Poem 16 ± World AIDS Day 2017

Irene Borger

day-off, free tickets
someone’s misguided idea
of a good time

Fourteen young dancers have come to Universal Studios. Eleven are orphans. In the next hour, we will pass a shoot-out at the old corral, a sea monster attack, a fake earthquake in a fake subway station and an exploding bridge. I’m there to write their story.

Before the war, the company director, (soft inward eyes), danced the great monkey parts at the palace. Then he hiked through the mountains for three cold months, buried gold costumes under banyan trees, lost all eight sisters and both parents, escaped the Khmer Rouge. After the war he found the hand stitched fabrics eaten by white ants.

piece by piece by piece,
he stitches the company
back together

I sit on the open-air bus between the translator and the director. Is it true that eighty percent of the artists were murdered? Closer to ninety, the translator says. Our bus crosses the vibrating bridge set to explode. There are gunshots, fake gunshots. The translator, a dancer who years before was trained to glide serenely, covers her face. The youngest dancer, who played Sita last night, and her grandmother, one of three soloists to survive the war, huddle together in the seat in front of me.

In the morning, I will sit with my friend who is dying, (my friend who once danced), and describe how the grandmother, the King’s favorite, held both my hands as we waited on line for hot dogs. I will read him stories from the program, tell him how the hero draws a magic circle around Sita to prevent evil from touching her, and stop before I get to the part where the protective spell is broken. I do not want the protective spell to be broken.

His eyes will be closed by then (he is tired, my friend who is dying) but he’ll open them and smile when I tell him that

in the old days,
dancers were thought to be
signifiers of happiness.


logoIrene Borger is the editor of From A Burning House: The AIDS Project Los Angeles Writers Workshop Collection (Washington Square Press, 1996), which developed from the writing program Borger founded as an artist-in-residence at AIDS Project Los Angeles. The audio version of From a Burning House (Simon & Schuster Audio, 1996) was nominated for a Grammy in the spoken word category and installed at the Whitney Museum. Borger currently serves as the director of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually to five risk-taking mid-career artists working in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theatre and the visual arts. She edited The Force of Curiosity (CalArts, 1999), a book of interviews with twenty recipients of the Alpert Award marking the program’s fifth anniversary. Borger teaches on-going writing workshops in Los Angeles and the Bay Area and at Rancho la Puerta in Tecate, BC. For information on training workshops for writers wishing to start community-based writing programs, and on the use of stories from Burning House for public readings, please contact Borger via email: iborger@alpertawards.org.

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