Lukas Clark-Memler’s Dispatch from Borneo, Part II

Borneo:
A Travelogue in Four Parts

 Read the first part of Lukas Clark-Memler’s journey, from last month’s issue, here. 

 

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.

 

In the previous entry, the reader found that the narrator – a bleary-eyed troubadour with a bitter distaste for holidaymakers – was coping well with the unfamiliar terrain, unpredictable weather, and unimpressive food…

 

Part II: In which, despite nursing an infected toe and jellyfish wound, the narrator conjures hallucinatory images of violent skies, theatrical squalls and suburban malaise.

 

 

2 December 2012, 5:28 PM

Last night was memorable. We stayed at a friend’s house in a tiny village just outside of Kuching – Siol Kandis – and spent much of the night sitting on the upstairs balcony, under the stars, the air full of fireflies and music. The house was rustic, and its blue and yellow chipped paint gave it a Caribbean feel. Sitting on the deck, talking, listening to Bob Marley, Ben Harper, Radiohead, Buena Vista Social Club – slide guitar punctuated by the yelps of roosters and stray dogs, the clouds dark with rain, the mosquito coil burning ash. “From where you’d rather be.” All that was missing was the Corona and lime.

We must’ve sat up on that deck for hours, the sky darkening and the prospect of heading back into Kuching for dinner seeming more and more unpleasant. But stomachs can be an amazingly motivating force, and we ventured into the night in search of food. Kuching is perhaps even more pleasant at night than it is by day. The heat is gone, the lights on the riverfront shine bright, food stalls spangle the boardwalk. Food is plentiful, and we end up across the river – the small ferry costs 50 cents – at a covered food court. I order eight (lapan) satay chicken skewers and a plate of white rice. I pour the satay sauce onto my rice and eat it with the chicken. It’s a simple dish, not entirely adventurous, but tasty. And compared to my father’s laksa – noodle soup with prawns and coconut, which sounds good in theory but generally turns out greasy or watery – I was more than happy with my meal.

It begins to pour around 9 p.m.

This is the first of the rainy season I’ve experienced. The raindrops are like an American tourist: fat, clumsy and erratic. The torrential downpour continues intermittently throughout the rest of the night.

///

I slept soundly and woke this morning to the sound of the rooster’s cry. It is an irritating, yet natural way to wake, and I can imagine getting used to it. I like being up at 6, before sunrise and before the heat. Sleeping in ’til midday, like I would do at college, now seems pathetic. The best part of the day happens before lunch. The second best part of the day is the evening. Between 12 and 4 it’s uncomfortable to be outside.

We drive from Kuching to Serikin for the Sunday morning market. On the way we pass miles of development; facsimiles of Western suburbia; subdivisions and strip malls. Sarawak is a community in transition. The people have gone from rural villages to identical gated housing estates. From market stalls to Giant supermarket chains. The government subsidizes cars so that everyone can drive, but the roads cannot accommodate all the new traffic. So we sit, jammed, and wait for a chance to overtake. What was once the world’s oldest rainforest is now a suburban sprawl.

Serikin is border country; it’s the closest town to Indonesia. I see armed military and think how uncomfortable their army fatigues must be. They look fatigued. The market is mostly for Malaysian tourists; we are the only orang putih there. Stalls are set up along a dusty road, selling everything from Angry Birds pyjamas, to knockoff Ray-Bans, to durian ice cream, to cane furniture. The vendors are relaxed and don’t pressure us to buy anything. As I said, it’s a tourist market, but a Malaysian tourist market. Serikin isn’t even listed in Lonely Planet. It may as well not exist.

I struggle with guide books. On one hand I love them, love the adventure and the writing and the backpacker romanticism, but on the other hand, I hate the attitude they foster: if it ain’t in the book, it ain’t worth the time. Lonely Planet is more than just a guide, it is the definitive reference for travel. This mentality is killing the intrepid spirit of the wayward traveller. If it’s in Lonely Planet, it’s not ‘off beaten path’ – the shh! don’t tell marketing is a laugh. You show up to the ‘unspoiled’ beach only to find a hundred other travellers there already. All searching for that unbeaten path. It is essential to stray from the guide book – to use Lonely Planet only as a ‘guide’ and not the be-all-end-all scripture it has become.

///

The rains have come. It’s 6:07 p.m. and the sky is a thousand shades of grey. My favourite smell in the world is fresh rain drying on hot tarmac. I smell that now. The stronger the rain, the hotter the ground, the better the smell.

3 December, 5:56 AM

The smell. That’s what I’ll remember most about this place… the smell. Your eyes can play tricks on you, but the nose never lies. A picture may speak a thousand words, but only a smell can recreate an experience. I can look at a photo and remember where it was taken, what was happening, but it’s more like remembering a film than recalling the actual experience – I look at myself, third person perspective, rather than occupying my body at that moment. I’ve found through my travels that only a smell can capture the real essence of a place – only a smell can transport you back to an exact moment. A memory smell: you rarely expect them, they surprise and disorientate, but are always welcome.

The smell of a certain laundry detergent, floating down an open drain, takes me right back to Monteverde, Costa Rica. The smell of heavily air-conditioned supermarkets takes me back to Barcelona. And I will always remember Southeast Asia by the smell of rotting fruit. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s pungent. Piles of fruit carcasses rotting on the curb. Rambutan husks littered like cigarette butts. The overripe smell of fruit orchards – surplus fruit, wasted fruit, rotting fruit.

Borneo has a distinct fruit smell; a smell that is wholly unique and unlike anything I’ve smelt before. Durian. A thorny fruit – coconut like in size, hard-shelled – with an overpowering smell, oh that durian smell. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, national parks, shopping centres, even our house. Durian is a specialty of Malaysia, they grow elsewhere, but nowhere as prevalent. Durian vendors line the streets, the sides of highways, villages, cities. Everywhere. Inescapable.

It’s not the smell of napalm in the morning, it’s the smell of durian.

The smell is far beyond description. But the taste… that’s something else. Two nights ago we were invited over to the neighbour’s house for a quick introduction. Within five minutes of arrival, we’re offered some durian. The eldest son, Ming, brings the fruit out on a chopping board. He clumsily cuts through the thick shell with a comically-large knife. Once opened, the smell is intensified. The air feels hot and thick. My tongue is swollen. I scoop up a piece of durian flesh, it has the consistency of dough. The smell is bad, the taste is slightly better. A salty tang, an almost meat-like texture, a creamy and smoky aftertaste. For the next 24 hours everything tastes like durian. The ‘King of Fruits’: conquered.

///

Outside the jungle is thick with mist. Or is it fog? The ground is wet. It’s 6:30 a.m. and my arms itch with mosquito bites. It’s impossible to sleep without open windows, but that means mosquitoes. I had a coil burning, and a plug-in repellent on all night, but I’m still bitten up. My thigh itches. I scratch and it feels better, but then it feels worse. The best thing for mosquito bites is rubbing alcohol – it dries the bite, and kills the itch.

Yesterday, on the way back from Serikin, we veer off the main road and stop at a cave. A Buddhist cave. Right outside of Bau, the cave is a spiritual landmark in the area, frequented by primarily Chinese residents who pray at the Buddha’s feet. But the cave is also a natural wonder. Huge and cathedral-like – fitted with speakers playing Tibetan chants on loop – smoky with incense. It is free to enter, and donations are expected for incense sticks and candles. Once again, we are the only orang putih – the cave is full of Chinese families quietly praying. There’s a white stone Buddha sitting on a high ledge inside the entrance of the cave. There’s a rock in front of the Sublime One that is smooth from decades (centuries?) of kneeling worship. The cave shrine – cavernous temple – holy hole in the wall. I wash my hands in a shallow tub, and my impurities float away.

///

My brother was sick last night. Perhaps food poisoning, water-borne bug, or general heat exhaustion – he projectile vomited for three hours straight, poor soul. We haven’t been eating or drinking carefully. Ice in drinks is often made with unfiltered water – it’s advised not to swallow it. There’s a bit of an urban myth here that says ice with a hole in it, that is, smooth and shapely ice, is from filtered water. Take that with a grain of salt (or a cube of ice) but I’ve been eating the ice since day one. It’s one of my favourite ways of battling the heat, and I always order my drinks on the rocks. But still, we really ought to be more careful with what we put in our bodies. My brother’s torrent of bodily fluids was a warning against carelessness.

We stayed in for dinner: three steaming boxes of nasi putih kosong (plain white rice), with soy sauce, crushed peanuts and a chili paste mixed in. It was a good meal; basic, but safe; filling and easy. Cheap – RM1 (1 Malaysian Ringgit) – 40 NZ cents.

And now it’s quarter past seven – today we will explore the wider Kuching area, brave the huge shopping centres, visit the nearby Wind Cave, and Bau’s Blue Lake. Tomorrow we fly to Sabah, for 11 days of beach and jungle.

It’s 7:30 a.m. on the lost island of Borneo. Sarawak. Monday. It’s hot and I’m ready for adventure.

[4 December to 5 January – no entries logged – 33 days of silence]

6 January 2013, 10:07 AM

Where to begin. It’s been over a month since I last wrote, thirty-three days of silence. It’s a new year, 2013, and while I’ve never been one for resolutions, it feels like a good time to start writing again. I have excuses, reasons for my absence: unsafe accommodation, inappropriate weather, river crossings, limited luggage, a technology-free sojourn. I didn’t write for the right reasons. But still, it is time to document once more; time to reflect and remember; transcribe and transform my memories into words, sentences; cement with syntax. Immortalize. It’s the sixth day of the new year, it’s not raining but it will soon. The air is stale. No, that’s not right. The air is fresh, tangy with a jungle bite, it’s my sensory perceptions that are stale. My skin and finger tips are blunt, rusty, stale. I’ve showered twice today already, but I feel the itch of perspiration all over. My toe is infected; it’s going septic. I’m going septic. It throbs and glares and demands attention. My mind wanders… Where to begin.

A linear chronology of the events of the past month is difficult. My mind is muddied. Was I stung by a jellyfish before I saw the pit viper? Had I already suffered through food poisoning when we swam with sea turtles in the South China Sea? The progression of things matters far less than the isolated moments. The to-and-from and connecting-the-dots is of little importance. What remains, after days of fever and infection and exhaustion, is a series of beautiful vignettes. A collection of moments that float to the surface of a month’s worth of memories – scenes of significance amongst weeks and weeks of sweat and insomnia – captured in ink on the pages of a crumpled notebook, captured in pixels on the viewfinder of a digital camera, captured in scars that cling to my body.

Where to begin.

///

December 4th

From seat 14C, I watch the sun rise over the equator. From 40,000 feet in the air, the light of a new morning is life-affirming. We land at Kota Kinabalu (KK) International Airport, and wait for our car, consuming cup after cup of dishtowel coffee to ward off sleep. KK is the capital of Sabah, the northern state of Borneo, the Land Beneath the Wind. Whatever that means. Outside the ground shimmers, hazy, unsettled. In sympathy with the climate, my stomach flips and contorts and cramps. I writhe. In downtown KK, where the ocean laps at the salty shore, there aren’t any public toilets. At this point my stomach is erupting from my asshole, and I’m dangerously close to losing all remaining shreds of dignity. The impatient attendant at tourist information points to the right, and 20 sen later I’m squatting over a dirty hole in the ground. It’s a roofless restroom, and as I squat and explode, I stare up at the hot midday sun.

Crouching over a stained squat-toilet, losing weight at a sickening pace, surrounded by the scent of a thousand rotting corpses (the bilious smell of dried urine, faeces, bad plumbing and, quite literally, dead and decomposing rats) really puts things in perspective. ‘Appreciate the little things’ – was the fortune cookie wisdom I could derive from this experience. And staring up to the heavens, as my bowels descended into the fetid squalor of hell, I offered a silent prayer to the lavatorial gods, eternally grateful that I didn’t have to go through this shit every day.

The remainder of our time in KK was filled with night markets, overpriced seafood meals, a breakfast buffet with above average waffles, and an impossibly blue un-chlorinated swimming pool at The Palace Hotel. The hotel was a sanctuary amidst the relentless heat of the north of Borneo. The quiet and calm hotel room perfection was such a relief. Arriving back to our room after a day of walking and sweating was like slipping into a clean, icy-cold (A/C set to 20ºC) glacial pool.

///

I ate six waffles on the morning of the December 5th.

The islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman Park (TARP – they love their acronyms here), were over-crowded but extremely accessible. Speeding across the South China Sea, wandering through the jungle to find the ‘right’ beach, encountering monitor lizards of a disconcertingly prehistoric variety, snorkelling in the lapis lazuli water – save for Koh Samui, it was the best snorkelling of my life – surrounded by fish of all kinds. (I’d use adjectives like kaleidoscopic to describe the sea life, but that would make me feel self-conscious). The marine reserve was a worthy destination. Out of the five islands that make up TARP, we chose Sapi (the most touristed, but apparently most beautiful), and Mamutik (the most relaxed, but lacking in sandy beaches). Mamutik provided the better snorkelling by a landslide, was calmer and more beautiful. Sapi was loud and full of Chinese revellers who wore lifejackets in shin-deep water. Say what you like about the strength of their economy and industry and world dominance, the Chinese have got to learn to swim.

On Sapi, while traversing the island in search of a less populated beach, I fell down a slight rock-face and ripped my swim shorts from crotch to waist. I scratched my knee against a rough piece of coral, and walked away from the island minus a pair of togs, with a coat of fresh blood on my leg. It was to be the first of many falls and scratches and bloodied limbs. I walked away from the island with the bruised kind of satisfaction that only the walking wounded can attest to.

///

The ceiling fan spins, lazily, despite being set to the fastest speed. For a second I’m Martin Sheen, in a burned-out hotel room in ‘Nam. For a second I hear Jim Morrison wail, as the jungle turns to flames. For a second I’m haunted; the horror, the horror. And then my toe throbs and pulses and I’m back. I’ve covered my poor hallux in anti-septic cream, and after a visit to the local clinic last week am on a strict antibiotic regiment, eight pills a day. How my toe got so bad is a mystery to me. It is the same toe that was operated on last year; the toenail that refuses to grow straight and instead grows into my skin. It’s ingrown again, and in this humidity, it got infected fast. I limp, and it aches, and should it come into contact with any kind of solid object, a sharp blast of pain splinters through my whole foot. It’s going septic, I think. And the ceiling fan continues to spin, and I wish it would speed up.

On the final day of 2012, I saw a full-grown male orangutan. It looked so serene, yet at the same time, I knew it could crush my skull between its meat-cleaver fists. And despite its ostensible calm, it reeked power. Its eyes hurt. The others spoke of how friendly and gentle it looked, but I saw violence. When the giant ape swung down from the tree, and walked across the viewing platform, I was the first to back away. The orangutan was in control. It was an amazing creature.

///

December 6th

Kota Belud is the last town before Mañana Beach Resort. Oh the novelty of being white in a small town. The stares we received, not hostile, but interested. We were alien – not altogether unfamiliar, for tourists did pass through these parts – and out of place. We ate food (noodles and rice and teh tarik – the Malay equivalent of a hamburger and fries). We stocked up on supplies (nuts and crackers and cups of noodles). We left.

In a tiny seaside village, a dozen kids in rags run and laugh. I think: they look happier than most of the pre-adolescents I know. Shacks on the beach, the smell of fish and burning embers, the rotting smile of poverty.

Mañana: bungalows on a private beach, only accessible by boat. Our accommodation: a small hut, mosquito net, sandy floors, sea views. Location, location, location. A View to Kill For. Any closer to the sea and you’d be wet.

Swimming in the South China Sea in rain and sun, by dawn sky or full moon, the horizon burning in the distance. The sky is on fire. Later I find out there’s oil in the seabed, and the sky is only aflame when the excess oil is burned off in the evening. Still, it’s a great effect. Great effect.

I read in my hammock, the sound of the water reminds me of home. Lying on a foam mattress, under a thin mosquito net – rain falls heavily onto our tin roof and the waves seem to lap at the door. I feel like I’m in a reggae song; all that’s missing is the grass. Oil wells burn at the edge of the Earth. I’m hot, humid, uncomfortable, wide awake, but happy. I’m on a private beach, in the north of Borneo, and I’m happy. I’m covered in insect bites, coral wounds, lice rashes and salt (from sweat and sea), but I’m happy. Who wouldn’t be?

Mañana was relaxing, but after three days we were all ready to go. Paradise was lost when I saw a large rat dig through my bag. I was hit with the realization that I was in the most bio-diverse place on the planet, separated from the millions of insect species (three new species of insect are discovered every month in Borneo) by a flimsy net. And there were rats. My nights at Mañana were long, but all was forgotten and forgiven in the morning as I ran straight into the warm and clear sea. I know of no better way to start the day. The food was good – fluffy pancakes for breakfast and dinner, plentiful noodles and rice (of course), and cold drinks. I read, and finished three books, and my skin browned under the Bornean sun. I lost track of time, and my temporal mind entirely. Like a Vegas casino, there were no clocks anywhere. I felt like I was living in a glossy-paged travel brochure.

///

December 8th: or, how I learned to stop worrying and accept the pain of a jellyfish sting

Jellyfish are evil bastards. They float, inconspicuously in the waves, and attack with menace and no mercy. To call it a predator is giving the jellyfish far too much credit, as it simply waits for unsuspecting prey to breach its space. They mar the seas (Spanish pun, anyone?), spoil the scenery, and destroy the skin. And on the eighth day of the final month of 2012, I experienced the bright and electric pang of a jellyfish sting. During my morning swim I noticed a number of ghostly shapes in the water. At first I assumed they were plastic bags – rubbish from the mainland often ends up on the beach; the urban jetsam was cleaned up each morning by a cigarette-smoking, fat and toothless Malaysian man. I quickly realized that the water was full of jellyfish, giant things, their long, purple tentacles dangling nonchalantly. Backing up to the beach, my eyes on the savage jellyfish in front of me, I entirely missed the jellyfish that was behind me, and felt a sharp, hot pain shoot up my leg, (now that I think about it, it’s very similar to the pain I’m currently feeling in my septic toe).

Ali G (the boatman) ran to get vinegar. When he came back with a small bottle and knelt over my leg, I thought he was going to urinate on me. Pee on a jellyfish sting, they tell you. Thank god for vinegar. It neutralized the poison, and dulled the pain. Thank god for Ali G, he peeled the tentacles off my foot and leg, and rubbed wet sand onto the wound. The pain: imagine wrapping your foot in boiling hot, electrified barbed wire. That’s what my right foot and lower leg felt like.

The sting: an intense, white heat, like a thousand needles. The aftermath: long, red, angry welts across my foot and around my ankle. Secretly, I hoped it would scar. To have gone through the pain and the trauma, only to emerge unblemished would be terribly unfair. It did scar, though only faintly. And nearly a month later I look at my foot and see the pale scars, in the shape of jellyfish tentacles.

The night of the sting the rain came down in sheets, threatening the simple bungalow architecture. It was as if Poseidon himself were raging at the door. On a private beach, in the north of Borneo, in the middle of a tropical, equatorial cyclone, my foot painfully throbbed…

///

My foot throbs. I stand up to get painkillers (I only have common Panadol – how I long for my codeine supply), and nearly buckle over in pain. I sit back down to write. And action…

///

December 10th

The Tip of Borneo hasn’t happened yet. The cancer of tourism has yet to spread to its golden shores. It will though, it’s only a matter of time. Everything has an expiration date. The Tip of Borneo is still fresh, largely undiscovered, untainted. It is beautiful. Spangled with virgin beaches, tropical waters, thick and healthy rainforest. It is alive. Wild. Fucking beautiful.

Kudat is the hub of the Tip, and we passed through on market day. Everything’s for sale. Tobacco is perhaps the most popular commodity sold: wizened old men and women smoke and chew and spit fresh tobacco. We check email and news at a cyber cafe (a CC – acronyms for everything I tell you), as eight-year-olds kill hookers on Grand Theft Auto. Does society reflect the media, or is it the other way around?

Christmas decorations are for sale at a Muslim supermarket. There’s holly strung up next to the mosque. Malaysia is a truly multi-cultural place. Christianity, Buddhism and Islam coexist, and the respective religious holidays are celebrated by all. The Chinese Buddhists will have a Christmas dinner, and the Bidayuh Christians will have a day off on Ramadan. Satu Malaysia (One Malaysia) goes the government propaganda, and while there is the inevitable religious and cultural conflict, it is a largely harmonious place. It is more blasé than accepting – the people don’t care which god you worship – and Catholic churches are built alongside Buddhist temples.

We stay at Tampat Do Aman (in Rungus, the local dialect, it means ‘place of peace’). It’s an eco-lodge and rustic as hell. But we sleep. And sleep well. There’s an Australian volunteer school group taking up six of the ten rooms – from across the hall I hear one of the teachers call out “Good night John-boy.” Like they do in The Beach or from that television show. It feels like a bizarre coincidence, as I was reading The Beach that night, but he’s probably just read the book too. A lot of people around here have read that book.

We spend a week at the Tip. Our time is divided between Tampat and Tommy’s Place. Tommy’s is far nicer with A/C, tiled floors, and our own private balcony. We drive down dirt roads to small beaches. At Pantai Kembala we find sea turtles. But they could have been otters. It was that kind of encounter. The ‘I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure those are sea turtles’ kind of encounter. But since otters don’t make a habit of swimming in the South China Sea, we were happy to declare the black shapes in the water sea turtles. Later it was confirmed that that particular beach was known as a breeding ground for turtles. So, yeah. Sea turtles.

The amount of rubbish on the beach was unfortunate.

At Tampat we watched the sun rise over the rice paddies, as twenty-eight Australian volunteers ate breakfast together. Is there any sound as grating as an Australian accent?

On the way to Kota Maruda it began to rain. And although a rainbow had yet to stretch the expansive divide between land and sky, bridging the mortal soil and infinite blue, there in the rear-view mirror, soaked in the sudden drops of water and glimmering in the morning haze, it wasn’t especially hard to imagine one.

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December 12th

The guidebook says that you can see the Philippines from the very tip of Borneo. Standing next to the cast-iron monument that marks the northernmost tip of the island, if I squint, I can almost make out the husks of the islands of the Philippines in the distance. Tommy’s Place is a welcome escape from the gritty ‘eco-friendly’ simplicity (read: horribly under-equipped) of Tampat. Ours is a brand-new villa, built on a hill amongst tall and lanky coconut palms. There’s a palm-thatched deck area, with a bamboo boardwalk to the villa, a mini-fridge and cane furniture. Inside there’s comfortable beds, air-conditioning and a powerful shower. A hidden blue light gives the room a modern and oh-so-hip look. Pardon my superlatives, but the beach was one of the nicest I have ever seen. In the world. The water was by far the best I have ever had the pleasure to swim in. Warm, perfectly clear, sandy-bottomed… I’m tempted to use Biblical descriptors like Edenic and Elysian; hell, even empyrean could be used to paint an image of Technicolor beauty.

The sea looked like desktop wallpaper; like default Windows wallpaper.

Stop me if I’ve gone too far.

At night, from our balcony at Tommy’s, we watch the sun set. The coconut palms were silhouetted against the violet (violent) sky and the colours were so exaggerated that if I saw a painting like it, I’d think it was cheesy. There’s some things that shouldn’t be captured. A picture rarely speaks a thousand words.

I walk to the tip of Borneo, climb over the ‘Do Not Pass’ sign, and amble down to the rocky outcrop. At the very tip of the tip of Borneo, the tippiest-tip, I stand, arms flung wide, the wind stealing my cries of victory. The incoming tide threatens my position, and water spills onto the rocks, pulling at my legs, the Philippines beckoning me closer. Those salty Filipinos, with their greased-back ponytails and pockmarked grins; selling cigarettes for a tenth of the price at the supermarket (which is already a hundredth of the price back home); the Mexicans of Borneo… shit, did I just say that? What I meant to say was: the hardworking, illegal aliens of Borneo; the backbone of the island’s industry, the grease that turns the cogs of commerce. No, that’s not right either. The Filipinos are just chasing the dream, in the same way that my friends in New Zealand move to Australia for work, or how my friends in small-town USA move to the city.

The grass is always greener. The gleam of money is always brighter on the other side.

///

Sipping chilled water out of a glass Gin bottle – the bottle sweating as much as I am – as the heat slowly fades. It’s just turned four, and I’ve been writing for almost the entire day. Painkillers numb my toe, but it still throbs. The streets are full, seriously fucking full, of wild dogs and roosters and spiders and snakes and feral cats. Roosters caw, and dogs yelp, and cat carcasses lie stripped on the roadside – emptied of meat, long gone. This morning a spider the size of a baseball mitt (an XL mitt) dropped from the ceiling onto the stovetop. It was fast too, not one of those lumbering furry tarantulas, but a quick and mean long-legged hunter. The kind of spider that fights back as you’re crushing it with a shoe. Of course I knew there were spiders and snakes and scorpions living in the house, in the ceiling, inside couches and under beds. But up until then, I hadn’t seen any. Seeing that spider, that beast of an arachnid, confirmed the fact that we were not alone in this house. Ignorance is bliss, and the spider was a wake-up call that screamed, “Hey! We’re here! Try and forget about us when you’re lying in bed tonight!” Biodiversity is a euphemism for ‘horribly outnumbered.’

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December 15th

We left the Tip of Borneo in a torrent of equatorial rain. The palm trees bending horizontally in the squall, blinding sheets of rain, thunderclaps like cannon-fire; a tropical storm is theatrically intense. It was unimaginable to be anywhere but our air-conditioned and watertight Proton Saga. The Saga. The Civic of Borneo. The Corolla of Malaysia. Cheap yet sturdy, comfortable yet efficient, it’s a Malaysian-made car that is beyond ubiquitous. Owning a silver Saga is akin to eating rice and noodles for dinner: inevitable and boring. But rice and noodles can sometimes taste delicious, and the Saga has been a dependable companion.

Kudat to KK via Mount Kinabalu National Park. The pool at Palace Hotel and a South Indian meal on Gaya Street (the Khao San Road of Borneo). Twenty kids are killed today in one of the worst massacres in US history – Sandy Hook enters the annals of school shooting sites, along with Virginia Tech and Columbine. After the news, I watch The Last Airbender, a film I can calmly declare to be the worst I’ve ever seen.

///

On December 16th we flew back to Kuching, drove back to Bau, and everything felt surprisingly familiar and comfortable. Despite the fact that before our Sabah trip we had only been in Sarawak for five nights, arriving back in Bau felt like coming home. It seems to be human nature to establish a base no matter where you are in the world. We deem a place ‘home’, make a mark, piss a perimeter, and it is ours. Home isn’t where the heart is, it’s the place we can smell our own urine. And arriving back to Bau – our shoes by the door, our clothes strewn around the house, dried urine on the toilet seat – our scent was strong and clear.

///

I’m satisfied now, happier than I’ve been in a while. Without writing I feel bottled up, broken, burnt out. This is therapeutic for me, but more than that, it’s expressive. We all need an outlet, and while my brother finds his at the lens of a camera, I feel most comfortable with the vast arsenal of words that bleed from my fingertips. With the flex of a finger, the click of a shutter, a moment can be captured; and with a well-turned phrase, so I capture mine. Looking back on old photographs, the smiles and landscapes seem a century away, and so two-dimensional. A sentence written in the past however, comes alive as soon as it is read. I write for myself today, and for myself in the future. I write to transform a decaying thought into a concrete insight.

I have a remaining thirteen days on this island.

It’s a new year, I’m in a new country, life is full of new opportunities and experiences. If 2012 was the end of time, then 2013 is a new beginning.

Lukas Clark-Memler lives in Madison, Wisconsin and can be reached at yeslukas@gmail.com

 

Writers Block, a poem by Dave Douglas

 

Writers Block

 

I turned the corner

and there it was!

a row of houses

each filled with imagination

 

I scribbled down the street

held by a free-hand –

a life of permanence

unable to erase memories

 

I skipped up the steps

only to discover a locked door –

a repeated occurrence

even at the last attempted point

 

I exclaimed at the threshold

of a lost original thought

to be formed somewhere inside

the living spaces of tomorrow

 

yes – there I was! on Writers Block –

a neighborhood of experiences

marked by errors and flowing ideas

if only I had the courage to knock

 

 

Dave Douglas © 2011

Dave Douglas is an avid cyclist and poet, and he may be reached at carpevelo@gmail.com 

Christopher Bernard on Words and Places: Etel Adnan (California College of the Arts)

 

 

Etel Adnan at work

 

 

 

Etel Adnan at work

 

Why is a Solar Ray Burning My Eye When the Sky Still Lies in Ice?”

 

Words and Places: Etel Adnan

California College of the Arts Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

Through June 29

 

A review by Christopher Bernard

 

This retrospective of the artistic and literary career of the Lebanese artist, poet, novelist, essayist and journalist Etel Adnan is a major event, not only for the local art and literary community, but also for members of the Middle Eastern diaspora in the San Francisco Bay Area, and for the many, displaced by conflict and war, who have had to bestride cultures in an attempt to maintain a complex identity in a constantly and often violently changing world. Etel Adnan’s resilient spirit, her vitality and warmth, glow in the work like a tough flame.

San Franciscans are fortunate to have this wide-ranging exhibition of drawings, paintings, poetry, videos and films by, or about, one of the most important living writers of Middle Eastern descent – it is one of history’s minor ironies that Adnan, who was born in Beirut in 1925, then moved to Paris, where she was just young enough to meet the ageing André Gide, lived in the Bay Area for several decades and only now is getting a major exhibit here (she currently lives in Paris again).

The centerpiece of the exhibit, for me, is Adnan’s arguably most dazzling creations: her leporellos, or folding art books: accordion-like “scrolls,” from a couple of feet to several yards long, some made up of ink or ink-and-watercolor drawings on separate panels or smeared and blotted between folds, others painted in large strokes like Japanese foldout landscapes – displaying drawings like abstract ideograms, smudges of explosions or flowers, of a striking energy and delicacy. Other leporellos include scraps of verse, surreally enigmatic aphorisms, and entire poems, including what may be Adnan’s masterpiece, from 1968: “Funeral March for the First Cosmonaut,” on the death of Yuri Gagarin.

Another leporello of note is “Late Afternoon Poem,” also from 1968, in which the poet and artist asks the perennially relevant question, “Why is a newsman caught in a crossfire while reporting something he does not care to know?” and later asks the profounder one: “Why is a solar ray burning my eye when the sky still lies in ice?” Other leporellos include “Five Senses for One Death” and several smaller ones, including “Sausalito” and “View From My Window.”

The exhibition is of interest not only for the light it sheds on Adnan’s exuberant synergy of talents but also because it places her work in a context of work by other important artists whose work addresses similar themes and follows similar approaches: filmmaker Chris Marker, director and visual artist Rabih Mroué, and the artist collective, The Otolith Group.

Marker, the late doyen of experimental cinema, is represented by his film Junkopia, about the outdoor statues along the bayside in Emeryville, which he made on a visit to the Bay Area in the early 1980s. There are rhymes and echoes between his shots of the bricolage spooks and cast-off avatars on the mudflats of the East Bay and the lively explosions of black, like midnight roses, that populate many of Adnan’s ink paintings.

Fellow Lebanese Moure is represented by a short film of a house in Beirut being blown to pieces, the film shuttling back and forth in time, so that the exploding house seems to move from ruins back to wholeness, then ahead again to ruins, in a jagged, jazzy rhythm, while a voiceover speaks about the tension between remembering and forgetting, or rather the compulsion to remember and the need to forget: “I am not telling in order to remember. On the contrary, I am telling in order to make sure that I have forgottten, or at least to make sure I have forgotten something . . .”

Lining the walls of the gallery are drawings and oil paintings that Adan has made over the decades: the paintings are often simple geometries that evoke landscapes and still-lifes, some with an awkward luminosity reminiscent of an abstract Morandi.

Also included is a slideshow of articles Adnan wrote in the 1970s for the francophone Beirut newspaper Al-Safa, and a table displaying Adnan’s books, including the modern classics of displacement, Sitt Marie Rose and The Arab Apocalypse.

In the back gallery is an installation where a film about the poet by The Otolith Group is screened, titled (quoting from a poem by Adnan) I See Infinite Distance Between Any Point and Another. The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard is quoted as saying it is almost impossible to film a person reading – the experience is entirely internal, indecipherable: the only filmable signs are the blinking of the eyes, pursing of the lips, a deepening frown of concentration, a body changing position on the chair, in bed, on the beach; the turning of a page. How does a person reading Jane Austen look different from a person reading James Joyce or Karl Marx? How would you be able to see the difference from outside? Perhaps the only way to film it would be to film how that person acts after the reading is over: the reader of Jane Austen tries to say witty things to her lover; the reader of Karl Marx organizes a revolution. This film tries to answer Godard’s challenge by filming the act of reading aloud by Adnan of one of her poems, “Sea and Fog,” with intense close-ups of the poet, thus emphasizing the bodily presence of this most spiritual of acts.

Several films will screen during the exhibition, including Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, Soad Hosni’s Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni, and the delightfully frank and engaging Autoportrait, a filmed self-portrait (perhaps the first of its kind) by Simone Fattal, Adnan’s longtime companion and publisher.

Along the back wall, an installation film Adan made, a celebration of the California landscape, screens in a continuous loop.

Last but surely not least, as part of the exhibition, local artist Lynn Marie Kirby has created a short, witty online collaboration with Adnan, called “Back, Back Again to Paris,” that can be seen at http://lynnmariekirby.com/eteladnan/back_back_again_to_paris.html. It is a kind of love letter to the poet.

 

Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and critic living in San Francisco. His novel A Spy in the Ruins was published by Regent Press (http://www.regentpress.net/spyintheruins). He is also a co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org).

 

 

 

Smoke and Mirrors, prose sketch from Darion Wilson

 

Smoke and Mirrors

Time is slow here and reality evades me quickly. Surrounded by angels to sinister for God’s grace, they conjugate here. Intentions to get back from where they have fallen, this place is just a stepping stone. I meet them here. Have a seat if it is affordable or stand where you can see the show is about to start. A smoke screen floods the building, dim lights cast a luster upon the stage and my eyes are immediately drawn to it. Cylindrical poles grow from the stage and make their ascension towards the heavens. A voice comes over the microphone, I never see him because he is stationed behind the audience, but he is just as vital to the show as the talent is.

Ladies and Gentlemen we have a magical show case prepared for you all today” says the voice over the microphone.

I didn’t come here for David Blaine, but there are Doves and Rabbits. It is never quiet here music plays as people chatter over drinks in anticipation of the show. Waitresses dressed in black pants, white button downs, and little black vests with bowties fill the floor all at once in an effort to serve bottles of alcohol to the guests. Some prevail and others fall by the wayside in an effort to make their tips before the main attractions start to attract. I see this place in its entirety.

It is too late for the waitresses now, that the talent has been summoned to the floor. Four at a time they occupy the stage. They approach from the right and one by one they start their summit up stairs that lead them to the Promised Land. Six inch heels tap the floor as they find their place on stage. The voice over the microphone introduces them by their stage names and drops a song for them to become lucrative to. They dance, but it’s not for the audience. They dance for themselves. They dance for M3 Beamers. They dance for Christian Louboutins and designer bags. Mascots in their own sense they dance for Georgia State, Clark Atlanta, and Spellman. Tuition isn’t cheap and this money is tax free, so I never judge them. Dollars are thrown high and they plummet from the air like snow flurries from the sky. They break sweats and necks with their acrobatic antics. Ascending towards the heavens I wonder where they fell from. Were their fathers ever there to guide them and give them their first glimpse at affection? Probably not if they were there to catch them then these girls would probably have too much self-worth for this place. As beautiful as this place is, it fails in comparison to them. They dance to multiples songs, their hair swings and legs suspend. Who taught them that? They could have joined the Dance team for the Atlanta Hawks, but this money is better. As the first group of girls’ time on stage comes to an end, a man in janitorial attire hands them a trash bag for the dollars that they just acquired. Money is hand racked into large piles and stuffed into white standard sized garbage bags. Every spectator in the room happily watches their money leave them behind, never to return.

The next group takes the stage built like they are ready to compete in an Olympic 4 x 400 meter race. With tight calf muscles and manicured toes they own the ground that they walk on. I can’t help but wonder what landed them here. It’s probably the same thing that landed me here. An avid admirer of the craft I’m here because I lack something. The spectators and the dancers are synonymous in that we all lack. They long for dollars like I long for attention. We all have dreams that we are in constant pursuit of, be it dreams of a Ferrari or just real love. I cannot get mad at them and they are not mad at me. When I’m here I know exactly what to expect, nothing more and nothing less. I can’t remove myself from this place they stand up on a pedestal and work hard for my residuals. Light bill, phone bill, stripper bill; I could have paid back a loan, but instead I spend it here. Young and dumb I have an obsession with good times. My eyes never leave the ladies the graceful, flawless, effortless, flexible, and extremely talented ladies. I wonder if they know that they are appreciated. Too many camp town ladies singing their songs solo, their baby’s fathers have probably never been in a family photo. I commend the ones that take the stage for their beautiful daughters and respectable sons. The hour glass dwindles and times up. This group’s show is complete, the money is hand racked and bagged and moseyed off to the place where the goddesses submerge from.

I go to the bar to get a drink and its Hennessy of course. It’s always Hennessey. The voice comes over the microphone and I hear her name. Kitty she’s who I’ve come to see. She is who I always come to see. I go back and take my place. She has already made her way up the stairs. I didn’t even get to watch her walk. She cut her hair and it looks perfect, I wish I was the first to let her know. Her confidence fills a glass and overflows; this is what attracts me to her. Always talking with her body I let my eyes listen. I can empathize with Paris. I would have taken Helen too. How does she manage to stand out? She clouds my vision and she is all that I see. Infatuated with her perfection I wish I could save her from this place, but she belongs here. A fish out of water if I were to ever bring her around my mother this is her natural habitat. Money motivated, she is an avid exhibitionist. Tattoos on her lower arm and upper left thigh, I wonder if she sleeps alone. What could I offer her? Love and affection maybe, but that doesn’t pay the bills. Nothing more than a broke college student showering her with dollars that I can’t afford to lose. I lose, but I love to watch her dance, so I continue to watch her dance. I notice every inch of her. I have trouble distinguishing if this masterpiece is mom-given or doctor-made, but I don’t care art is art. The smart money is on her, she just made what I make in a week in thirty minutes. We are both twenty two, but she is about to purchase a house and I’m about to take out another loan. That is crazy, yet I’m still here tipping her. She won’t stop until I hand it all over. She pretends to care and I know this, but she pretends so well that I fall for it every time. She asks questions and I answer. I wouldn’t dare ask her to regurgitate my answers because I would be ashamed of the response so I go with the flow and she inevitably breaks me with a grin. Who knows which part of heaven she fell from, I don’t. I just wish I wasn’t addicted to her company.

Their innocence gets pummeled in traffic so where along the way. Then the pretty girls that they are, they are transformed into temptresses and they prey on the feeble minded. Addicted to the plethora of dollars that come in every night, they do what has to be done in order to make ends meet. If they want for anything, there are no worries because they can afford it on their own. Who’s to blame for tainting them? Not me, but I must admit I do contribute to their excessive desires. I don’t make the mistake of taking it personally. They use me, but they use everyone. Who am I to judge they satisfy my lust, so in a way I use them as well. Neither of us is any more wrong than the other. I just ask that the Lord has mercy on our souls.

 Piece by Darion Wilson of Georgia Southern University, author may be reached here: wilsondarion11@yahoo.com 

A window to modern Japan: Teseleanu George on Charles Ayres’ memoir Impossibly Glamorous

Growing up in Kansas, Charles Ayres dealt with substance abuse, financial problems and sexuality issues. He found refuge in learning Japanese and learning everything related to Japan. His journey, as a Japanophile, started with a phone call to the Japanese Consulate and took him to New York, Kyoto and finally Tokyo. Once in Tokyo his quest for fashion and glamour culminated with him becoming a media personality.

The book is a window to Japanese culture. It describes customs and habits that at first glance are strange to westerners. A few such examples are “the social pressure to perform in school and work”, “to be on time, to be slim, to work like a maniac, to go drinking with your boss till 4 a.m. and somehow to make it into work by 7.30 a.m. the next day”. Charles describes his difficulties in adapting to this new culture and trying to make it as an entertainment personality. In my opinion this take on how to adapt to a new culture, even if you know a thing or two about it, is one of the main reasons that this book must be read. It offers an good insight into the thoughts of a foreigner and his struggle to adapt to a new environment and integrate into society.

Another major part of the book is about Charles’ quest for love. This quest doesn’t have a happy end, since Charles ends up with a “Kentastrophe,” as he likes to call it. He devotes a few chapters to this catastrophe, since it left him with a huge hole in his heart and in his pocket. This relationship made Charles hit rock bottom, but in the end he managed to rise up using his trusted friend, a blue fur coat.

The book is nicely written and it captivates you with strange events and a familiar language. When reading the book, you feel as if you are enjoying a cup of coffee with an old friend as he tells you his latest adventures. So I recommend reading the book.

Teseleanu George is a Romanian artist and playwright. He can be reached at blana_de_maimutza@yahoo.com

Batman and Robin, short story from Katie Farris

Batman and Robin

By Katie Farris

Anyone who has an older brother has experienced the turmoil of random punches, noogies when he wants to show his love, and the rush of adrenaline when Mom and Dad aren’t looking so you can settle things man to man. The relationship my brother and I share isn’t that much different from any typical brother and sister. Today as adults, we enjoy studying together, playing Ultimate Frisbee, working out, and going to the movies every once and a while. If you looked at us today and the way we act towards one another, you would never suspect that we used to beat the ever living crap out of each other, but something in us changed when we moved to Florida as children.

Before Florida, Joe and I were somewhat close. Growing up in the boondocks with only each other as playmates, we had no choice but to be friends. We spent countless summers in the backyard chasing after each other and playing Batman and Robin.

The days of Batman and Robin will forever take precedence in my heart over anything else. We would run through the brush of the backyard solving riddles the Riddler had left behind while simultaneously trying to find who had the cure for the fearsome Man-Bat. We’d barely escape the clutches of Bane, work together to defeat Clayface, and come up with a special serum to keep The Scarecrow’s fear gas from warping our minds. Nothing could stop us! Criminals would tremble in fear when they heard our names, mob bosses could never out smart us, and when a citizen needed help, we were there, fighting for justice that had been forgotten and lost.

One day while perched in the old Dogwood tree in our backyard, Joe looked to me. “Good job today, Robin. We had those guys on the run from the start.”

Thanks, Batman,” I’d say with a serious face as I looked up into the sky. I’d point. “Look, Batman!”

The signal,” he’d say.

It’s already on the news. Poison Ivy has escaped from Arkham Asylum.”

My brother balanced himself on one of the branches of the tree and stood in a hero-like pose. “Quick, Robin! Let’s race to the Batmobile!” And we were off to defeat Poison Ivy before she tainted Gotham City’s water supply and the whole game would eventually be celebrated with us running back to the Batcave (our house) and stuffing our faces with pizza lunchables and gallon jugs of Kool-Aid.

Hey, even superheroes need a lunch break.

We would pretend to be other things too, like secret agents protecting the president and Indiana Jones, but this would also lead to the usual fight because Joe would always be Indiana and he’d make me a Nazi. I admit I was young at the time, but our Grandpa fought in WWII and I knew just by listening to his stories that being a Nazi was an insult.

I’m not going to be a Nazi!” I shouted.

You can’t be anything else!” he said flatly.

I can be Dr. Henry Jones,” I offered.

No, you’d have to be older than me. There’s no possible way you could be my dad when you’re younger,” he said.

Well then you be Dr. Henry Jones and I’ll be Indiana,” I said.

Nice try, but that’s not happening.”

You’re not being fair!” I shouted.

Look, there’s no way you’re going to be Indiana Jones! So, just suck it up and be the Nazi I get to beat up on!”

Not without a fight you won’t!

And we’d have at it. We were nothing but flying fists and swinging feet, landing a hopeful knock out punch anywhere we could.

We’d come in after a brawl and, as usual, my mom would pitch a fit at how we looked and behaved. Joe’s t-shirt would be torn from where I grabbed him by the collar and he’d sport a bruise and gash on his arm from where I bit him while I had a busted lip from where he clocked me with my hair disheveled from rolling around in the grass. Dirt would cling to our faces making us look like we’d just come in off the street from begging.

You two will be the death of me!” my mom would shout. “Why can’t you two just get along? I just don’t understand. This is not how a brother and sister are supposed to act! Me and my siblings never fought each other!”

And then there was that one terrible thing she made us do after a fight and we both hated it. “Now, you two apologize and hug each other,” she’d say.

Ugh!The dreaded make up hug. Not cool.

We’d both slump our shoulders, say a non-heartfelt “sorry,” and hug one another, patting each other on the back a little too hard.

I’m taking you down. Same time tomorrow you little snot,” he’d whisper.

Fat chance, butthead,” I’d shoot back.

God, I miss those days.

That was the normal life between us, but unfortunately there was a time when my brother and I were our only companions in life. When Joe was eleven and I was seven, my parents had gone through the necessary procedures to get a divorce which led to my mom moving us to Florida, living on the same property as my aunt, uncle, and cousins which Joe and I formally called: “Enemy Territory.” From the moment we set foot on that turf it was The Farris’s vs. The Kurtright’s. There was no safe haven, no place of solace, and never a moment of peace when the cousins were together – whether it was us arguing over whose turn it was to choose a movie to watch, what after church snack we were going to have, what order we were going to be served in for dinner, or who would sit where in the van. It was hell on earth. Joe and I were all we had.

One summer night, I sat in my room staring out of the window wishing I was back in Georgia reflecting on an argument I had with my older cousin, Sarah, when Joe walked into my bedroom and gently nudged me with an elbow.

You okay?” he asked.

I looked to him. Joe was tall and scrawny as a boy. A light dusting of freckles covered the bridge of his nose and only darkened when he caught the sun. His scruffy brown hair had a mind of its own, laying however it wanted while his light brown eyes glowed, even when he was down or cross. He looked directly into my eyes and somehow I felt like he could see what I was feeling at the moment, but I didn’t say anything. I just sniffed and shook my head.

What’s wrong?” he asked, sitting on my bed.

That was a strange moment to me. I wasn’t used to his generosity. My brother was the boy I fought for sport my entire life and this was the first time he had ever shown any concern toward me. I looked into his eyes and in them, there was a melancholy presence. There was sincerity that I’d never seen before and even though we’d fought in the past, it occurred to me that as long as we were in Florida and living on our cousin’s property, on enemy turf, he was my best bud. My companion. My battle buddy. He was there for me and I was there for him.

Sarah called me Frog-Lips,” I finally whimpered.

Why’d she call you that?” he asked.

Because of my birthmark,” I said with a sniffle, pointing to the white line going down the middle of my bottom lip.

Joe snorted. “She’s stupid, Katie,” he said. “You can’t let her do that to you.”

She always gets away with everything, Joe. It just makes me so mad!”

I know,” he said. “The next time she says it to you, punch her in the face.”

I shot him a look. “Mom told me to turn the other cheek. She said that’s what the Bible said to do,” I told him.

Joe gave me a wicked smile. “True, it says to turn the other cheek, but it doesn’t tell you what to do after that.”

A revelation! I’d never thought of that!

I smiled at him. “That’s a good point,” I said to him.

This is why I’m your big brother. It’s my way of looking after you,” he said with a smile.

The next day while Joe and I were in the yard arguing whether we wanted to play Star Wars or The Power Rangers, Sarah and her little sister, Brittany, walked up on us.

Sarah’s dirty blonde hair fell around her shoulders, her banes darkening and clinging to her forehead from the sticky Florida humidity. She was thin with no figure while Brittany was a short, chubby child with dark brown hair.

What are y’all playing?” Sarah inquired.

Why?” I asked, annoyed at her presence and hoping she’d go away.

We just want to play with you,” she said with a sinister smile.

Uh oh, I thought. I know that smile.

We’re playing Batman and Robin,” Joe said quickly. “So, unless you want to be the bad guys, you can’t join in. Sorry.”

Brittany began to cry. After all, she was only four at the time, but Sarah, even at the age of nine, was a devious monster that could manipulate anyone into getting what she wanted. Up until that point, I’ve never wanted to hurt someone as much as I wanted to hurt Sarah.

Well,” Sarah began in a diplomatic voice, “I think Katie and Brittany should be the bad guys.”

Brittany let out a loud obnoxious sob after hearing her sisters betraying words and I rolled my eyes at my baby cousin.

Why do you say that?” my brother asked coolly.

They’re the youngest. They should be the bad guys while you’re Batman and I’m Robin,” she said while that sadistic grin of hers grew.

But I’m always Robin, I thought as hot tears filled my eyes. If there was a time in Georgia where Joe and I got along, it was when we played Batman and Robin. We were the Dynamic Duo. She couldn’t be Robin. I wasRobin! I always have been.

I glance at my brother with a hurtful look, but his eyes didn’t leave Sarah. His nostrils flared as his jaw twitched, his face gradually turned red and his breath grew into rapid short bursts. He clinched his fists at his side. “Katie is my Robin,” he said through gritted teeth.

I’d be a better Robin,” she said. Her words triggered my tears and they steadily flowed down my cheeks.

You don’t even know who Robin is!” Joe screamed at her. “I’d choose Katie over you any day!”

What?” she asked pointing to me, “You mean you’d choose Frog-Lips over me? You’re more stupid than you look, Joe.”

I stepped closer to Sarah and got in her face. “My brother is not stupid,” I said out of anger, “If you want to join us, why don’t you be Two-Face? You’re really good at that!”

Watch what you say, Frog-Lips,” she whispered.

If you call me that one more time, I’m taking you down,” I huffed.

I’ll scream bloody murder and my dad will come out here and whip your butt,” she said in a quiet, threatening tone.

It’d be worth it,” I snapped.

Very gently, I felt the collar of my shirt being tugged from behind. I turned and saw my brother mouth the words, “The other cheek.” Angry and disappointed, I turned my back to Sarah and Brittany and began to walk away from the whole situation when I heard, “Froggie can’t jump!”

Oh, Froggie’s about to jump alright!

All at once, a surge of anger built up inside of me and was near its breaking point. The recent memories of name calling, purposely lying about us to get us in trouble, and the manipulation all fueled my animosity towards her until it boiled over. I felt my breath quicken and my face inflame as I looked to my brother. In his eyes, I saw his resentment as well.

Go get that turd,” he whispered.

Without any warning, I turned and charged towards Sarah. She tried to run, but by the time her back was to me, she was already eating dirt. I began swinging, landing punches wherever I could. Sarah had somehow turned on her back and tried to block my attacks, but the great thing about having a big brother to fight with, is that I know every possible gap that you’re going to leave open, especially when you haven’t fought a day in your life. I continued to swing, tearing through every barricade she put up.

Get off of me, you crazy mutant!” she wailed, “Brittany, get her!”

I felt a slap on my back that tickled more than it hurt and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joe dragging Brittany away from us. “Get her, Katie! Knock the crap out of her!” Joe egged on and a burst of energy rang through me as I continued my assault on her.

Don’t. You. Ever. Call. Me. Frog. Lips. Again!” I said between every punch, emphasizing each word.

That’s it, Katie! Break that scum sucking snake’s nose!” I heard Joe shout.

Then, Sarah rolled and I somehow ended up underneath her. She slapped me across the face and stood up, straddling me, towering over me with blood dripping from her nose and that’s when I saw it coming. It was like slow motion. I saw her foot come down and marry my face while a stinging sensation swept through my bottom lip. The taste of dirt and sand tarnished my mouth which was quickly joined by a salty flavor. Hot tears stung my eyes as I put my hand to the lower part of my face and that’s when I felt it. One of my canines had made a clear passage through my bottom lip. I carefully pulled my lip free from my tooth. What a cheap shot! I thought to myself as a few tears escaped to my face.

Suddenly, I heard Sarah scream and I looked up to see Joe running after her with a shovel in his hands. “No one hits my little sister but me!” he shouted.

Get her, Joe!” I screamed as I winced from the pain radiating from my lip. “Knock the daylights out of her!”

I stood up and I ran after him, passing a hysterical Brittany and cheered him on, but we were stopped when our uncle came out and tried to defuse the situation.

What do you think you’re doing?” my uncle asked as he snatched the shovel from Joe’s hands.

Look what she did to Katie!” Joe shouted as he pointed to me.

Sarah ran behind her dad and began to weep. “Daddy, they started it! We wanted to play with them, but they said we had to be the bad guys and when we agreed they started to beat us up!”

You’re lying!” I screamed.

My uncle bounded towards me and I knew clearly what his intentions were. I was about to get the whipping of a lifetime for something that she had coming to her. I turned to run, but I felt a strong hand grab my arm, his calluses and fingers digging into my elbow.

Look what you did to my daughter!” he yelled at me, gesturing towards Sarah who had the same evil grin on her face from only a few minutes before.

I pointed to my lip. “Look what she did to me!” I yelled back.

He spun me around and I felt him rear his hand back. Brace yourself, Katie, I warned myself. This is going to be bad.

Suddenly, a familiar voice came from behind us, bringing the world as I knew it to a halt.

What are you doing?” I heard the voice say. We both turned and saw my mom, who is a good foot shorter than her brother, marching towards us in her maroon scrubs with a look that could scare Hulk Hogan, but at the same time I felt a wave of relief sweep through me. She’d gotten home from work just in time to save me.

And just what do you think you’re doing with my daughter?” she asked in a low voice, her eyes narrowing in on my uncle.

Look what she did to Sarah,” he said to her.

Did you ask Katie and Joe what happened?” she asked.

Sarah told me what happened,” he snapped.

I’ll ask again. Did you ask Katie and Joe?”

No,” he simply said.

You need to hear both sides of the story before you carry out a punishment. Now, let go of my child,” she said.

She gave Sarah a black eye!” he screamed.

Yeah, but look at Katie! I think she’s going to need stitches!” she bellowed back. “Now, let my child go or so help me, I’ll give you a black eye to match your daughter’s!”

He quickly let go of my arm and ushered Sarah and Brittany into their house while Mom made Joe and me get in the car. She drove us to the hospital while we explained to her what happened, the air growing thicker and thicker with anxiety.

What were you two thinking? Katie, what did I tell you about turning the other cheek?” she asked out of frustration.

It doesn’t tell you what to do after that, Mama,” I said quietly, using Joe’s line he’d taught me earlier.

Mama gaped at me before she turned her head to look at Joe. “You told her that, didn’t you?”

Joe beamed at Mom in the rearview mirror, not saying a word.

And then something surprising happened. Mama laughed and the tension that brewed in the air evaporated immediately.

You know,” she began, “I prayed to God asking Him to find a way for you two to work together and stop fighting one another. It wasn’t exactly what I was thinking, but I think my prayer was answered.” Mom, of course, punished us by giving us extra chores to do for the next few days, but I didn’t care. My brother and I had given Sarah a beat down she’d never forget.

By the end of it all, Sarah had several bruises, a busted (not broken) nose, and a black eye that she couldn’t see out of for several days while I only had that busted lip and, thank God, I didn’t need stitches.

Before going to sleep that night, I sat on my bed and read a little as I’ve always done when I heard a knock at my door.

Come in,” I called out and Joe’s face appeared.

Is your lip okay?” he asked.

I nodded. “It hurts a little, but I’m going to be okay.”

He smiled. “You really gave it to her today.”

Yeah,” I said. “It felt good. Is that bad of me?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “It might be, but I can understand how you feel.”

I breathed out a shaky breath. “Joe,” I said while looking down. “Thank you for sticking up for me. I know I get on your nerves a lot, but it felt good that you did that for me.”

I looked to him and he smiled. “You’re welcome, Katie.”

Why did you do it?” I asked.

You’re the only little sister I have. I’m the only one who can hit you and get away with it,” he said with a chuckle.

I closed my X-Men comic book, placed it on my night stand, and turned my bedside lamp off. “I’m kind of tired. I’m going to go to sleep,” I said to my brother.

Joe nodded. He began to close the door, but stopped when I called his name. He stuck his head back in my room, gazing in my direction.

I stared at him through the shadows, the memories of us working together earlier that day flashing in my mind, how we were like Batman and Robin, vigilantes acting outside of the law, enforcing justice when no one else would, how he stuck up for me, and how he said I was his Robin. Would he always choose me? Would he one day push me away? Would we always be the Dynamic Duo? I peered through the darkness of my room and took a deep breath. “Will you always choose me as Robin over Sarah?” I asked in a timid voice.

Joe smiled and before he answered me, I knew what his answer would be.

Katie,” he said, “You’ll always be my Robin.” And with that, he closed the door as the darkness settled in my room.

And you’ll always be my Batman, I thought.

I closed my eyes and slipped into a dream of us jumping buildings in Atlanta, he as Batman and I as Robin, protecting our homeland, fighting Two-Face and The Joker, taking on crime and bringing criminals to justice. Joe and Katie. Batman and Robin. The Dynamic Duo until the very end.

Piece by Katie Farris of Georgia Southern University. You may reach the author here: sf01525@georgiasouthern.edu

Christopher Bernard on Continua in Light: Three Acts, at San Francisco’s Mystery Venue

 

 

From Continua in Light: Three Acts

Hold On: Rehearsal at Mystery Venue in Dogpatch

Continua in Light: Three Acts

Cheryl Calleri and Thekla Hammond

Nancy Karp + Dancers

Music by Morten Lauridsen, Pauline Oliveros, Nik Bartsch and the Tin Hat Trio
Thekla Hammond, Soprano; Lucy Collier, Alto; Marguerite Barron, Alto; Griff Hulsey, Tenor;
Dean Fukawa, Tenor; Glen Leggoe, Bass; Richard Stanton, Bass.
At the San Francisco Performance Art Institute

 

Performance: May 4, 2013

By Christopher Bernard

 

I couldn’t make it to the performance of “Continua in Light” at the San Francisco Performance Art Institute, but was invited to the dress rehearsal the evening before.

The stars were in conjunction, the talents were promising, the evening was bright. I was ready for a little adventure.

The institute is housed in a big, blocky facility that looms at the edge of San Francisco Bay with a lonely and mysterious banality, like a building out of a de Chirico painting, in a part of the city I had never heard of: Dogpatch.

Hold on. Here was a moment of surprise, puzzlement, charm. I was intrigued: anyplace called “Dogpatch” has already half won me over.

I was instructed to take the “T” Metro line to 23rd and 3rd Streets. Hold on! Don’t numbered streets run in parallel – except, perhaps, when they meet in infinity?! Where, by all the stars, was this place?

Simple: tucked between the southern end of Portrero Hill and the bay, a mile or so south of AT&T Ballpark, this place where (it seems) all parallel lines meet is an old working class cum industrial neighborhood, made up of half-retired warehouses, abandoned wharves, a neglected electrical generation plant, acres of parking lots, and a string of residential blocks built in the early twentieth century that – partly because it’s so little known, and so comparatively cheap, and partly thanks to the new “T” line – has been discovered over the last few years by artists and the evening set. A dance studio, the aforementioned PAI, and live-work spaces, and a handful of wine bars, clubs and restaurants have made it their home. There’s even a Dogpatch Saloon.

I swallowed my skepticism (which I have found can be as useless as another person’s unquestioning faith) and, trusting my instructor, took the “T” down down down the rabbit hole of Third Street, miraculously, to the implausible intersection.

I’d been told to walk from there toward the bay, go to the second of three walk-in gates at the building’s address, wait to be let in, make smoke signals with my cell phone in case of distress, and, if my psychopomp to this new underworld showed up, accept from him further directions to the mysterious venue.

After walking down two long, lonely blocks through a wasteland of open lots, with a half-abandoned electrical generation plant in the distance, its enormous unused chimney stack, the color of blood-red brick, towering against the sky, I came to a warehouse-like building with the word “STORAGE” painted in huge letters across its western face.

An amiable white-haired gentleman greeted me as if he’d been expressly sent for me, and another invitee (who appeared mysteriously behind me – hold on: where in heaven’s name had he come from? but by now I was starting to get used to this) and I wound our way up to the second floor and through a cluttered maze of artist’s quarters to a dark, cavern-like space at the back, divided in two by a long white backcloth, in front of which was a performance area and a several rows of small pale chairs.

A muttering of greetings in the dark. A moment to find a seat. A quick look around at other shadowy forms come to witness the ritual of rehearsing. A little eavesdropping on furtive laughter and chatter between the women. Then a little flash of light from two hanging bulbs. A stringing together of two hauntingly lovely female voices. And two female dancers work through the motions of a delicate, highly formal dance in a pre-full rehearsal version of the performance to come.

Think of yourself as watching the tracing of a bare-bones sketch before you see the full painting. That is what I felt, though I didn’t realize it at the time.

The air of a rehearsal is often one of casual informality alternating with intense focus. Stagehands put up ladders, remove ladders, disentangle lights, confer, change their minds, try again. The choreographer (the warm, quietly intense Nancy Karp, one of the Bay Area’s most admired dancers and choreographers) suggests this, that, the other thing – sits on the stage with her dancers giving notes, advice, encouragement. 

Much of the music is staged live, and part of the rehearsal is strictly musical, with a small chorus singing in subvocalized polyphony off to the side.

As it turns out, only the first two “acts” are being rehearsed tonight. The first, “Gioia and Sine Nomine,” incorporates music and a large video projection. The second adds two graceful and tireless dancers, Diane McKallip and Randee Paufve. The third act, with its promise of audience participation, makes rehearsing it largely moot.

After half an hour, the rehearsal lights are finally disconnected, and a full dress rehearsal takes place. As so often happens, seeing and hearing the parts rehearsed separately gives no idea of the particular magic that will occur when the parts are finally blended.

What I then see is the final bit of mystery in an evening that has been, since its beginning, of a most lovely strangeness.

The opening act begins with a double projection against the large backcloth, of partly abstracted views of what I imagine are immensely long traffic flows at night along busy freeways, seen from a distance, the lights elongated through some sort of filtering, mingling and mixing, in long diamond shapes, pencils and pins of light, with starry foci generating them; the end result being an almost mystical play of light, random and yet directed, free yet orderly, bright and vague and shapely, created from the most ordinary of sources. Another projection includes a single light, stretched vertically so it looks like an electric candle flame. (This projection will return at the end, when the lights, stretched vertically before, will be stretched horizontally before re-emerging into their attendant darkness.)

With these projections are performed two pieces by Morten Lauridsen, “O Nata Lux” and “O Magnum Mysterium,” and the modern classic “Deep Listening,” by Pauline Oliveros, sung by a small, tight chorus and a soprano and alto duet.

There seems to be no break between acts one and two. In act two, the two dancers join the video projections, with piped-in music by Nik Bartsch. The dancers perform, stretch, turn, reach out, reach up, reach forward, turn toward one another, then away, summoning and rejecting, embracing, meeting, parting, on an almost entirely dark stage, with low lighting placed along the stage front that projects the shadows of the dancers against the back-projected screens, creating a complex, immersive fusion of light and shadow woven together by the mildly pop-jazz-flavored score. A strikingly beautiful effect results, as the dancers dance not only with each other, and with their own and each other’s shadows, but with the video projections, continua of light and shadow in darkness and light. It is especially fascinating when the shadow of one of the dancers momentarily disappears (while the other dancer’s shadow remains), and the dancer seems to dance, shadowless, with her darkly doubled partner, like a spirit, a ghost, against a backdrop of dazzling streams of brightness. At the end, I could hardly believe I had been watching only two dancers; the stage seemed to be occupied by a perfectly coordinated corps.

I think I detect a story I have often felt in Nancy Karp’s work: a story of independent inspirations working together almost by osmosis, but without willfulness or constraint, to create a mysterious whole larger, more ramifying, more suggestive, than the mere sum of its parts would suggest alone.

Out of the simplest of elements, and imagination, trust and skill, a “magnum mysterium,” truly, emerges.

The next night the show went up. For one night. Then, like a candle, went out. Hold on: you mean, that’s it?

Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and critic living in San Francisco. His novel A Spy in the
Ruins was published by Regent Press (http://www.regentpress.net/spyintheruins). He is also a
co-editor of the literary and arts webzine Caveat Lector (www.caveat-lector.org).