Deus ex machina

Owen Vince, The Adrift of Samus Aran

Fathom Books, 20pp, $10.00, ISBN n/a

reviewed by John O'Meara Dunn

When a small press starts a pamphlet series with a publication about a fictional Nintendo Entertainment System character, we know we are entering into the realm of the niche interest. ‘I wonder if I am capable/ of love. I take meals,/inside of me – I don’t make eye contact, /or speak,’ delivers the poem’s speaker, a tiny 2D action figure in the original 8-bit NES game but here in this 'fifteen part persona poem' expressed with a psychology that is human in its neurosis. Lines like these drive the book out of fan fiction and into a sustained inquiry of the contested space between the actual and the imaginary, shaping the uncanny existential encounters this pamphlet is geared towards.

With its nostalgic turn to retro gaming, The Adrift of Samas Aran stands apart from the seemingly millennial trend in the dematerialised space of virtual reality in glitch art, or what used to be called – by no one – ‘flarf’ poetry, Vince’s work originates from the same basic modernist impulse that propels the contemporary poetry scene even now: the impulse to bring ‘the unpoetic’ of the ordinary into a poetic form. Owen Vince’s pamphlet gives us a shady presence both in and out of the world Aran inhabits, seeking to replace any lived experience behind the poem with something undecidable.

I haven’t played Metroid, the game this pamphlet is drawn from, but that does not matter and this is why: as a reader, there is something paradoxically edifying and substantive about the focus of a lot of contemporary poetry on virtual reality, computer games, social media or the internet more generally (I’m thinking of, for instance, the work from such poets as Sam Riviere and AK Blakemore in the UK, plus long before them the Canadian poet Kevin Davies). What unites them, beyond a theme, is the way they see their work as an open discussion about the collective responsibility poetry has to the community that sustains it, and in turn the communal relationship between readers via the cultural products that unite them.

The vast impersonality of the virtual world accessible through social media, or the commodification of writing on the internet (‘my fellow content generators,’ EL Doctorow glibly greeted his Nobel Prize reception audience), that which makes up the medium and source of many conceptual writing projects, is the obverse image to the pamphlet’s physical status in the real world. The pamphlet is the gesture that says: very few will read this, but the ones that do really count for something. In a recently published essay in the journal Hotel, Owen Vince writes of the preoccupation of contemporary artists and makers not with the self-contained, polished or even fully ‘finished’ product, and poetry pamphleteering operates in an ongoing exchange of ideas: ‘We are made to see the fragment as the primary means of encountering meaning, but we must understand that what we're seeing is a process rather than an outcome.’ This sense of a process between text and its community of readers, and between the fractured lines is reflected in the poem's anxiety about completion and identity. Owen Vince writes of the preoccupation of contemporary artists and makers not with the self-contained, polished or even fully ‘finished’ product, and poetry pamphleteering operates in an ongoing exchange of ideas. 'We are made to see the fragment as the primary means of encountering meaning, but we must understand that what we're seeing is a process rather than an outcome.' This sense of a process between text and its community of readers, and between the fractured lines is reflected in the poem anxiety about completion and identity.

‘i am lost in the highways/of this landscape; it goes /until it does not go on; they say//there is a point/where you will say, “I am done,”’ Vince writes, suggesting the omnipotent, careless ontological finality we meter out to animated characters when we flick the power switch, or close the volume. These moments in the poem transcend the fiction they describe and become genuinely existential concerns, and this is where the volume crosses the line between hammy fan-fiction and the volume of intricate conceptual structures which the editor rightly suggests is 'a direct challenge to fanfic-stlye, soft video game ekphasis.' So, ‘On Zebes I would die/in Eight directions – on Zebes I would ascertain / that dead is a program,/insufficient/to complete the program/it describes’ speaks somewhat brilliantly and tragically about Samus Aran’s terminal, deathless existence and puts the writing in touch with the intractability of self-conscious which good poems articulate. Zebes, no matter how simplistic it seems drenched as it is in geeky nostalgia, is a world in which there are rules you can learn, rhythms you can exploit, patterns you can convey that do not point to the certainty of one outcome. The experience of selflessness in playing the game is analogous to the different coded reality offered by poems in which identity is always more heterogeneously composed than it is expressive.

This renders the subtext and of The Adrift of Samus Aran current and works with the story actual Metroid fans are already involved in and contesting: the drama of the Samus Aran’s gender. In the same week that I read Vince’s pamphlet I heard the American poet CA Conrad at a reading. Conrad, whose forceful delivery of each poem was enriched by a deeply personal backstory that shares very little with Vince’s debut, told the audience of the 30-year anniversary of the gender neutral pronoun ‘CA’, and how this moniker reflects a kind of oedipal nostalgia. At 51, CA was part of the last generation whose parents did not know what sex the child was before birth, the last who had both female and male names and both gendered existences lying in wait at the end of the tunnel.

There is, bizarrely, something of this impulse at work in the Metroid series. In 1986 players of Metroid who inhabited the Samus Aran were unknowing pioneers of gender politics. The big reveal of the Metroid series is that the android powersuited bounty hunter (think Bobba Fett) 'Samas Aran' is not an ubermench, but an uberfrau. She takes off her suit, reveals a body of vixen dimensions, and becomes the first ever female videogame character you never knew you were until you had completed the quest. The big reveal was heralded as a feminist deus ex machina and Nintendo became famous for smuggling a female protagonist beneath our fingertips. Vince summons up the gender revelation in the final lines of the poem: ‘often,/the woman will climb/into the window/until her body is no longer//framed by it.’

Writers and readers of poetry (they are often one and the same) find it useful to maintain the paradox of poetry’s tiny impact in the real world as it sits in stark contrast to the claims made on its behalf. So, for WH Auden two not quite tautological or counteractive propositions can exist in the same stanza: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen’, so too it has some kind of indestructible mutability, like a river ‘it survives,/a way of a happening, a mouth.’ It says something, or rather allows for some difficult things to be said. The niche business of poetry pamphlet-making exists in order to expand the possibility of the Audenesque 'nothing very meaningful happening'. There is something of the willing suspension of disbelief when we read poetry quite different from that of the story-world we imagine in reading fiction. It makes it all the more powerful for its expulsion from the rational regime of the commonplace. Like computer games, we suspend poetry’s ineffectiveness somewhere else, in another space of possibility rather than probability, allowing for play – literally and theoretically – to reveal the ideological presuppositions we subscribe to unthinkingly.