It’s around 10 p.m. on a school night in the home of B.J. Best. The year is probably early 1987, considering he got his Nintendo Entertainment System on Christmas Day 1986 and he’s been obsessively playing Super Mario Bros. every day since. Finally, after hours of struggle he scoots under Bowser, grabs the axe and saves the princess. He takes a picture of the final screen and rushes to show his mother.
"Her response was, ‘Go to bed,’" Best recalled, "which in retrospect was a very reasonable suggestion. But by then, I was hooked."
For gamers of a certain age, stories like Best’s are common, the moment when gaming became more than entertainment and morphed into something a bit closer to obsession.
Some 25 years later, Best still can’t shake the feeling those early gaming memories left with him. So it should come as little surprise that the third collection of poems from this writer and teacher, But Our Princess Is In Another Castle, is a meditation on games and how they impact our lives.
"Video games, particularly older video games, build such strange worlds that I thought there were lots of possibilities to explore, lots of odd corners to wander into," Best said.
Best first decided to write the book in 2004, but struggled with creating compelling work that was not about a video game, as he says, but rather inspired by one.
"Those kinds of poems can quickly become boring — they usually just describe the experience of playing, and anyone who’s played the game already has that experience," Best said. "And admittedly there were a few times where it did feel like the project was, well, frivolous. But the poems are ultimately about the ‘big ideas’ that so much poetry is about — growing up, love, death, faith. I knew the subjects of the poems had to be separate from the subjects of the games."
In Best’s hands, Marble Madness becomes an unlikely metaphor for a cancer diagnosis, Excitebike a story of parents fearing for their children’s safety and The Secret of Monkey Island a codex with which we can understand all of existence.
On the surface, it may seem a stretch to players familiar with the games referenced. But they work because of an unlikely tether between the commonality of the way most of us experience games and life.
"No matter who’s playing Super Mario Bros., where they are, and when they’re playing, Mario looks the same, the hidden 1UP mushroom in the first level is always in the same spot, and so on. People have their own reactions, of course, but there’s something nebulously common among all people who play the game," Best said. "But again, these poems aren’t about the games themselves. They’re about growing up, first love, first heartbreak, first job, the first death where you feel you’re genuinely aware of what’s happening. Those are pretty universal experiences, and even though mine are unique to me, I think there’s also something nebulously common in these major life events."
By spring, I was sort-of reassembled. Through my broken jaw, all I could say was, "I hunger." It felt right, mistaking simplicity for depth. "I hunger," I told my friends, and they sent me to the Chat Noir for coffee and dessert crepes. "I hunger," I proclaimed from the top of Saylorville Dam, and the pelicans in the reservoir — pelicans in Iowa in April, how odd — guffawed with their full pouches. I ate the wind in South Dakota and it was dusty, all aces and eights. I said the hills at Buffalo Pound Provincial Park looked like buttered rolls. I was moving illogically quickly.
In August, I spat in Lake Winnebago. "Beware, I live," I sneered at the moorings. "Beware. I live," I called to the gulls. That was my real motto. I wanted to bleed it onto love letters, stitch it onto pillows, etch it into paperweights that would sit pointlessly on my papers, scrimshaw it onto her bones. "Beware, I live," I told you, as if it was the first half of an insidious palindrome: Beware, I live; evil I, era web.
-- B.J. Best