Synchronized Chaos July 2013 – Perspective and Scale

 

Welcome, gentle reader, to July 2013’s issue of Synchronized Chaos Magazine. This time around, our contributors remind us that we can view the universe from various perspectives, including those at many levels beyond or below the human scale.

Staff member and recurring contributor Cristina Deptula illustrates both ends of the spectrum. She looks at the very small with her piece on San Francisco State University’s personalized medicine conference, where scientists attempt to create individual therapies for patients based on their genetics. And at the extremely large, through her piece on a talk on the Big Bang and stellar evolution by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Eliot Quataert at California’s Chabot Space and Science Center.

Regular neuroscience columnist Leena Prasad highlights a current United States national initiative for more detailed human neuroscience research, the BRAIN project, in her July installment of Whose Brain Is It?  This project aims to develop even more sophisticated technologies than today’s fMRI scans, which show greater or lesser activity in different parts of living people’s brains, in order to gain a sense of what is happening in the active regions.

Several pieces this month present the experience of physical, human-scale dislocation. Travel and music essayist Lukas Clark-Memler, in the third installment of his Borneo travelogue, leaves us with several powerful images. Notably, a dying kitten he wishes he’d done more to save, and a final shower, where he cleanses off the dirt and regrets of his travels and incorporates the lessons into his new, changed life and psyche.

Wendy Saddler discusses Alison Nancye’s novel Note to Self, where the main character finds the courage to live her dreams in part through a trip to Peru, relating the character’s internal journey to her own personal story of overcoming abuse. The novels Elizabeth Hughes reviews also involve protagonists lost in unfamiliar surroundings: Jeremy Bowden’s protagonists in Bioweapon face an alienating and oppressive government and culture, and Christopher Bernard’s lone wandering male figure in Spy in the Ruins picks his way through a city fragmented by an earthquake and the accumulation of forty years of rapid San Francisco Bay Area cultural change.

Gavin Hillstone, male lead character in Arthur Gonzalez’ sci fi novel The Photo Traveler, reviewed by Fran Laniado, often gets himself literally lost in space and time. His journey is prompted by a deeper sense of alienation from his abusive stepfather, giving him the impetus to explore his past and find out who he really is.

Each of these characters survives the dislocation, to an extent, by reclaiming and recreating their own identities. The individuality of Bowden’s human-robot hybrid characters give them an edge over the conformist mainstream society. The man in Spy in the Ruins recollects his significant relationships and the formative events in his life to stay sane as he picks through the wreckage. Gonzalez’ protagonist Gavin leaves the only life he knows in search of family, and eventually embarks on a hero’s quest to protect his newfound loved ones and defend their shared belief in limits to human power.

Alison Nancye’s main character Beth, like Lukas Clark-Memler and others who travel to reorient themselves and clear their heads, records the journey in a diary that reflects lessons learned about themselves as well as the daily events. Gavin, fittingly, takes photographs to remember his travels.

Bruce Roberts, when reviewing Paul Meinhardt’s The Afghan Queen, considers his own identity as he reads, and compares it to the main character’s very different life. Unlike the late Lela Meinhardt, an art dealer who often traveled alone to pre-Soviet Afghanistan to bring tribal art to Western markets, his existence has been rather calm, rooted as a classroom teacher in one small working-class California town. Yet, teaching junior high can be its own adventure, and reading The Afghan Queen helps him reflect on his own journey through comparison.

Colin James describes the slow death of a once-passionate romance in his “Love Exit,” as James ponders where he now belongs in his significant other’s universes. This piece, focused on intensely personal longings in the midst of an issue where other work explores the evolution of the universe and inter-cultural and international travel and business ventures, remind us that our ordinary lives are, in fact, a real component of the larger whole. Each individual’s joys and sorrows do matter, do play a part in the broader symphony of life’s existence.

Other poets this month expand our perspective by creating distinct, yet archetypical characters, and then linking these individuals to a broader spiritual and cultural context. Frances Varian reflects on the faith and loneliness of women in poet Christina Rossetti’s age, and finds beauty and spirit in struggling people who would otherwise go unnoticed. By ‘speaking even when no one is listening,’ her characters assert their identity and humanity, and approach a kind of beatification through perseverance and dignity in their circumstances.

In a somewhat similar way, Faracy Grouse explores her poetic protagonist’s relationship to our culture’s current paradigm of clinical diagnosis and treatment for mental illness. Here, perseverance and dignity grants her a long-awaited diagnosis, which finally brings some practical help and a way to make scientific sense of the mysteries in her brain. But it cannot bring the redemption she seeks from guilt over past actions, or fully restore her to communion/community with others.

Christopher Bernard grants beauty and grace to his poetic subjects, who set out in boats crafted from roses, on a violent sea that drowns children and adults beneath its windswept whitecaps. Yet, the strident call in the second half of the piece conveys that these are not pathetic characters, but people brave enough to venture forth and live and love, even though life and relationships will not prove permanent. Performance poet Claire Blotter draws upon historical and mythical perspectives through her fairytale language in pieces about eating disorders, mass murder, addiction, and mental illness. Perhaps, through reaching for other perspectives and paradigms alongside the modern, clinical ways of seeing things, her protagonists can find the healing and reconciliation for which Faracy Grouse’s protagonist longs.

Christopher Bernard also explores folklore’s reflection of personal and social psychology through his review of a recent San Francisco performance of Philip Glass’ opera La Belle et la Bete, patterned after the 1946 Jean Cocteau film. He touches on human issues alluded to through this traditional tale, such as how we define attractiveness, concepts of power and victimization, and social obligations versus personal choice.

Finally, with the remaining two submissions, we return to the dichotomy introduced at the beginning, illustrative of the vast spectrum of the universe, enabling views from a wide variety of perspectives. Returning poet Dave Douglas also examines psychology through his poem “Railway,” shrinking the human mind down to a much smaller scale, and metaphorically viewing the movement of individual thoughts and decisions as boxcars and passengers within a railway system. As with the neuroscience research Leena Prasad mentions, Douglas seeks to understand how the mind selects and processes thoughts, although he looks at it with the tools of poetry and psychology.

Douglas’ small-scale perspective, dramatized with turnstiles, fields of sunflowers, and a derailment, contrasts with researcher and information technology consultant Ramez Naam’s macroscopic view of the promise of innovation to overcome resource shortages throughout human history. Naam presents his thoughts in his book The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, reviewed by freelance science journalist Charlotte Capaldo.

Please enjoy this issue, we hope that it inspires and enlivens you.

Meteorologist taking air temp and wind readings

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Whose Brain Is It?

 

 

 

 

Presented within the flow of the lives of real people and fictional characters, this is a monthly exploration of how parts of the brain work.

The BRAIN
by Leena Prasad

 

“Why a map, Mom?”

“Well, how do people normally use a map?”

“To get oriented to a place and to use that to find their way around.” Brian thinks for a minute. “So, it’s to understand where neurons are located inside the brain and how they are connected?” He pauses. “But don’t neuroscientists and neurosurgeons already know the locations and the connections?”

“They do but the brain has more than one billion neurons–” his mom says.

“–and several trillion neural connections or roads, you can say. Wait, are the neurotransmitters like roads or like cars? I guess they are like cars.”

His mom smiles. “That’s a close analogy. How do you think they will use the map?”

Brian scratches his chin.

“There are many diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinsons that we don’t fully understand,” his mom says. “ Obama’s BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) initiative will help them develop tools that can be used to not only map the brain but to understand how the neurons behave. So, it’s not just about creating a more detailed map but it’s also about getting a dynamic view of the stuff that happens in the brain.”

“But, how, how exactly? How will they capture the messages, the path traversed by the neurotransmitters, the messengers of the brain? I mean, that’s not a static thing…”

“Good point. The current studies use fMRI technologies to measure blood flow in specific parts of the brain. This helps them locate the place where neurotransmitters are active.”

“Yes, I know that!”

“Well, the idea of BRAIN is to provide funding to create more sophisticated tools than the fMRI, to see both high-level view of the neurons and their activities and to get a more close-up view—“

“—yeah, I get it.” He says impatiently. “But how is it different than the research already happening?”

“It’s not necessarily different. It’ll build on the existing work and provide additional resources.”

“Ah, so we can learn about the brain faster.”

“Yup.”

“Mom, maybe I can get involved with the BRAIN initiative.”

“Yes, it’s a new thing. So, there will be all types of opportunities if the funding continues. But, first if you have to get qualified by studying neuroscience.”

“Maybe I can become a brain surgeon!”

“Sure, but that means you will learn and use what is already known about the brain. You won’t be making new discoveries. So you won’t be part of BRAIN.”

“So, a neuroscientist then?”

“Yes, or both,” his mom says.

“I can be like Oliver Sacks and be a brain-surgeon and a neuroscientist and a neuroscience writer.”

“Yes, you can be. But first, start exercising your brain on the math homework that’s due tomorrow.”

“Yes  Mom.”

 


Leena Prasad has a writing portfolio at http://FishRidingABike.com. Links to earlier stories in her monthly column can be found at http://WhoseBrainIsIt.com.

Josh Buchanan, a UC Berkeley graduate, edits this column with an eye on grammar and scientific approach.

References:

  1. Flatow,  Ira, host of President Obama Calls for a BRAIN Initiative, NPR>Science>Research News, April 5, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/176339688/president-obama-calls-for-a-brain-initiative
  2. Neuroscientists Weigh In on Obama’s BRAIN Initiative, Scientific American, May 2, 2013, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=neuroscientists-weigh-in-obamas-brain-initiative

Fran Laniado on Arthur Gonzalez’ Photo Traveler

The divide between literature for older children and literature for adults has gotten much smaller than it once was, in the past decade; and the gap between books intended for adults and those intended for teens is smaller still. In the sci-fi/fantasy genre it is perhaps at it’s smallest; with adults devouring the latest Harry Potter,/Twilight/Hunger Games books along with their kids. The Photo Traveler by Arthur J. Gonzalez is a novel that is classified in the YA (young adult) or teen genre. Why? It has a teenage protagonist, certainly (and one who actually acts like a teenager as opposed to many of his counterparts in other books who act 17 going on 45). But if the character were to be written ten years older, the only really notable change would be that he would (hopefully) be a bit more mature and less impulsive. All of the other circumstances could be altered slightly to fit an older hero. What I am getting at here, is that The Photo Traveler is a novel written for teens and about a teen, but it’s one that could just as easily be enjoyed by adults.

Our protagonist, Gavin Hillstone, initially finds himself in a situation that no child should have to face. His parents were killed in a house fire when he was just out of diapers and he has no real memory of them. He was legally adopted by his foster mother, a kind woman, whose murder he witnessed in a convenience story robbery gone wrong. Living with her drunken, abusive husband, Gavin’s only escape from the ugliness in his life is photography. However, one day, Gavin learns that his paternal grandparents are still alive and across the country in Washington DC. If he had living relatives when his parents died, why was he in the foster system? Why would his grandparents willingly put him up for adoption? In search of answers Gavin runs away to DC, where he meets Bud and Estelle, the family he never knew he had. Bud and Estelle claim that that gave Gavin up so that he would be safe until he was old enough to learn the truth about himself and his family. His family is the descendants of a group of explorers who found something enabling them to travel through time and space via images. If a picture is of a real person or place, Gavin can go there by uttering a simple chant. At first he uses this ability the way a teenage boy would use it: recklessly. But he soon learns that others are after the power that the Photo Travelers possess and more besides. As a holder of that power Gavin has tremendous responsibility to use it wisely.

YA novels with boys as narrators are rare, and when they are written (often by women) the boy is sort of a fantasy version of a male teenager. The Photo Traveler’s greatest strength is that Gavin feels like a 17-18 year old male. In other words, there are times when he can be intelligent, charming and endearing, and there are times when you want to throttle him! For example, he shows kindness and generosity during the Great Depression, but when he sees a photo of his friend’s beautiful cousin who died years earlier, he naturally decides to steal some pictures of her so that he can go back in time and start a relationship with her. Surely nothing could go wrong with that plan, right?

Of course things do go wrong, there and elsewhere. Gavin is warned that with time travel he has to be careful of “the butterfly effect”. He can’t influence past events. But he’s not aware of the secrets that exist within his own family. It is these secrets that make his trips to the past more dangerous than he realizes, and make him wonder who, if anyone, he can trust.

If you’re a fan of any genre, there are times when you know where the book is going more or less. That’s true here as well. But there are times that the author throws you curve that leaves your head spinning. For me that happened about ¾ of the way through the book and again in it’s last few pages. I had been enjoying my journey with Gavin until that point, reading the book at a fairly quick pace. However, then something happened. There was a very definite point at which I stopped being able to put it down until I’d finished. Even finishing the book didn’t leave me satisfied, because as I turned the page following a giant cliffhanger I learned that I could keep an eye out for the sequel. Well, now I’ll have to. I’m hooked! Like Gavin, once the reader gets started on a journey he/she will need to see it through to the end.

Fran Laniado hails from New York, NY and may be reached at fl827@hotmail.com. 

Arthur Gonzalez’ Photo Traveler may be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Photo-Traveler-Series-Volume/dp/0988891646

 

Lukas Clark-Memler on Borneo, Part Three

 

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.

In the previous entry, the reader found that the roads of Borneo are congested with government-subsidized low-end sedans and that the weather is as unpredictable as the narrator’s appetite…

Part III: In which the narrator is challenged physically, mentally and spiritually, and must overcome falsely advertised accommodation, poorly maintained hiking trails, and a night of intoxicated karaoke; in the key of Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast with a hint of postmodern guilt and self-effacing irony.

[Note: some people’s names have been changed to protect their identity…]

7 January 2013, 8:26 AM

Borneo wakes up early. The roosters are up before dawn, and so I am too. The air is cool in the morning. But I sleep late and often miss the freshest part of the day. My toe is healing; the hue of red has softened, and I can walk painlessly. We still don’t have internet, and I don’t miss it. I find myself without distraction. With the internet, I’d have people to catch up with, emails to reply to, articles to write, websites to update. But sans the web, I am task-less. I feel liberated. Free from the infinity of the net.

Outside it’s still cool. The calm air, the smell of grass recently cut, birdsong; it’s almost suburban. Everything’s hazy. I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet that I’m not in Kansas anymore. Borneo sprawls, but I close my eyes. Suburban. Borneo is rain forests one day and hypermodern shopping malls the next. We flit from stilted-villages to four-lane traffic jams; from empty beaches to factory outlet stores. From 7-Elevensto roadside fruit stalls. Drive down the road in any direction and you’ll pass dozens of brand new housing estates. In the space between the jungle and the road, the suburbs grow.

It’s a surreal juxtaposition. And above all, Borneo can be defined as an island in transition. From the traditional to the modern – without any regard for longevity, sustainability or character. Tourists pay to walk around an indigenous ‘longhouse’ as the villagers yearn for a plot in a housing complex.

///

Outside, fringed by rainforest, the suburbs rot. The stench is unmistakable. They rot, but can’t be more than three days old. The houses are only just ‘for sale’, but already the paint is peeling. The gates have yet to be opened, but the locks are rusted shut and there’s bird shit on the doorbell. I walk, for hours, for days, passing the identical estates, watching as they break down, watching as families open the door for the first time; the look of wonder in their eyes, the satisfaction, the dream fulfilled.

///

 

One night in Bau we stop to refill our bottles at a water dispenser. There’s a cardboard box, wet from the rain, on the ground. Inside, a kitten (who can’t be more than a few days old) mews. It shivers, pacing the small box. Its skin mottled, fur sparse, nothing to protect it from the world. It won’t last the night, I think. Somebody should do something, I think. But I’ve never really cared for stray animals. I walk away.

And somewhere, in the humid blackness of night, a kitten dies.

10 January 2013, 10:15 AM

Living at the end of the horizon, the beginning of time; straddling the date-line with the dexterity of a Thai whore; waking up to the rooster’s call and bedding down with the enemy near; staring into the jungle with intensity and patience, waiting… Waiting to leave, and waiting to wake up. For the past six weeks I’ve traveled around the island of Borneo (remaining firmly within Malaysian territory, not daring to stir the Indonesian waters or tempt the Bruneian formalism), and for the past six weeks I’ve felt like a traveler. Wayward, unsettled, constant. Each morning was a new place; each evening would be the last. I saw the sites that the guidebook recommended and of course, stubbornly and steadfastly, went out of my way to see the sites yet to be included in the brochures. If there’s a souvenir shop in the area, chances are the place is ‘over.’ If there’s a tour bus and a parking lot that can accommodate tour buses, chances are the place has been rotting for a while. That vicious, acidic, gaseous smell? It’s the odour of newly minted millionaires. It’s the smell of transactions, handshakes and packaged tours.

Try the beaten path, they suggest. They never demand, only suggest: with polarized winks, cocaine-white smiles and an avuncular nudge in the ribs. Look over here, they grin, at the freshly painted café, at the sparkling bathroom, at the wildlife that is ‘accessible’ and ‘photogenic.’ Don’t open your eyes. Paint the scene on your eyelids and go back to sleep. Don’t use your peripherals, they warn, you might wake up.

It’s not fear of the unknown that keeps people from the real world, it’s their apathy. The Age of Apathy – I’ve titled our epoch far too many times. The caged lion is easier to capture on HD video than the wild one. The raw jungle is dirty, hot, and, dangerous (with a capital ‘D’). The ‘rainforest park’ with its concrete paths, gentle railings, and well-placed lighting is easier and far more photo friendly.

I’m not bitter. I’m not even a cynic. It just saddens me to see so many people, so many blank slates, missing out on the wonder of the world. Not the ‘Wonders of the World’ packaged tour: “We’ll take you around the world and back, and have you home in time for Sunday Football.” Not that. ‘Wisdom begins in wonder,’ is how Socrates would begin his lessons, and I fear we are losing the wonder in our lives. Wonder is scary, it’s unfamiliar, it’s something entirely new; it’s standing on the precipice of a deep chasm, not knowing what lies beneath, but ready to dive into the mystery. It’s the space between ignorance and knowledge, the trust that is required to progress from the darkness into the light.

Wonder is not a minibar, an all-hours gymnasium and conference facilities. Wonder is not a seven-day itinerary with convenient stops at ‘authentic’ ‘local’ restaurants. Wonder is not ‘photo friendly’, not clean shoes, not air-conditioning. Wisdom begins in wonder, and wonder begins in the unknown. Wonder is a leap of faith into the bottomless chasm, into a world unfamiliar, into something new.

Wonder is not finding yourself; wonder is losing yourself.

///

For the past six weeks I’ve been a traveller, but this morning I woke up a resident. There are few adventures ahead of me – I only have ten days left on the island – but I will spend the remainder of my time in Borneo as if I were living here full-time. My father is here for another nine months, and at this point, I might as well be too. There is nothing to suggest that I’m here for a holiday. And I’m not. I live here now. I wake up, eat cereal from a glass bowl, fill the water filter and check the skies. We eat lunch, talk about the day, perhaps watch a film at night, sometimes we swim at the public pool. Tomorrow I will work with a non-profit conservationist group (HOSCAP: Hose’s Civet and Small Carnivore Project) and help redesign and reengineer their website. The weekend is time off. I live. I work. And I do it on the third largest island in the world.

I’m not a traveller, I was never a tourist, and I’m not quite an employee.

However, I am a writer, and I must continue to write where I left off. To continue…

Sabah was tropical and colourful and looks great on paper. Sabah bursts from travel brochures with azure seas and gentle apes. Sabah is beautiful, and an amazing place to spend ten days in search of swimming beaches and wildlife, but underneath the vibrant surface, there isn’t a whole lot there. Sarawak may not dazzle in the same way as Sabah, but it does have an air of authenticity that the north of Borneo is without. Kuching feels exciting and unpredictable. KK can be summed up by a few well-turned phrases (“bustling fish market” and “vibrant all-hours night life” and “fringed by coastal delights”). The accommodation entries in Lonely Planet for Kuching are slim: there’s the upmarket Hilton, and one or two guesthouses. KK bursts with backpacker lodgings. Both cities are fascinating and well worth a visit, but to me, Kuching has something KK does not: Soul.

///

December 17th

Small Chinese noodle house in Bau for breakfast, and then the caves. The Wind Cave is “called Wind Cave because its name in the local language means wind cave.” Figure that out. Bats, spiders, unfinished bridges, and low-flying swiftlets – the Wind Cave wasn’t that interesting. The Fairy Cave was interesting; and like a movie set in the way the green moss shone, the way the stalactites hung, the way the cave mouth gasped. Cinematic. I kneel in front of the titular Fairy statue and feel serene. In the bowels of the cave something stirs, I think.

That night we drive to Freddy’s house for dinner. Freddy is Bidayuh, ethnically indigenous. The Bidayuh encountered the missionaries early on, and thus are devout Christians and speak excellent English. They’re also heavy drinkers. Freddy’s sons run out to meet our car.

The whole family is here tonight. Take your shoes off before you come indoors, they say. This is a God-fearing house, I think I hear someone whisper. A neon crucifix shines bright above the dinner table. A shrine to the Son of God and his impossible mother is set out, carefully, on a shelf to the side.

The neon cross burns. Jesus is watching tonight. It’s all too Fellini-esque: the clash of the religious and the secular, of modern and traditional (MTV is playing on a 42″ flat-screen), the confusion and wooziness of such contrast.

We sit, my whole family, at the dinner table as Freddy’s whole family watches. Amused…

“Make yourself at home.”

“Enjoy yourself.”

“Drink!”

They say.

Glasses are filled with Tiger beer, cheap box wine (plonk), cheaper whiskey. I sip… and warm alcohol floods my throat. My glass is immediately refilled. “Drink!”

Freddy’s favourite film is The Expendables 2.

When the Karaoke machine is turned on, suddenly everyone becomes Elvis. They swing their hips, croon like the King himself. Of course they all know every lyric. I don’t remember the flow of events that night, but individual moments stick out. Singing a duet of Let It Be on karaoke with my father. Clapping along to Tom Jones, Hank Williams, Kenny Rogers. Freddy singing Blue Christmas over and over, getting better and better, as he gets drunker and drunker. Fried chicken wings, potato salad, frozen wedges, and rice wine.

I must have been asleep.

///

On December the eighteenth we went to Bako National Park and saw proboscis monkeys, macaques, bearded pigs, Australian families, expensive water, bored guides, tired children, loud Brits and loud Americans. We walked for six hours and arrived at a disappointing waterfall that was too dirty to swim in. At night, we walked down a boardwalk with a park ranger who showed us three different varieties of stick insects and not much else. If the jungle comes alive at night, then we didn’t see it.

On December the twenty-first, the world ended.

Except it didn’t. Of course it didn’t. On the day that the Mayans did not say the world was going to end, or should I say, on the day that an over-zealous historian falsely predicted the apocalypse, my father and I began our adventure. Our adventure, as a couple of putihs, is an important aspect of this travelogue, and so I will outline it with necessary detail.

///

December 21st to December 24th

Our journey begins at 6:30 AM in Bau. We didn’t pack the night before, so we throw a few shirts into a bag, and drive towards the coast. Lundu is the last big town before the seaside and we stop for ‘laksa’ and ‘kolo mee’ – simple noodle dishes that are common breakfast foods. Lundu is a charming city, with character. With a grand mountain range as a backdrop and a national park right on its doorstep (home to the largest flower in the world, the ‘raflesia’), it should be a popular tourist destination. But it isn’t. We stick out like aliens, like white devils. After we eat, we search for the post office because my father has a letter that requires some haste. Finding the post office, and then figuring out how the mail system worked is our first adventure. For sometimes the greatest adventures in a foreign country are the mundane, everyday tasks that we take for granted. There is beauty in the ordinary, the unexpectedness of entirely commonplace activities can be thrilling. Sending a letter, paying a bill, catching a bus, these can be as foreign as the mammals and foliage and vistas that make for postcard fodder. While a photo of the interior of a post office is perhaps less interesting than a portrait of an orangutan, the experience of sending a letter can end up being far more memorable than encountering a primate.

From Lundu we drive to Sematan, a tiny (one-main-street) seaside village that looks out over the South China Sea. Our destination is across the rough expanse of water, Tanjung Datu National Park, the least-visited reserve in Sarawak and, according to lore, one of the most beautiful. But it would be a long time before we arrived at the park. There was still adventure to be had.

Upon arrival in Sematan we wander to the wharf, and begin our search for a fishing boat to take us to Telok Melano, a village across the bay and the beginning of the Tanjung Datu trail. It is possible to charter a boat to take you directly to the national park, but where’s the fun in that. And, more importantly, it costs around seven hundred ringgits (around 280NZD). And, even more importantly, because it is ‘landas’ (stormy) season, there are very few, if any, boats that will take you around the headland to Tanjung Datu. Getting to Telok Melano was our primary concern. Once there, we could stock up on food and easily walk to the park.

Nobody knew anything about fishing boats coming in from Telok Melano, but they all were eager to help get us a chartered boat. “My friend has very good boat for you sir. Very good price. Only eight hundred ringgit.” The men hanging around the wharf give us all kinds of conflicting information, that the park is closed, that a friend would be coming very soon, that a man named Shakur drives a boat from Telok Melano to Sematan everyday. We try and communicate with the men, with fractured Bahasa Malay, but struggle and fail to get the message across. We hand the local men our phrasebook and they laugh at the greetings and expressions: “Help, I am being robbed!” must mean something funny in Malay.

In Lonely Planet, there is an address for the Sematan Fisheries Office, and we figure they would have a good idea about the boat situation. At the very least they could tell us if the park is open. Finding the Fisheries Office is a mission in itself, not because of the heat, but because of, once again, very conflicting information from locals: “Oh yes, the office is just down the road a little bit” to “I think the office is back in Lundu” to the expected “I do not know, but my friend will give you very good price for chartered boat.”

Eventually we find it. (To get to the Fisheries Office: from the jetty walk 200m away from the sea, then take a left at a small dirt road. The office is upstairs in a blue building – you will see a fish logo and some official looking placards). Inside the office we meet Ray (Mohammed) who speaks fluent English and promises to help us find a boat. Ray has a degree in Civil Engineering but because of the global recession he cannot find a job, so he answers phones at the Fisheries Office to pay off a student loan.

We walk back to the wharf, with Ray and three others (perhaps they worked at the office, but likely they were just some friends). We stand back as they speak with men hanging around and women who look like they’re waiting for something. A boat perhaps? No. There is only one boat coming that day (captained by Shakur and Jeffery) and it is full; full of passengers and supplies for the village. Telok Melano is on the border of Indonesia (Kalimantan), and the villagers sell goods from Sematan to the Indonesian villages nearby. Each morning a boat from Telok Melano comes to Sematan. It drops off and picks up passengers (in this way it is a kind of ferry) and fills up with all kinds of goods from the Sematan market (there is no market in Telok Melano). Then in the afternoon the boat goes back to the village, where the goods are unloaded and distributed to be sold to people from Telok Melano, and at markets in Kalimantan (where basic supplies like butter and eggs and cigarettes are far more expensive).

We don’t know any of this information yet. We only know that we won’t be going to Telok Melano today.

///

Tired, hot, and somewhat defeated, we seek refuge at an open-air food court (at stall number six, Ray’s favourite). An old man sitting down at a table in front of the stall greets us with a loud “Selamat Datang!” He gestures for us to join him and so we sit down with Haji, an eighty-four year-old man who earned his name by making the pilgrimage to Mecca. A ‘Haji’ is a man of the upmost respect, and our new friend certainly has stories to tell. Of course, he cannot not speak English, so we communicate through drawings, hand gestures and vocal tones. We learn: Haji prays five times a day, he is in possession of rare Japanese currency that he is eager to sell to us (only ten dollars!), and that he saved two Australians during WWII, (he was thirteen at the time).

He invites us to stay at his house for the night – we thank him for his kindness, pay for his lunch, and get up to leave, but not before Haji tries to sell us a boat ride to the national park (only two hundred dollars!) We figure we will stay at the Sematan Hotel tonight, and try to secure a boat to Telok Melano in the morn. The prospect at spending a night with the hustling, talkative, pushy Haji does not seem terrible, but it feels hard. To cool off we swim at the Palm Beach Resort infinity pool that overlooks the sea. It’s dirty, full of screaming children, and incredibly refreshing. Later, when retelling this story, we’re asked why we didn’t just stay at the Palm Beach Resort; it’s not expensive, we’re told, and it has the best restaurant in Sematan. At the time, the thought didn’t even cross our minds. We were after adventure. We welcomed a challenge. We expected complications. A night at a resort (no matter what the price) did not factor into our plans. We were explorers, venturing to a little-known destination, not holidaymakers.

After drying off, we drive to the local hotel.

To say it had seen better days would be like saying Miles Davis is pretty good with a trumpet. An understatement. And misleading. This place had likely lived through at least three wars, and looked as if hadn’t been redecorated since the first one (the first war, that is). It didn’t have a ‘No Vacancy’ neon sign and didn’t need one. You don’t ask if a place like this has an available room, you ask if it has a working toilet. It bore the expected ruin of a shabby hotel: threadbare carpeting with stains that shouldn’t be investigated, dirty brown wallpaper that might’ve once been white, a door marked ‘entertainment room’ that was padlocked and rusted shut, a toilet that worked, but only sometimes.

The room itself was not terrible; it was far from good, but still a fair distance away from really bad. There was a broken television and a spitting air-conditioning system. There was a bathroom with a broken mirror and a spitting showerhead. The used syringes on the bedside table come free, I imagined someone saying.

A night at Haji’s seemed to be the safer option. The devil you know, and all that.

We meet Haji at his house around six in the evening. A sign out front read Minyak (“Petrol”) and he has to move his equipment aside for our car to pass. His house is basic, a barbed-wire fence outlined the perimeter, and upstairs we find his ‘home stay’ area. Really it’s just a big empty room with a small bedroom (read: cell) off to one side and a bathroom (read: bucket of water and hole in the ground) at the end.

But still, it’s the experience we were after, not comfort, and Haji was promising to be solid anecdotal material; a storyteller’s gem, crumpled face, eccentric mannerisms and all. After bringing in our bags (a duffel bag with clothes and shoes each, plus a daypack) and organizing our gear in preparation for an early morning departure, we drive to a nearby food court and follow Haji to his usual table. The old man saunters through, with a swagger that reads ‘I’ve got two putihs with me, what’ve you got?’, and he orders for all of us: nasi goreng ayam and iced lemon tea. There’s less talking than at lunch, and after trying to organize another chartered boat for us (along with attempts to sell us more Japanese artefacts), Haji goes quiet. We eat in silence. The rice is dry, the tea watery.

I sleep surprisingly well that night considering the fact that there’s only a small table fan to cool the sauna-size chamber. I wake up in a room with no lighting fixture and for a moment I imagine that we’ve been kidnapped… We head back to the wharf, eat breakfast at number six with Haji and pay him for a night’s accommodation. After handing over forty ringgits, Haji looks disappointed. No, he says, it is fifty ringgit. When we assure him that we all agreed on twenty a person for one night’s stay, he takes the money, doesn’t even attempt to pay for his food, and speeds away on his motor scooter. We never see Haji again.

Now we wait, watching the jetty for activity, scanning the horizon for a fishing boat, sipping kopi susu. Tired, but alert. Ready for adventure, ready to get the hell out of Sematan. At eleven o’clock we get into a fishing boat, headed for Telok Melano. Success. The driver, Gondol (or Camil, depending on who you asked) quickly agreed to a price of thirty ringgits a head and let us on-board. It’s a typical fishing boat, filled with eggs, sugar and petrol. There are only two other passengers (Indonesians) plus the driver and his team of three. The trip takes seventy minutes, and the sea is calm for most of the way. We figure that Gondol will drive with caution because of all the eggs that he’s carrying.

The sky opens up and it starts to pour ten minutes away from the Telok Melano shore. The low tide means a beach landing is necessary, and we arrive at Telok Melano in heavy fits of torrential rain. Soaked, we run up to a shelter at the top of the beach, and wait for the others to drag the boat in. Guiltily, we run back down to the beach to help push the boat up to higher shores.

It was a moment to remember, an event that can be isolated and stored for future reflection: soaking wet, shirt off, on a rarely-visited beach, pushing a fishing boat to higher ground with ten or so other villagers.

From the beach, a wild-eyed man with neither shoes nor teeth escorts us to a home stay. We stay at the house of Mohammed (the village chief, though we don’t know this when we first arrive at his house) and his large and friendly wife, plus a little girl who was either his niece, or a daughter of a friend. Aulya was her name, and though her teeth were rotting, she had a beautiful smile.

Mohammed’s house is a storage juxtaposition of modern and traditional (like all of Borneo): he has two 42″ flat-screens and wireless internet, yet his toilet is broken and over-flowing and the walls are covered in peeling, tawdry wallpaper. The house is built on stilts with tiny bedrooms and an under-equipped kitchen, yet Mohammed and his wife have smart phones, and cable television.

We explore Telok Melano in the evening, walk the sweeping beach fringed with tall coconut palms, wander the single dirt road that makes up the village (admire the large school, that seems far too big), then return to the house. Twenty-minutes away is the border of Indonesia, but we’re told that foreigners are not welcome there so we keep our distance.

Tanjung Datu National Park is a two-hour hike away.

///

That night we sit amongst a village meeting. Three times a year the village elders gather to discuss important affairs, and we just so happened to be staying at the chief’s house on the night of a meeting. On the deck, sitting on the wooden slats, we share coffee and biscuits, and discuss (in Manglish: Malay/English) the difficulties that the village faces, the government’s role in encouraging tourism in the area, and the differences between Malay and Indonesian culture.

I sleep terribly due to the humidity and the fact that the house is powered by a generator, which turns off at midnight. No fan means no sleep. I open the window to let in a faint ocean breeze, but there is mosquito screen, so I have to burn a coil. In the morning I am covered in insect bites.

We wake early, eat breakfast in the dark and leave to Tanjung Datu before eight. Mohammed’s wife packed us a lunch, and stupidly, it’s the only food we bring to the park with us. Compared to the frustration and difficulty of getting to Telok Melano, the trail to the national park is easy. A steep and poorly sign-posted 1 hour 45 minute walk, through thick jungle, above a dramatic shoreline.

By the time we arrive at the Park HQ it’s hot and humid and we’re soaked with sweat. The main park area of Tanjung Datu is set in a large, grassy field. There’s a new building that will eventually act as an education centre and lounge area. There are at least 10 rooms, all with fans and windows. We’re the only putihs in the park. A Sarawak Forestry ranger meets us and, with limited English, shows us to a room. When we ask the price, he shrugs, mumbles something about ‘off season’ and walks away. It seems that we’ll be sleeping freely tonight.

Our day at the park is relatively quiet compared to the previous days’ adventures. We explore the trails, walk down the isolated beach – a fantastic beach with giant boulders that stick out in a Jurassic manner; the jungle spills onto the shore – and swam. The waves are big and the water too warm, but it’s refreshing and a much needed clean after three days without a shower. We body surf and lie on the sand and feel so damn satisfied.

It’s said that you can never truly appreciate food until you have starved for many days. I would like to contend that you cannot truly appreciate a destination until you have toiled and struggled and worked hard to get there. I imagine the tourist who charters a boat from Sematan and comes directly to the national park. Would he really be able to appreciate the beauty of this place? I think not.

In the evening we see a flock of hornbills, the official bird of Sarawak and a Borneo icon, fly low along the beach. The birds are huge and their wings make a loud flapping sound as they glide overhead.

I think: I got my adventure. I got my jungle walk. I carry scars… new scars.

That night we sit downstairs and watch Indonesian television with the Park Ranger (Indra) and another park employee. We’ve eaten all of our food from Mohammed’s wife, and now we’re eating some old crackers, given to us by our new friends. We learn from the two park officials that we are the first guests at Tanjung Datu in three months. Though we’re hungry as we go to bed, the feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment is overwhelming: we made it to the park that so many people fail to reach.

The next morning we rise before dawn, as we have to make it back to Telok Melano by 8:30 AM, in order to catch the boat back to Sematan. We start out on the trail, but have to stop because it’s so dark. In the daylight the path was difficult to navigate, by moonlight it’s impossible. We start again slowly as the sun peaks over the horizon. We try the beach, thinking it will be a faster route back to the village. We stumble around the rocky headland, skinning knees, grazing hands, until we eventually come to a point where we cannot go any further. The sun rises across the water. From the rocks we watch the sky burn, we watch the clouds turn a dark shade of orange, we listen to the waves beat against the shore. Tired, defeated, we are forced to retrace our steps and find our way back to the path. We refuse to accept the fact that we are very close to missing the boat. It is Christmas Eve and the boat leaving at 8:30 would be the final one going to Sematan for at least three days.

We hurry back to the village. And of course, like all great stories, we make it back just in time. We say goodbye to both Mohammeds, and speed back to Sematan. It’s funny, just one day earlier we arrived at Telok Melano as strangers, now we were leaving as friends and special guests of the chief. What a difference 24 hours can make.

Back on the mainland, we eat breakfast at a Chinese noodle house and take a moment to relax. We head back to Haji’s, nervous that the old man would try to hustle us to pay for the parking (even though we had agreed that he would let us park there for free if we spent a night at his house). He’s not home, so we thank his wife and promptly get the fuck out of there. I don’t remember the drive back to Bau.

Later that day, we go for a swim at a public swimming pool. It’s a fantastic ‘water park complex’ with a large infinity pool, an Olympic-sized lap pool, and world-class diving boards. I tread water and allow my body to stretch and smooth out the aches of the past three days. A shower wouldn’t have been enough to clean off the grime and sweat and intensity of the whole journey – I needed to be fully immersed in water, entirely submerged, every pore drenched and cleansed. I didn’t shower before diving into the pool, and three days worth of dirt gathers on the surface of the water; the filth swirling in eddies around me. The adventure is over, but my body will ache for the remainder of my time in Borneo.

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

 

Bruce Roberts on Paul Meinhardt’s memoir The Afghan Queen

The Afghan Queen—a Review

 

For 35 years, I was a teacher. My life revolved around one school, one classroom, a multitude of kids and lessons. It was a good life that allowed me to be creative and watch the eyes of 7th graders light up with learning. It was a life very successful–within narrow parameters.

However, I’ve always admired people who lived very different lives, who never punched a clock, never stayed in one location, traveled the whole world as their classroom. Such a life fills Paul Meinhardt’s The Afghan Queen: A TrueStory of an American Woman in Afghanistan.

This very interesting book is part travelogue, part memoir, part American Dream success story, part political commentary, and all love story. Paul’s wife, Lela, who passed away in 2000, was a wife and mother, a free spirit, a dreamer, a wanderer. Between 1975 and 1979, with the blessing of her supportive family, her dreams took her fifteen times to Afghanistan, where she also developed into an international diplomat and a very successful business woman.

Working as an art importer in the U.S., Lela was very successful, but also frustrated because her supplier was unreliable. Solution? Go to Afghanistan herself, the springboard for all these trips. Often she went by plane to Kabul, via Frankfurt and Zurich and other European cities where she had established business contacts to buy and display the Afghan art she returned with. Often she had to fly on Arianna Airlines, dubbed “Scarianna” by the passengers.

Sometimes though, she traveled via a hippie caravan of Sannyasins, European members of an Indian sect on their way to Delhi, via Kabul. Along the way, she made contact with local artists, while also serving as house mother and auto mechanic for their vulnerable transport vehicles: “We worked out a system to change flats in under 30-minutes. . . . As driver and mechanic, I’d become quite fond of old-lady-bus.” (p. 194)

An American woman alone in Afghanistan is not the safest of scenarios. However, this charming, adventurous lady learned from her contacts how to negotiate in a foreign culture. The key concept was “baksheesh”—flirting, tipping, bribing, socializing to expedite a deal. Her ace in the hole was off brand levis. She kept several pair on hand to give the guards so they could speed through border checkpoints. And to negotiate properly she became like family to the people she dealt with. Thus one contact would lead her to another to another, all stemming from an original contact who liked her style and virtually adopted her as part of the family.

Her main interest, of course, was the art—the art she could sell. That included a wide variety of metal ware: bronze, copper, silver. Jewelry of turquoise, golden serpentine, Afghan amber, and of course, the beautiful blue of lapis, were among her mainstays. But she loved it all, selling folk musical instruments, wall hangings, prayer beads, textiles, decorative camel harnesses and even opium molds. Her wandering inquisitive spirit took her to dealers everywhere to indulge her interest in native art—and profit.

After all her time in Afghanistan, she knew most everyone, and was even invited to parties at the embassys to schmooze with the ambassadors. From these knowledgeable people, she learned that her adventure would soon be over, that the Soviet Union was taking over Afghanistan. That meant she should have the good sense to get out—which she did.

This book will win no prizes for literature. The writing is clear, but simple, with little attempt at artistic writing. However, if readers would like an interesting book of adventures by an indomitable personality to pull them out of their humdrum lives, then The Afghan Queen is the book.

 

Bruce Roberts

June, 2013

 Bruce Roberts is a poet and schoolteacher from Hayward, California. He may be reached at brobe60491@sbcglobal.net

Paul Meinhardt’s Afghan Queen was published by New Jersey’s Turn the Page, and may be purchased here: http://www.afghanqueen.net/

 

Poetry from Faracy Grouse

 

Baking Mad

They used to call it a nervous breakdown
but now they have more specific names for each part-

acute stress reaction
major depressive episode
delusions
auditory and visual hallucinations

I had them all

Stephen Fry aptly calls it being infested with a demon-
On television he looks like he’s tamed his well

I wish I could do the same with mine
instead of worrying about how deep the despair will be
this time

Textbook bipolar they told the medical student,
it only took twenty years to diagnose

With a litany of past initials, ADD, OCD, PSTD
I thought I was just lazy
unable to get out of bed for weeks

Turns out the grand dame has been with me all this while
and it scares me to now know she will never leave my side.

Living Hell

It will find you

in every beautiful song
in your most flattering clothes
in the scent of your own perfume

it watches like a specter

feeding off the guilt that has infested you

lurking in your memory
waiting for the subtlest trigger
to spawn its leathery web-

Once in its grasp it will strangle every
drop of sense from your mind
until you succumb willingly to
its excruciating embrace-

Hell comes in small doses
over months and years
making sure you can never quite forget
your transgression.

Faracy Grouse is a poet, screenwriter, mother and European traveler, currently in London completing a MFA program. She may be reached at alumine3@yahoo.com 

Wendy’s Wild World of Books

Alison Nancye’s Note to Self

Author Alison Nancye

The book is called Note to Self by Alison Nancye, and it tells the fictional story of a 39 year old single woman named Beth, who has been beaten by the world in more ways than one. Finally being fed up with the losers for men in her life, her job, and the chains of her own past, she packs up everything from Sydney, Australia,and moves to Peru and starts a completely new life, in which she learns to embrace the culture, people, and learns to really live again. I feel I can relate to the character of Beth, as that was me BEFORE I got away from my abusive environment, and got the help I needed. I think the one scene I can relate to the most, is her falling down in the middle of a crowded street in downtown Sydney, and NO ONE caring. This book ultimately not only re-affirmed my faith in the Lord, and how He has given me so much healing from my past, but reminded me of how He gave me the courage to step out on faith and attend PBU (Now Cairn University), develop a backbone with not only my own parents, but also other men (the right way), ultimately leading to the day I met Ricky Saddler, my husband. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is in this situation, and wants to spread their wings, whether for the first time, or again.

Alison Nancye’s Note to Self is available here, from New Jersey’s Turn the Page Publishing: http://turnthepagepublishing.com/books/note-to-self/#.UcYtx_nrz7S

Wendy Saddler is a reader, anti-corruption and pro-domestic peace social activist, and an assistant literary publicist from Bensalem, Pennsylvania. She may be reached at blondetrekkie@comcast.net

 

Poetry from Frances Varian

 

Devotion

Frances Varian

For Dinah’s Christina Rossetti

There is a difference between kneeling and bowing
that has to do with endurance
You talk to God & swim in shadows

you say I believe

while catching snowflakes on your tongue
You recreate the watery communion for the others

My friend will quench the loneliness of
your mis-representation though she may seem an unlikely savior,
you are not the first stray she’s taken in

You could both slip quietly into the fold,
cover your slender shoulders and smile
You could both pretend that faith was more
dumbluck than educated guess

Yet you walk swiftly through
late November, with London’s ghosts
whispering in your ear, you imagine the snow falling,
all the water drops for your soul and yours alone

You will inherit the earth.
good luck with that

I love women who talk when no one is listening

la divina

Frances Varian

if you break
do it quietly so that no one hears you

no one comes running

be a small tear in a glass vase
cunningly invisible
until it implodes from the weight

of the holding of water and beautiful things

christ, if you break that way
imagine what they’ll say about you

regret the hours passed when you stood
empty and unnoticed

do not announce
do not indicate. She

walks in beauty
a weeping Madonna

and her sorrowful story line lifts her
like a beacon above

the choir of whores she keeps
confidence with

she’s got tunnel vision for the business &
a $75/hour ass to boot

she’s so sad you can’t help
but get hard

every time she walks by

& it’s not the sadness that’s got your hand
down your pants
it’s the way she holds it be-

cause it’s precious and she might
slip that pouting frown mouth over you
and suck the evil out
of your heart

leave you spent and empty and free    of your will

which has always been miserably mediocre    baby

it’s the way she holds herself
up around the hairline fracture down the center

the way muscle and tendon have adhered
to the split stupidly obedient science

she is a martyred saint voodoo priestess miracle
with her faith bunched around her ankles

picture perfect

mainlines God and the Devil on alternate days
Mom     Dad the custody battle

anything to hold
on cause she

knows    she’s gonna break &
she’ll be damned it you get her to howl


everyone I love has this
hard dirty cough like they could
push up the ugly and spit it back   where
it came from

but they are victims of gravity
and swallow back into them
the notion the poison and poor
folks are made for one another

I rock myself to sleep for this
and I rack my brain for the answers

to days that unravel like symptoms
in a Public Health clinic

begging for diagnosis
and no money for the medicine

everyone I love breaks down like a car
on the freeway going 70
break down that fast ain’t pretty,
No

the best mind of my generation
is not the best heart

and the hearts of my best loves
watch their cunts poison pumped
by the

unworthy

over & over & over again

she’s got you all jacked up on
possibility and redemption fucking fantasies

suddenly you know, you’d
kill to be the one

sucking the sweetness

making her 30 pieces of silver noose
and 2 air kisses for the trip

you say
fuck-doll
bim-bo
sing-song

like you’re waiting to hear

thank you

you’ve got your hands
down

your pants

precious

fluid pumped continuously through
the veins of the unworthy in-

to the mouth of the miracle worker
you’d turn on a
dime to break her ask
her for change when you’re done


All of my rosy people with
their candy cancer sticks and charming
refusal to drop dead

quietly

they march on

obedient as science
but far less ordered

the proletariat as phlegm in
the lungs of the master plan

I no longer believe in our salvation
welcome, true dawn of the revolution:

so sad you get hard every time

sacred

lullaby of the miracle worker her
heavenly chorus of

“cum on my face”

before this over you will
forever understand that
your redemption was purchased for

$75 and the sweetest ass this side of the
tracks

All of my people have been instructed
to break quietly    a

small tear in a glass vase
cunningly invisible until they implode
from the weight of the holding

I believe in one holy and apostolic church

Now Go Rebuild The World

Frances Varian was a member of Seattle’s National Poetry Slam team in 2000 and has subsequently performed on numerous stages across the country, including the Seattle Poetry Festival. At the September 2004 Bumbershoot Arts Festival, she debuted a feature-length, choreographed poem paying tribute to the victims of the Green River Killer. Her work appears in Without A Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Classtsunami, her independently published collection of poems, is available on franvarian.com [link defunct as of May 26, 2010]. She works as a queer/women’s health advocate in Seattle where she lives with her amazing sweetheart and three dysfunctional cats.

Poetry from Colin James

                LOVE EXIT

     Spit and the talk was of
     how your debt was lessening.
     The saliva hovering
     over a sleeveless blouse.
     My arms lattice to your growth.
     Kisses that once reminded me of the sea,
     they rolled like waves
     covering the falling away.
     I have a beer coaster with your name on it,
     and glass that has squandered the opaque.

 

Colin James may be reached at colinrichardjames@yahoo.com 

‘The Rose Shipwreck,’ poetry from Christopher Bernard

 

 

The Rose Shipwreck

By Christopher Bernard

Such a shipwreck of flowers – a petaled wreck
on an azure sea, of blood-red salmon 
stained with peach, with a steady clear
tolling of deep bells under a sheer blue sky
half-deafened in the gale – flowers staining
 
the sea in disintegrating color, like the heads of children
drowning – and the magnificent ship slowly dissolves
in the whirlwind of its wreckage,
a dream of itself, a littering of its losses
to wind and tide, a fatal cry of roses
brimming its mouth – the thunder heaves a shout,
and the sea rumbles like a vast
train in a tunnel – a flare of lightning
disappears, silent as the shipwreck sinks,
spilling its wreckage across the white floor
of a seasick ballroom, bales of flowers
splitting till the petals cover the wastes,
like the Roman’s feasters, drowning them in roses.

The ghost of a sea swallows the ghost of a ship
under the ghost of a sky: listen, you can hear them,
the ancient sailors singing like the sirens,
calling you to sea – to sea – to sea –
steel gray, enamel blue, and white with foam,
to join the ships that blossom like so many roses
and scatter their petals as they perish, and drown, and sing,
like them, calling the next generation
to sea – to sea – like us – well? will you brave it?

will you build your ships of roses and brave the sea?
or is its storm a terror worse than childhood’s,
not to be escaped, the waves and wind
the white of a cage, the ice and snow cold bars
in a burning sky that seals the world and twists
down on our heads even as we heave
out into the open sea, our white sails out
like butterfly wings, our hopes so many hooks
the wild sea can catch and hold us with,
like love itself, a bark, a cage, a brand?

Shall we build our ships of roses and brave the sea,
that rose of fire, garden where winds take root 
and grow into forests?
Though night is coming, shall we aim our bow toward the dark,
though the storm is coming, shall we spot the thunderhead
and steel our sheets till they thrum in the underwind
and the water flails and hisses over the bulkheads
and churns and cries and crashes in our wakes
like an arrow thrusting us ahead, to sea,
to sea, far out, pushing us till we fly
into the storm? Shall we build our ships
of roses? Shall we flower over the whirlwind sea?
 

 

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). “The Rose Shipwreck” was originally published in Caveat Lector.

Poetry from Claire Blotter

 

CUTTING THROUGH SNOW

 

Whose son is this? I think I know

the one who lost his mind in snow

Why did we freeze him out again?

Why didn’t we listen in blizzard

after blizzard?

 

What drug is this? I think

I know: purple hash or heaven

knows, ecstasy- Wandering deeper

into the web he popped pills drank

the chill of lacy flakes of roaring winds

of frozen lakes- Can we heal

his shimmering soul strain the stones

from melting snow? What blazing sun

what glacier gone

can keep the ice from

moving on

 

WHAT WILL WE GIVE?

In memory of Sandy Hook

 

 

What will we give to the Queen?

the dreams of her own sweet

children

 

What will we give to the King?

our taxes and castles

 

What will we give to the Dark

Knight? The souls of children

mowed down one by one

in their horrified rows

 

What will we take from the story?

two hand guns a rifle stashed

in the back seat

 

What do we bleed as a nation?

our children

our children

our children

once more

once more

our children

our children

our children

 

Each one stands and falls

for them all

 

 

ON DEPARTING JOHN WAYNE AIRPORT

 

High in the friendly United skies

a video screen explodes on the upright back

of the seat a foot and a half in front of me

As soldiers charge a hill bombs explode

with no clear way to stop them-

The guy across the aisle has

tacked a black cloth over the screen

to spare himself the devastation-

He tells me: If you press long enough

on the faintly marked arm of your chair

the war eventually disappears-

But you have to press hard and

keep holding-

 

 

REGRET

We vacillate in the luminous night   under white blue stars

      like steering wheels   like flies over

                                                pudding

It’s a true translation  except for the vowels

     guttural with unpronounceable sounds we keep

trying to prove

We insist  grapple search out corners  empty

pockets of coins of tissue unsure who paid us

who loved us

Even the tumultuous river contracts with

   autumn’s caution: crackling leaves   bodies, stiff

        with sudden  indescribable sorrow

We vacillate  pull paper from the windows  then regret

          the light

  

  

MIRROR

 

Mirror to yourself,

mild mercy You look

only when called when

your mother calls you back

to her- Gray sheep

apple blossom and

you come as you did

as you must bringing

the bread or broom

helping helping till

all is clean all is wiped

dry till you look up though

she does not smile back

already planning the next

meal purging dirt that rises

at her door Mirror to yourself,

mild mercy Search again

and again but only

her face stares

back

   

 

OUTPOSTS IN THE DARK

 

The moon is a lemon floating in a vat of

tar glowing really impossible to

peel my heart is a car window stuck

in its groove that won’t slide down my

emissary shut in its safe embassy when

I look up stars shoot down like fiery bees or bullets I

think no where is safe where there is no mother I try but

maybe never ever recover from not enough inside the lemon is healing

juice that’s sour the heart pounds from the strength of its fibery mass

tough woven walls never drop down completely like tired stars Are

they torches in night these tiny guide lights that keep falling or anonymous

weapons from an omnipotent sky I can’t know for sure but sometimes

sense the shining the steady beats of my heart as stepping stones

to jump from then precariously balance one two three before I’m swept

back into treacherous motherless

seas.

 

From Claire Blotter: 

My poetry has been recently published in Barnwood, Gargoyle Magazine, the California Quarterly, Canary, the We’Moon 2012 & 2013 Datebooks and the anthology, KINDEGARDE: AVANT-GARDE POETRY FOR CHILDREN, among other anthologies and journals.  As a performance poet who competed in the early National Poetry Slams in Chicago and Boston, I’ve concentrated on spoken word performance and collaborative theatrical work in the past. For the last 2 years I’ve focused on revising and refining my poetry for the page. My third chapbook, MOMENT IN THE MOMENT HOUSE, was published this year by Finishing Line Press.

Claire may be reached at savesongbirds@yahoo.com  and lives in Sausalito.

 

Christopher Bernard reviews Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete

 

 

Josette Day as “Belle” and Jean Marais as “the Beast” in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

 

GIVE ME BACK MY BEAST!

 

La Belle et la Bête

An Opera by Philip Glass

(based on the film by Jean Cocteau)

The Philip Glass Ensemble, with vocal soloists

Conducted by Michael Riesman

 

To celebrate Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, the Philip Glass Ensemble came to San Francisco to perform the magisterial minimalist’s opera, La Belle et la Bête (“Beauty and the Beast,” based on Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s celebrated fairy tale).

What makes this work unique is not that Glass based his work on a film; he had already done so with the first of a trilogy of works based on work by the unforgivably talented, unapologetically gay, and compulsive appropriator of surrealist gestes, Jean Cocteau: the chamber opera Orphée.

Here he went a good deal further. He stripped out the entire original soundtrack (which took some gall, as it’s a very fine one, composed by Georges Auric, an original member of the bad boys of French modern music, “Les Six”) and replaced it with an original score, with singing parts for the original spoken ones, the entirety performed live as the film is screened overhead.

And he chose a nearly perfect source, as Cocteau’s 1946 film – with actors Jean Marais, Josette Day, and Raoul Marco, and handsome camera work by Henri Alaken – considered by many critics to be Cocteau’s masterpiece, is a work itself of near-operatic fantasy.

What might have turned out to be one more lamentable exercise in postmodern kitsch is a near-masterpiece, a posthumous collaboration that would probably have tickled the ever-experimenting Cocteau.

The story is almost too well known to recount, yet is told with a few fresh twists: Belle, a Cinderella-like figure, is scorned and exploited by her two wolfish sisters and ne’er-do-well brother, though doted on by a father oblivious to his daughter’s misery – Belle is an unwittingly willing victim, in which those who love her, and even she herself (through an ideology of self-denial that reinforces the victim’s weakness and the power of the dominant – sound familiar?), comply in her servitude. She has a lover, a companion of her irresponsible brother, whom she refuses to marry because she feels bound to take care of her oblivious father, who allows Belle to be bullied and exploited by her two older sisters, who intend to get married and out of the household as soon as they find victims – er, husbands.

The father goes off to the city after promising Belle he will bring her back the only thing she asks for: a rose. After a business venture goes badly awry, he rides back home through a forest at night, where he discovers a magic castle, magically alive, which he enters and is served a feast by magical servants. Later he visits the castle’s garden, where a rosebush blossoms. Remembering his promise, the old man plucks the loveliest rose for his daughter. Upon which the prince of the castle, a hideously deformed monster (in the film, he looks like a giant cat, with sensitive ears that telegraph his feelings, perking him up when he says a prey for his next meal in one of the film’s deftly humorous touches), appears and tells the old man he has committed the one crime that is unforgivable in that castle, and now must die. The old man pleads for his life, and the monster relents, telling him he can go home to give the rose to his daughter, but only if he promises to return.

Once the old man is home again and tells his children of his plight, Belle refuses to let him go back, and goes in his stead, to face death as punishment for her father’s crime. But the monster, upon seeing her, falls instantly in love and instead of killing her, imprisons her in his castle and begins to woo her, even though he is aware that his hideous ugliness makes it impossible for anyone to genuinely love him.

Some men feel a curious self-contempt when they become aware of the strong physical feelings they have for women they admire and love; this story works well as an allegory for this, in an age that likes to pretend it is beyond such callowness.

The film, while never losing its fairy-tale quality, never falls into camp or archness, satire or over-sweetness, even at the dangerous happy-ever-after ending: it has a darkness, a fadedness and grittiness, that gives it, for all its fantasticality, a hardness, an actuality – like any poem worth its salt. This helps make the film’s final transcendence peculiarly credible and moving. Never has wishful thinking had a kinder, more eloquent advocate. (Though the final transformation of the Beast into a prince has disappointed some; is fabled to have made even Marlene Dietrich cry out, “Give me back my Beast!”)

Cocteau, who had made only one film before this one, in 1930, the surrealist classic Blood of a Poet, had refined his cinematic technique so that he knew just how much magic he needed to create in his world: disembodied arms holding candelabra in darkened hallways, disembodied hands pouring wine into the old father’s goblet, the masklike heads carved into the fireplace mantel shifting their eyes in curious glances at the innocent human partaking of his magic fare without so much as a question, Belle moving down a long corridor wafted by curtains blowing from floor-length windows, on invisible wings, without stirring her dress or seeming to move a shoe.

Joining Cocteau’s magie, douceur et poésie is Philip Glass’s. The signature style of the master musical stylist of our time is much in evidence. The essentials are all there: a steady rain of eighth-note ostinati, with the occasional long arpeggio, broken unpredictably by stately static chords; a steady house-music like pace that rarely varies over the 90 minutes of the work; continuous harmonic variation; and a keen sense of orchestration, which his ensemble, which includes several keyboards that can produce a theoretically infinite number of different sounds, makes possible.

Glass does not always avoid the danger of monotony, though what is remarkable is that he fails so rarely. He does this by constantly varying the melodic shape of the rhythmic ostinati and rarely allowing the music to sink into a groove of exact repetition except where such figures work to create a feeling of oppression or suspense. The singing lines are not arias but quickly paced, almost conversational lyrical recitatives, which cut through the ostinati like shards of roughness through what is sometimes an excessive smoothness of musical texture.

One peculiarity (noted by Romancha Pralapa) is that the original film is 94 minutes long, but the opera is only 90 minutes, as Glass, when composing the score, seems to have used a version of the film projected at too fast a speed. The result is that the performers in the film act and speak at just slightly too brisk a tempo, which has the effect of making the film seem a little like old-fashioned screenings of silent films before modern projectors were able to project them at the originally intended speeds.

The Ensemble has this music in their blood and clearly love the score. The admirable singers were Gregory Purnhagen, Hai-Ting Chinn, Marie Mascari, and Peter Stewart.

The opera was performed, as part of San Francisco Performances, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’ Lam Research Theater.

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).