Rose Metal Press
104 pgs | $14.95
Retro video games of the late twentieth century have become iconic symbols of an era. For today’s twenty-somethings, references to and images from the games of their youth can conjure memories from a time not dominated by work and taxes and rent and car insurance and all the other doldrums of adulthood. Somehow the rectangular piece of hard plastic with sharp corners that is the NES controller—far from the ergonomic devices that come with next generation consoles—is comforting to cradle, relieving to mash with sore thumbs.
With a couple decades distance between us and the heyday of these games, it is easy to forget exactly what made them so incredible, even easier to reduce their magic to simple nostalgia. Corporations prey on that nostalgia to turn a profit. Consider the recent Internet Explorer ad “Child of the ‘90s,” which uses snap bracelets, floppy disks, and—of course—retro video games to entice potential customers. In the literary realm, an expanding pool of writers (Brian Oliu, Mike Meginnis, Salvatore Pane) delve into the golden age of gaming for inspiration and resurface with bright, imaginative work. Add to the pool B.J. Best with his collection of video-game inspired prose poems, But Our Princess is in Another Castle.
More than fifty poems comprise the collection, most titled directly after games as old as Pong and as young as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The book is divided into eight parts or “Worlds”, and the poems in each World are connected thematically. The “Map World” poems, for instance, all pertain to movement or travel, geography or space. This World includes “Frogger,” a poem ringed with yearning and regret:
“Sometimes, in the closet of 3 a.m., I imagine the journey we didn’t take. The go-kart track in Fargo where we slammed around corners as easily as swinging a stopwatch on its lanyard. The clouds slinking like submarines through the ocean of an Oklahoma sky… I go back to bed, dipping my toes in the river of sleep. I can almost picture the sunset over the Platte River we didn’t see, ripe as a nectarine, or hear water churning like an engine in a ravine below while I straddle a fallen log.
Some things are too dangerous to cross.”
Best’s poems are not programmed results; they interact or relate to the referenced games in a variety of ways. Some of the poems, like “Frogger,” are connected to the namesake game by an abstract idea—the idea of deciding (or not deciding) to cross a barrier, to move forward. In Frogger the game, the player always at least attempts to proceed, and the frog either survives to the over side of the screen or suffers death. The narrator of Best’s poem must come to terms with having shied away from an adventure.
Other poems deal more directly with games. In “Ms. And Super Pac-Man” Best creates an original history for the classic characters:
“They met at Overeaters Anonymous. She liked his muscular mouth; he loved the sweet-sexy bow in her hair. They chased each other around a playground like school kids—her knees on a swing; his dizziness from the merry-go-round, staring at stars. She would make him fruit salad—bananas, strawberries the color of lipstick, apples, the soft flesh of a pear. He gave her the key to his neon apartment. They talked about having a child: a lemon growing from the size of a dot in her womb. Everything was comfortable as a good shoe.”
The first stanza describes a pretty courtship, a frictionless relationship that appears fitting of such an ideal pair. But Best goes on to introduce some conflict to the narrative:
“Slowly, she wondered about being with someone who knew how to cut corners. He relapsed, guzzling donuts while she was at work. She once said, “No heart should be knotted like a pretzel”; he longed to lift the hem of another’s orange dress.”
To some people these games are a mindless activity, or vintage art at best, but to someone with a stronger, deeper connection to the games, they are the gateway to a living, breathing, complex world. Best makes that world accessible to readers through this collection of vivid prose poems. Far more than a nostalgia bender, But Our Princess is a smart collection that can be as fun to pick up as that 8-bit console controller.
Thomas Michael Duncan lives in Syracuse, New York. He has reviewed books for PANK, Necessary Fiction, and Prick of the Spindle. Pick his brain @ThomasMDuncan.