The Dark Cracks of Kemang by Jeremy Roberts
In 2013, poet Jeremy Roberts did something few of us have the guts to do: he looked at his Auckland life, decided he’d supported his musician daughter on enough gigs, and dared himself to squeeze in some adventure in the third quarter of his life.
Age 53, Roberts agreed to spend a year teaching at NZ International School in Jakarta, a city of 10 million in a nation of 271 million. The move was pretty ballsy. In fact, The Dark Cracks of Kemang, published September 2022 (ten years after his adventure began) is entirely a meditation about finding the beautiful exhilaration of daring oneself to live more adventurously. Why’d he do it, and why’d he write the memoir? Because Roberts is obsessed with rock ‘n roll – which, at the time Roberts moved to Indonesia, incoming president Joko Widodo was obsessed with, too.
Roberts is today settled in Napier, running Napier Live Poets, various page projects, and regularly interviewing poets on Radio Hawke’s Bay. But to become a leader and stand up in the literary landscape required a Hero’s Journey to Jakarta. In the book, Roberts spends 2013-2016 teaching by day and performing expat poems at night upon unfamiliar stages in an unfamiliar culture, trusting a colourful Manchester socialist to be his on-stage companion, playing guitar while Roberts waxed poetry (It evidently turns the right heads, because Roberts meets a Javanese woman who becomes his wife).
The name of the poetry duo Roberts created in Jakarta was The Bajaj Boys – named for the three wheeled tuk tuk taxis which thousands of expatriate international teachers like Roberts relied upon to get around a city so humid that Roberts’ leather jacket turned mouldy in the cupboard.
In the spirit of wild writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and Sam Hunt – all of whom get discussed in the book - The Dark Cracks of Kemang effortlessly flits between English and Bahasa, present tense and past tense, poetry and prose.
The book is also unafraid to lay bare all the ups and downs of the developing nation. Just a couple of pages in, we get a description of the bum-washing hand-held bidet device known as ‘semprotan air’; Indonesian quirks are explained to us on every second page, actually; and the book gives us straight-up appraisals of Indonesian food, language, clothing, customs, corruption, religion, attitudes - as well as taking an objective look at the attitudes of Roberts’ peer Western teachers, for better and worse (one teacher is preoccupied with the loss of her precious vibrators which Customs confiscated at the airport).
Each page is wide-eyed with fascination at the colourful archipelago. The book is also about the forces which brought him to the Bajaj Boys in the first place - Roberts covers his student days at Auckland Uni, tropical storms, monkeys, bat shit vs rat shit, and a tonne of cultural discussion told without any pejorative Western condescension. It’s pure fascination – Roberts is as impressed or unimpressed with Jakarta as he is Auckland, Napier or California (where – at the same time as Roberts is finding his inner rockstar, his famous daughter Eden Iris is doing the same in Los Angeles).
Want a book which takes you on a three-wheel motorised rikshaw tour through a huge segment of the world’s population whom Kiwis hardly ever interact with? And would you like your book to discuss Ozzy The Stooges, the Smiths, sweaty palms, c-dizzle, sex, death, and explain the Bahasa word for ‘boring’ all on page 138?
Read The Dark Cracks of Kemang and think about doing something exciting with your life, even if you’re 53 like Roberts. Write about it in steamy, sensual poetry. Record it and publish it on Soundcloud and YouTube – just like Jeremy Roberts has done.
Reviewer: Michael Botur