a palm frond. Inside the car it is cool, too cold even. I roll down my window and roll it back up when I smell the outside world.

 

Rambutan only tasted good when I was hungry. I drank water to pass time.

 

///

 

Back in Bau. It hasn’t started raining yet but it will soon. We’re all tired and still haven’t eaten. It’s too early for dinner, and the restaurants stopped serving lunch hours ago. We drive to a huge supermarket, Giant, to buy snacks and drinks. It’s eerie. Bing Crosby croons over the speakers, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. For a predominantly Muslim and Buddhist country, there’s a lot of Christmas decorations. The supermarket is a microcosm of Western influence on the East: a man sells fruit alongside a store selling American infomercial exercise equipment; women in headscarves buy iPhone accessories from a vending machine. Giant is a product of the Malaysian government’s push towards first world status; the crass consumerism is a sign that things are working.

 

Take the worst of the West, slap on a discount sticker, and call it progress.

 

Economic progress is measured in bottles of Coke consumed. ‘Emerging economy’ is a euphemism. Every time a tract of rainforest is cleared to make way for a new shopping centre, the GDP goes up.

 

I go to bed with a knot in my stomach but maybe it’s just the A&W and Oreos. The West tastes bitter in this humidity.

 

 

2 December 2012, 3:47 PM

 

I’ve been in Borneo for 60-odd hours. It hasn’t even been three full days. Everything is still out of focus, but I’m adjusting to the haze. Surreal is becoming real, and it’s starting to sink in that I’m here for two months. I struggle with time, its inevitable passing, and my own powerlessness to stop it. Yesterday I was in Kuching, on the waterfront, eating satay in the rain. Now it’s Sunday afternoon and all that exists is this screen and my thoughts, and my anxiety at filling the former with the latter. I need to write everyday or I will explode. I can’t backlog my adventures, so I will aim to write for two hours everyday. Part travel writing, part subversive journal, part emotional purge. I showered an hour ago but my shirt is already soaked through.

 

Breakfast yesterday was cereal and apple juice and fresh pineapple. Then to a thrift store in Sentosa, Shalom, to buy much needed loose shirts. The shop is a bit of a novelty – mainly stocking Southeast Asian-made Hawaiian-style shirts – but it’s cheap with an excellent selection. The drive into Kuching was unremarkable. Kuching itself is a fantastic city: clean, well-kept, easy and accessible, with a noticeable lack of poverty. The riverfront shops are a joy to browse through, Jalan India is colorful and exotic, the Mosque is impressive. Nothing negative to say about Kuching, the ‘cat’ city.

 

///

 

Technology has become a brand. Facebook, Twitter, Google adorn shirts and caps and backpacks. Angry Birds is the new Hello Kitty. Everything has unlicensed merchandise. The Internet is a commodity that can be bought, sold and worn. Nothing is sacred. Traditional architecture is painted over in garish colors; vendors sell kitschy souvenirs next to century-old temples. Malaysia’s push to first-world status is stifling its own traditions and culture. Like how Mao’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ destroyed centuries of Chinese culture and customs, and replaced it with bland conformity.

 

We walk to the Hilton, where my father stayed for his first two weeks in Borneo. It’s plush, of course, and we explore the rooms, and the pool. We meet Jilian, the pool attendant and he tells us his story…

 

In a small village, a boy dreams of becoming an English teacher. He studies hard, and is set to take his college exams, but falls ill a week before the exam –

serious heart problems – and misses it. He cannot afford to take the test again. In a second his dream is gone. He now gives pasty Americans towels. He now checks the temperature of the Hilton’s lap pool. He smiles, but it’s a sad smile. And we leave with the weight of one man’s misfortune on our shoulders.

 

///

 

Travel tip 1: When in need of a freshen-up, use the lobby bathroom of an expensive hotel. Walk in like you own the place, greet the doorman, don’t bat an eyelid at reception – your white skin is as good as a room key.

 

Travel tip 2: Smile at people, nod slightly, and realize that people are friendly if you give them the chance. Engage with the locals, learn a few words of their language, ask their opinion. Travel is about the connections you make, not the sights you see. Travel is the cultural barriers you cross, not the souvenirs you buy. Holidays are for photos next to landmarks, travel is for experiencing authentic culture. Holidays are an escape; travel is real.

Lukas Clark-Memler is a regular cultural correspondent for Synch Chaos, who has written about music, generational differences, travel, and culture. He can be reached at yeslukas@gmail.com

Dr. Geoff Marcy’s discussion on exoplanets, by Cristina Deptula

 

Just like home, 100 million light years away: more earthsized extra-solar planets discovered than ever before

If life exists elsewhere in the universe, how come we haven’t seen other beings yet? UC Berkeley astronomer Dr. Geoff Marcy addressed this and other questions in our latest enrichment talk at the Chabot Space and Science Center.

First, Dr. Marcy discussed NASA’s Kepler observatory, which suggests many more earth-like planets exist than we’d previously thought. He treated us to a video of Kepler’s 2009 launch from the Kennedy rocket, complete with audience yelling and wonderment.

Astronomers often find exoplanets, planets outside our solar system, by watching them pass in front of the stars they orbit. Kepler captures a snapshot of space every minute, and thanks to its ultra-stability, can detect a star’s becoming one ten-thousandth less bright. Regular variability in stellar brightness suggests the presence of a planet, and Kepler’s powerful enough to detect something just forty percent larger than Earth.

And, according to equations discovered and developed by the astronomer Kepler, if we know how long it takes for a planet to rotate around its star, then we can figure out how far away it is from the star. This gives us some clue about how much light it receives and its temperature.

After astronomers locate an exoplanet, they can follow up using the Keck telescope array in Hawaii. The star’s stellar wobble, its reflex motion in response to being orbited, is called the Doppler shift. This arises from the Doppler effect, where the wavelengths of light and sound change slightly as an object moves, either toward or away from the observer. Scientists can calculate the mass and density of the planet from this Doppler shift.

Dr. Marcy showed a chart of all planets the Kepler craft has found, plotted by distance from their stars and size. A great number of them ranged from 1-4 times Earth’s size, with dozens roughly the size of Earth. After adding to the total to figure in planets which Kepler likely missed because their orbits were tilted relative to its area of view, astronomers estimate that 23% of all sunlike stars have planets 1-3 times as far away as Earth.

Researchers, such as Harvard’s Courtney Dressing, are trying to find out how many of these earthlike planets might receive the same amount of sunlight as we do. One recently located exoplanet seems to have a similar temperature and orbital period (days spent orbiting its star) as Earth. These conditions place it within the theoretically habitable zone for life as we understand it.

If we shrunk the Milky Way to the size of the United States, the nearest possibly habitable planet would be just across the Golden Gate Bridge! In actuality, it’s just ten light-years away, not that long on a galactic scale.

Most stars are red dwarves, the smallest type of star, and researchers estimate that 15% of red dwarves host Earthlike planets. Kepler alone has located over 400 multiplanet systems.

This, naturally, leads to speculation about whether all these potentially habitable planets could host intelligent life. After all, a galaxy containing 200 billion stars could have around 100 billion planetary systems, with 10 billion of those habitable.

‘So, where is everyone?’ Dr. Marcy asked. As a response, he speculated that nearby civilizations could have grown up and developed, then blown themselves up before Earth life arose, by perpetrating nuclear war or climate change. Or, the life forms never evolved intelligence or self-awareness, as it never conferred a significant survival advantage. Dr. Marcy looked at the dinosaurs as an example, as some had larger brains than others, but these seemed no more likely to survive and reproduce than the others.

It could simply be that life and civilizations are dispersed throughout the universe, and the nearest alien city is far away from us, given our space travel and observation capabilities.

Regardless of why we’re still waiting on an encounter with alien life forms, Dr. Geoff Marcy gave our imaginations and curiosity fertile ground to play with in this talk. Not only is there so much out there in space, as the lead character’s father says in the movie Contact, but there’s so much more out there than we thought that looks and works like our own corner of the universe.

 

Radio Flyer, a poem from Dave Douglas

 

Radio Flyer

 

I had my Radio Flyer

Filled with every need:

Television and speaker,

Access for the freed

 

I had my sandals

For the long flight,

And electric candles

To displace the night

 

I left behind the stagnant,

Imagination in my pack

Any direction but remnants

Of what lies at my back

 

But the whirlwind

Off in the distance

Stared and grinned

At my lack of guidance

 

Caught in a swirl of fear

My impetus was lost –

I wrestled with the jeers

And grappled with the cost

 

In a land without signposts

I forgot the map of the past,

creating new ghosts –

A thought not in my  forecast

 

With a tear to the heavens

I empty the Radio Flyer

As it alters my direction

And pulls me from the briar

 

Now, I no longer pull

But am led by this wagon

As my Radio Flyer is full

And light is my burden

 

Poem by Dave Douglas, who can be reached at carpevelo@gmail.com and is an artist, cyclist and writer.