It often seems to me that the function of the sky is to shield us from the knowledge of our own insignificance..

Spells the Blue

Cloud spells the blue
its vast labour —

conceals the depth
of our beyond,

its glad threat of
infinity,

makes opaque the
receding azure.

Daryl Hine is a special case for me. I never met him, never heard him read, only read his work very briefly (albeit intensely), but his influence on me was strong enough that I can hardly be unbiased about him even years after I was introduced to his poetry.

The story is this. I was early in my undergraduate and showing some professors my poetry – derivative and formalistic in every way. Most of them, understandably unimpressed, told me plainly to give up my rigid use of metre and rhyme in favour of more modern poetic forms. I resisted their advice, as is my tendency.

One professor, however, guided me to the work of Daryl Hine as an example of a contemporary poet who was using formal techniques in interesting ways. If I insisted on using metre and rhyme, he told me, than I should at least have a look at someone who was doing it well, exploring its possibilities and challenging its limits.

Hine was a revelation to me, not because his poetry engaged me so very deeply (in fact, I often found him too detached from his subject, even and especially when that subject was himself), but because of his seemingly limitless capacity to use formal structures – complex metres and rhyme schemes, classical tropes and allusions – without needing to adhere to them slavishly. I read him for perhaps a week, avidly, never even taking his books from the library, just reading them at my study carrel, and his example both affirmed and liberated me from my addiction to formal structure – a real gift to a young writer.

When I recently began reading The Essential Daryl Hine, the new edition of Hine’s poems from The Porcupine’s Quill, I felt again what I felt then, both Hine’s easy mastery of poetic form and also the distance between poet and subject that keeps me from entering fully into his work. The poems selected for the volume by James Pollock show clearly Hine’s breadth of learning and his facility with the forms of language, a facility in no way crystalline or brittle but always dextrous and supple, less an adherence to formalism than a capacity for formulation, which fails only in that it never seems to fail, never falters sufficiently to engage its subject with any intimacy.

This latest addition to The Porcupine Quill’s series of Essential Poets also reenforced for me the importance of Hine as an alternative voice in an era with too little appreciation for the history and the possibilities of formal poetry. It is here, I think, that the value of this volume and of Hine’s legacy as a whole truly lies, in its potential to provoke a new generation of Canadian writers to engage and renew the tradition of poetry.

Liz Worth’s No Work Finished Here (BookThug, 2015) is a poetic response to Andy Warhol’s a: A Novel, which is comprised of recorded conversations between Warhol and some of his friends over the course of several days. These recordings were transcribed as exactly as possible, including all the audio artefacts of laughter and ambient noise and conversational pauses and so forth. Four different typists were used for the transcription, each laying out the conversation differently, and the book makes no attempt to standardize their differences, even keeping typos as traces of the artistic process. The end product is what might be called a pop-art novel that presents a single day in Warhol’s Factory scene.

Worth’s book takes each page of Warhol’s novel and condenses it into a poem, using only words and phrases that appear on the original page, the number of which she includes as part of the poem’s title. As she distills Warhol’s transcriptions, Worth cuts away the conversational artefacts (the ums and uhs, the laughter, the background noises), and she mostly eliminates the sense of dialogue as well, though some poems do retain this element. Instead, Worth gathers key phrases from the page, intensifying their meaning in proximity, creating lyric passages from the fragmented text of the novel’s pages.

Now, I think that Warhol’s original novel is a failed experiment, that merely recording and transcribing everyday conversation yielded little of interest and almost nothing of art. It is an interesting idea, to be sure, but the result is only very occasionally interesting, slightly more often prurient, but mostly just tedious. Like the majority of Warlhol’s art, a: A Novel is art as idea, as intellectual provocation, as aesthetic exercise, but (as he intended) without depth. Its value is as a surface only, as reflection.

In light of this, Worth’s collection seems to me a strange project, working at odds with Warhol’s aims, reducing his exactly fragmented transcriptions into the distilled language of poetry, turning its disjointed and rambling text into a meaningful coherence. It is as if she is trying to rescue some significance from the novel, searching for something beneath behind its relentless superficiality.

In other words, depending on your understanding of Warhol’s artistic project, Worth does his novel a grave disservice, destroying its surface, pushing past the reflective quality that is its distinctive feature, returning it to the kind of earnest art that Warhol’s work sought to disrupt. It becomes a strangely paradoxical book, at once paying Warhol a sustained homage and at the same time pursuing radically different aesthetic purposes.

On the other hand, No Work Finished Here also made me read a: A Novel in its entirety for the first time, so perhaps Warhol wouldn’t object to her approach so very much after all.

For Willie, though it’s been many years now.

Gravity

The peony bends
to its own weight,
the gravitas
of gravity.

Ants crawl the buds
still unfallen,
prepare each bloom
for becoming.

The broken stalks
of last year’s growth
stand yellow-gold
through bowed green.

Sometimes a poem is what it is without introduction.

Young Woman Gardening

Today,
a young woman
in an old woman’s hat
gardened
outside my window.
Though I turned
away,
to other windows,
I could accomplish
nothing.

I don’t often write about video gaming, first because I haven’t had much time for games since I was a teen, and second because even then I only liked certain kinds of games. Even so, I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities that gaming has for producing what I’ll call “open-worlds”, and some of what I saw from this year’s E3 conference started me thinking about how these open-worlds might be better accomplished.

I should probably start with some context.  The vast majority of games bore me, always have.  Sports games are the worst, and first-person shooters are close behind, but almost all games feel to me like little more than combinations of complex hand-eye co-ordination endlessly repeated. I hear all the time how video games are the medium that will tell this generation’s stories, but if so, this generation’s stories are largely pretty sad (A revenge story? Has it been done?).  At best, their used as a veneer to justify massive and brutal violence.  Often they don’t even manage that.

I hear also how video games create immersive worlds for players to explore and fuel their imagination, but again, these imaginative worlds are usually little more than pretty settings for whatever carnage that forms the game’s central focus.  Newer and better generations of technology improve the textures, the lighting, the AI, almost everything but the world in which the game takes place, which remains largely neglected.

That isn’t to say that I hated all games as a kid.  I enjoyed playing games like Mario Kart with my brothers, and there were two games that made me realize what games might actually achieve if they were made by people who wanted the same things as I did.  The ability to accomplish tasks in a non-linear way in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed me a first glimpse of what an open-world might be (even if its dungeons and its story were still basically linear), and Myst showed me the kind of story and mystery and originality that might make an open-world truly worth exploring.  I played both those games and their sequels to death, though always feeling like I wanted to combine them, to play in a truly open-world, with all the elements of story and wonder that this phrase means for me.

Then, in 2002, Morrowind was released.  Now, to be clear, first-person choppers don’t rank much higher in my estimation than first-person shooters, but when I saw the world of Morrowind I knew I had to play it.  The sheer freedom of the game play and the complexity of the intermingling storylines and the novelty of the world (which the Elder Scrolls series has yet to replicate), came the closest of any game to the kind of open-world that I had imagined.  In fact, for the first few days I owned the game, I turned on god-mode and just wandered around the world looking at things, before I went back and played it through.  It’s still one of the few games (despite its awkward combat and its many bugs) that produced genuine moments of wonder in me.

Just as important, Bethesda Softworks, the creator of the Morrowind, included a constructor set with the game that allowed gamers to mod the entire world, adding something as simple as a new pair of shoes or as complex as a whole new island, complete with stories and dungeons and monsters.  In one case, a group of modders used the tool to try and recreate a whole different world distinct from the game, essentially taking on the task of a game studio as an amateur community.  This constructor set pushed my conception of open-worlds to include the possibility of changing those worlds, to be involved in their creation, a possibility that has proven its attraction through recent titles like Minecraft. I realized that I didn’t just want to explore beautiful worlds and complex stories, I wanted tools to change and recreate them.

In this respect, many recent games, even ones that are otherwise open (the other Elder Scrolls titles, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Witcher, and so forth), or that have attempted more sophisticated story (The Last of Us gave me chills with the giraffe scene), or that have focused on experiential worlds (Journey is a personal favourite, and Elegy for a Dead World is an interesting experiment with users contributing to story), have done little to further the capacity of gamers to participate in the making of their own worlds.

Which brings us at last to this year’s E3 conference and, in particular, to Bethesda’s presentations.  Among Bethesda’s various titles they gave a lengthy introduction to DOOM (formerly Doom 4), which is the prototypical mindless shooter (Wow, look how realistic the chainsaw animations are!), so much so that I almost didn’t finish watching the presentation.  However, Bethesda then went on to announce the inclusion of Doom SnapMap, which offers gamers the tools to make incredibly complex game levels.  The levels being created still interest me hardly at all, but the tool itself is amazing.  I would pay for it on its own if it were expanded to include other elements beyond those from the game.  The ability to create interior spaces quickly and easily, to furnish them, and to create scripted interactions between NPCs offers gamers massive opportunities to create, not just more game levels, but also complex machinima, custom multiplayer story, and who knows what else.

Imagine being able to construct a story in a game world and then inviting your friends to join you in it, to watch it play out around you, to participate in it, even to experiment with how your interaction changes it. Imagine this tool being available for your favourite game, or your favourite movie, or your favourite book for that matter. What could you do with it?  What would your open-world become?

Another of Bethesda’s E3 games, Fallout 4, provided yet another possibility for building open-worlds.  Fallout 3, the first of the series to be published by Bethesda, was already pretty open in its story and its structure, a prototypical sandbox game that essentially transported the experience of the Elder Scrolls series into the post-apocalyptic future with a genre-saving dash of 50’s retro humour. It was easily good enough to amuse me (though the New Vegas follow up content seemed sub-standard), but it didn’t offer much in the way of allowing the user to recreate the world beyond limited customization of your home.

Fallout 4, however, more than just a re-hash of its predecessor on a new generation of console, includes two remarkable features.  First, some structures in the game can be torn apart and reutilized to make new structures, including houses, electrical systems, defensive positions and so forth.  Second, all of the items in the world (and Bethesda is famous for letting players interact with all of the  ridiculous numbers of mostly useless items that it scatters throughout its worlds), can be used for their component parts in order to create new weapons and other items. These two modes of engaging with the game allow users to customize it in interesting ways, making it more truly an open-world.

Both of these functions have appeared in other games, of course.  Bethesda is not breaking entirely new ground here, but in the context of the SnapMap presentation, it struck me how this form of game interaction has so many possibilities beyond just building houses and customizing weapons.  What if the expanded SnapMap open-worlds we were imagining also integrated the capacity to alter elements in-world, to take what the designer had created and recreate it? What if the open-worlds that we imagined were always susceptible to other players or even NPC’s using them in ways we didn’t expect? What if the materials of our open-worlds became available to us in ways that mimic real worlds?

Again, what could you create with tools like that? Given the opportunity to become the creator of an open and interactable world, what stories would you tell?  As I first glimpsed in the Morrowind Constructor Set, it’s this kind of freedom that I really want in a game.  I want to do more than just wander through a designer’s imagination (which is usually limited by catering to certain kinds of gamers). I want to change, recreate, and experiment with the game.  In the end, I want a game that is simply the tools for its own creation.

 

 

The Gordon Bridge Incident

“I’ll text you,” she called, as he withdrew
down the bike lane, left her to stand,
phone in hand, on the bridge,
watching him,
and she spun, one-footed,
almost a pirouette,
hands thrown skyward
in careless jubilation,
and the phone slipped loose,
a glittering trajectory
tumbling parabolic
to the river, and the pirouette
crumbled as she said, soft,
so only I could hear,
a stranger passing by,
“Oh my God, my life is over.”

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