You might expect this collection of prose poems—whose puns, extended metaphors, and multiple-purpose generalizations string together the story of the author’s life, from childhood to fatherhood, by way of sixty-three video games—to be a sweet exercise in old-school nerd nostalgia. (“Frogger,” for example, concludes: “Some things are too dangerous to cross.”) And yet B. J. Best gathers his power not from nostalgia, not from the mere contrast between a kid’s joys and a grown-up’s cares, but from a deeper dichotomy. Most video games, from Pong to Grand Theft Auto by way of Donkey Kong, have clear rules and in-game goals, along with clear consequences, however cartoonish, silly, or amoral, for the actions we take. We know, in a game, how to get points and what to do next; we may be rewarded with a high score (Best entitles his valedictory poem “Congratulations, Enter Your Initials”). Life, however, has no such clarity. So to follow Best through these poems about games is to watch him come to terms with the difficult, helpless, undirected shapelessness of our grown-up, analog lives.
Along the way, each game provides its own wild symbols and comically appropriate extended metaphors. “Breakout” connects that frustrating paddle-and-ball game, with its frangible rainbow of bricks, to Noah and Genesis 9:8–17: “What did he think, when he saw that rainbow? That it was the mouth of God come to devour him, frowning at all his failures?” “Joust” considers the absurdity of human lives organized around competition—in elite education, for example—by likening them to the lives of ostriches raised as steeds for tournament-mad knights: “It is the highest ostrich honor to be martyred. But most wind up flocking to the coast to convalesce: tail feathers bruised as an oil slick; a broken claw hanging from a toe, bugling its song of pain.” The poems would not work as wholes if their sentences did not work as shapely, consecutive parts: fortunately Best has a terrific—and somewhat Romantic, melodic—sense of sentence shape and sound, moving from sweeping propositions into cute lists (“little monkey-faced, sweet-muffin, jumping-bean babies of mine”), into regular metrics and out again.
Best joins other contemporary poets dependent on comic books, comic strips, or low-budget genre films (Ray McDaniel’s Legion of Super-Heroes, Monica Youn’s Krazy Kat, Katrina McGlynn’s or Daphne Gottlieb’s horror and slasher films) in proposing that pop-cultural stories take over the work of religion and myth: Best, perhaps because he has so many games in his repertoire, does more than any of the others to match details from his chosen pop-cultural vehicle to details, emotions, and locations from the rest of his life. Of course, video games are also a part of that life: he’s writing at once about what they can stand for and about how it feels to still play them.
Both childhood (as adults remember it) and video-game play (whatever the level, whatever the game) can make real daily adult life seem drab, disappointing, colorless, not quite all there; Best knows how to frame that disappointment. He also knows how to use the contrast between lifelike and colorfully absurd imagery, between what he sees at home in Wisconsin and what he has seen in SimCity or Asteroids. Some of his best poems address the least realistic (and least violent) games, such as Q*bert and Qix. “Pac-Man” shows “ghosts adorable as orphans, raveling clothes and blue eyes lolling around their big heads… O Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde: Who is God? What is death? Where is Wisconsin? Are you my mother?” They are funny questions when asked about Pac-Man, but they are the questions that we ask about life on Earth, too.
Do games provide answers? Perhaps temporarily, perhaps almost: they can certainly stand for our inquiries, our twitchy hopes, our ever-receding horizons, perhaps even for our compromises. Best concludes his poem on the driving game Pole Position with a promising pause and a pun on the word qualify: “I drew in a breath sharp as a stop sign then said a prayer of forgiveness. You were prepared for a long night of driving; I was prepared to qualify the truth.”