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.

***

Arcadia

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.

***

Annah-o-thi-Shadows
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.

***

Dust

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 www.gojonstonego.com.

__________________________________________

*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.
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era