Coin Opera: Poems inspired by video games

Think it's impossible to write poetry about video games? Wrong! A selection of poems by Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone.

Ten Green Bottles
(after Lemmings)

By Kirsten Irving

She tells me she was a builder before all this.
Before that, a miner. I have been staring
at her flexed palm for an hour.
In the distance, Francis has climbed
a glowing cliff and walks towards the edge.
He’s going to fall. Let me through,
I beg. She shakes her mossy hair
and holds her T-shape.
Frank plummets,
with a small cry, into chalk.
Mike begins to scale the side.
I ask her again to step by.
She nods towards the new mountaineer,
who walks off the edge, but opens
a yellow parasol and drifts down.
The gods are learning, she says.
And then Mike stops, over the other side,
inches from escape, and spreads his arms like her.
Now, she says, and I find myself scrambling
up the bright block. Which, I see now,
has arrows pointing to her and the trapped hundreds.
We must start from the other side, she calls,
to get there at all. Now open your parasol.
And I do. And as I float to the floor,
the golden door is there, just beyond
my steadfast predecessor. You spoke
to Marianne, Mike grunts, his fleshy blockade
so like hers. Do you want to save the others?
He is such a different creature
to the one who went up.
Yes, I want to save them.
Then turn around and dig.
As I start to claw, I hear muffled
crying and scurrying: the others panicking
that we will always be stuck here,
chanting the names
of the dead and the missing.
I am not a miner like you, Marianne –
help me, I shout into the stone face.
I am not a miner comes back.
Just as my stripped hands
threaten to show bone,
and my small heart nearly clocks out,
an eye appears in the tunnel,
and joy and feet flood it.

I can see it I can see the door oh Gerard is it true it’s not a myth I see it too
They run as their robes will allow,
towards freedom,
towards Mike,

who screams STOP
and explodes.
And it’s over the crumbs of his body they go
it’s the door it’s the door at last woo hoo
I –
Marianne: Go. GO, YOU IDIOT.
So I do,
and only when my hand is on the door frame
and I can smell grass, do I turn
to see the countdown start
above her head.



By Kirsten Irving

"Today Arcadia was closed off to all but paying customers. The man hires me to build a forest at the bottom of the ocean, and then turns a walk in the woods into a luxury."

Julie Langford, Bioshock

Look closely: you’ll see the water above
projected in hula arms of light
across the leaves of this blue fan palm,
slipping down from our wet, shifting sky
to tickle an orchid’s dragon tongues.
You get the feeling
something wants us to remember
the surface world? Here, miles beneath
the North Atlantic’s waves, I can make you
the fattest, glossiest leaves.
I can make you a tree farm.
After all, we govern the weather.
We have tricked nature
into shunning the sun
and throwing its tendrils at electricity.
Oh, and aren’t we so civilised?
Here in the tea garden, plucking crisp fennel,
screened from the commerce laying eggs
in the systems outside. Let us inhale,
drink, and forget for a moment.
The background hum
of the generators has become
the bees for us; the register of coin in slot
the rubbing of crickets’ legs, but there is
nothing false about this leaf. Touch it.
When they close the hothouse doors,
having wafted a sniff of earth at you,
and ransom the grass, set against
the tombish iron corridors, we both know
we will pay whatever they ask.


Harley Quinn
(Collaged from Mad Love and Other Stories, Harley and Ivy and Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes*)
My first day at Arkham.
I’ve always had this attraction for extreme personalities
My fault ... I didn’t get the joke...
I goofed. It felt like a kiss.
I had fallen in love with my patient.
Circus. He said it was the circus.
A lost injured child hoping to make the world laugh.
A murderous, psychopathic clown.
At what point did my life go Looney Tunes?
Knock Knock, Puddin’!
Feed me some candy!
Don’t ya wanna rev up your Harley?
I’ll be your best friend.
We gots trouble to get into. Oopsie!
A girl’s heinie is sensitive, bub!
We’ve relocated again. Not good.
Looks like I gotta get my keister in gear.
Popgun popgun popgun...

No more obsession.
No more craziness. No more Joker.
The party’s over. Dibs on the museum!
Now you’re gonna die and make everything right!
I can tell you’re less than thrilled.
Well, stick my finger in a socket - I really don’t care!
Jeez Louise!
Put on a happy face.
Ha. Cartoon. Funny.


No Fish Are We Now

By Kirsten Irving
A fortnight adrift, the crew spot a mermaid
and try to harpoon it. Thus we lose our harpoons.
The masts felled by round shot, I send crew to hoist them.
The splintered trunks bloody us. Thus we lose blood.
Cracked lips and calenture: the midday sun makes us
squabble, spill water. Thus we lose water.
The disguised girl midshipman, clutching her stomach,
makes off with the rowboat. Thus we lose the rowboat.
We slice into bandages, and later, into winding sheets,
the crumpled sails. Thus we lose our sails.
The cook, without a task, goes mad and we must
put a knife through his heart. Thus we lose heart.
Brown, nude and stumbling; in the heat of death
we strip rank, pips, order. Thus we lose order.
The final few cudgel the brash navigator, croaking
songs of their homeland. Thus we lose land.
Even I cup the seawater, knowing its curse
and wrestle myself. Thus I lose myself.
The mermaid returns, as I curl, undisturbed,
on the deck. In time she is lost to the waves.


after Planescape: Torment

By Jon Stone
Here’s thi dark of it: see that tib
wi thi poison pate an thi whitely limbs?
She’s nae jinkskirt. I mooth nae fib;
she can crack a crib
wi thi smawest dub an thi glent in her glimms.

Hae ye clocked thi tail? I daena mean her airse.
Ay, she’s a dochter o a Nickie-ben,
but I wadnae speak o it – unless, o course
ye yeuk for yer hearse –
she’s thi tuiniest florence in thi bowsing ken.

Thi law canna catch her, nor ony fox.
Oh, she’s given thaim thi laugh awricht.
As much o a blood at jouking thi box
as she is wi locks
tho thi clak in her sconce’s what leaves thaim licked.


Zeus the Obliterated

By Jon Stone

His ribcage, which was a salvaged prow – scuttled by flame.
His cankers and sores that were stud-jewels – plundered by flame.
His resplendent shag of buff beard – shorn by flame.
His sweat, day-old olive oil – vapourised by flame.
His ears that were carved platters of coral – drowned in flame.
The liquid in his bronze bladder – gargled by flame.
His pinetimber spine – farmed by flame.
His thighs, those unclamberable dunes – glass-blown by flame.
The sink estate he sat upon – 'regenerated' by flame.
His cold and lofty nipples – sucked on by flame.
His lips with their spittle of gold – chewed by flame.
Featherhead Nike, his nubile dwarf – fragged by flame.
His brain in its nest, a dinosaur's green egg – scrambled by flame.
His sceptre with its unshakeable bird – belittled by flame.


Endings to Adventure Gamebooks 22

By Jon Stone

You’re murdered at prayer. Your last words
become wet. The whole Forgotten City upturns.
That band of heroes – the ones
who thought they’d be in time – they were wrong.
Now they take you to the murmuring
water’s edge. You were imperturbable
but there is such a thing as too noble,
Aerith. The light has spiked, the music has swollen.
The boy who lowers you in, who is so sullen –
now, oh now he’ll never be your lover.
Game Over.



By Jon Stone

Dust hikes up her skirts for anyone,
and then she’ll swoon and then she’ll swoon again
in torchlight, in the porch light or in rain.

Dust wakes up in rooms reeking of wine
and soon slips on her silken morning gown.
Her suitors watch her drunkenly careen.

Dust remembers where but never when.
She’s someone you can coax but not dragoon,
the show that started late and overran.

Dust is feeling thin. She’s feeling worn.
She can’t quite picture how the night began
or how it ended, how it came to ruin.


About the authorsKirsten Irving is one half of the crew behind collaborative poetry publisher Sidekick Books and hand-made magazine . Her first pamphlet, What To Do, was published in 2011 by Happenstance and her first full collection, Never Never Never Come Back was published by Salt in 2012. Her poetry has been translated into Russian and Spanish, eaten in a cake and thrown out of a helicopter. She lives in Whitechapel, where she works as a copywriter and proofreader. @SidekickBooks.

Jon Stone was born in Derby and currently lives in Whitechapel, London. He is the author the gothically-inclined pamphlet Scarecrows (Happenstance, 2010) and a full collection, School of Forgery (Salt, 2012), which was a Poetry Book Society recommendation. He is also the co-creator of Sidekick Books, who publish collaborative poetry projects and anthologies. He won an Eric Gregory Award in 2012. His personal website is


*Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes (Dodson, Dodson & Kesel, 2008, DC Comics)

Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories (Dini & Timm, 2011, DC Comics)

Harley & Ivy (Batman) (Dini, Winick, Timm & Chiodo, 2007, DC Comics)  

A still from Bioshock Infinite.
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder