B. J. Best
7” x 7” perfect-bound trade paperback
Rose Metal Press
Brookline, Massachusetts, USA
Review by Eric Shonkwiler
A child of the mid-80s, I’m familiar with nearly all of the video games mentioned in Best’s book of prose poems, and I’m glad finally to witness the sea change of opinion when it comes to games as a medium for art. Best’s book, obviously, uses video games as the organizing principle at every level in this book — in fact, as one would expect, the book is divided into levels, or “worlds.” Though a poem may barely touch upon its namesake game, there is, nevertheless, a feeling of unmistakable detachment, a remove, on every page. This distance, like that of the glass in an arcade screen, is the distance from which Best seems able to observe life, childhood, adulthood. The reader is never entirely able to traverse this distance, as, in one of the strongest poems in the book, “The Secret of Monkey Island,” Best covers the important subjects but ensures the reader is a little too busy being incredulous at its contents:
It’s not faith. God is everywhere: in the jailer, voodoo charms, your hands […]
[…] It’s not music. You can beat on the table or yodel while swinging from a chandelier. Here’s a note; here’s a chord. Here’s a staff for you to walk through the woods […]
[…] Here’s a secret: about the big things, most people are terrified most of the time. It brings us together, and that is good, little monkey-faced, sweet-muffin, jumping-bean babies of mine.
There is, appropriately, almost always a sense of play in these lines. It’s inevitable that there is. All the while there is maintained a kind of deadpan seriousness. This ability of Best’s to encompass matters of greater stakes than games while maintaining various levels of severity — juggling, as it were, which is a subject of another poem — is exemplified toward the end of the collection, in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”:
I. It was, of course, a smash with adolescent boys: you are a teenager, you are a freak, you have superpowers. You love pizza. You must rescue a girl — a girl! — and she will be grateful to you eternally. Her name is April — April, the month of wetness, fertility, and blossom […]
III. […] We are here again, playing the same damn game. We have our girls. We are eating pizza. What has changed?
— God, as impossible as it seems.
Faith and its lack play roles in these poems, as does nearly everything else. While it’s impressive to have this collection structured as it is around video games, its greatest victory, its highest score, lies in Best’s ability to make the reader positioned as the player, the poems the games, and to convey still the fullness of life in that 2D format.