April 2004

Tom Bernard


Blue Wizard Is About to Die by Seth Flynn Barkan

Things that make me feel old:

- The newfound Star Wars obsession of the 3 year old neighbor kid who lives in the apartment upstairs from me, which makes me face the fact that it’s been 27 years (!) since I was similarly afflicted.

- The realization that most of the kids lining up for the midnight Rocky Horror showing in Harvard Square not only weren’t born when the movie had its original theatrical release, they weren’t even around when I saw the movie for the first time during my adolescent poseur phase (not to be confused with my current whatever-it-is poseur phase).

- Blue Wizard is About to Die!

In each case, I not only feel superannuated, but also slightly territorial. There’s a sense that I was there first, and that someone who wasn’t there the first time around has appropriated something of my youth. Unlike Seth Barkan, however, I don’t have quite the same claim to the source material of Blue Wizard is About to Die!. Sure, I have a good ten years on him, but he’s still old enough to have experienced the heyday of cabinet gaming, and he obviously experienced it on a far more obsessive level than I ever did. I put in my time in the arcade, but it was never a way of life for me. Ultimately, I’m happy to cede the territory to someone more fully vested.

As befits their subject matter, many of Barkan’s poems read like stream of cathode ray consciousness rants. In the best of them (“Things I’ve Experienced,” “Bushido Blade,” “Half-Life”), he bridges the digital divide between the player in meatspace and the game character in the gamespace. He describes the action of these games -- the settings, tension and bodycount -- as things directly experienced (“I scream; the space blackness fills my lungs, freezing me like a flavor crystal”), not as diversions mediated by the artifice of game developers. He covers the full range of gaming experience, from the existential terror of Pac-Man (“THEY ARE COMING FOR ME!”) to the incomprehensible objectives of Defender (”I have no idea what I am doing, but I am doing it very fast"), in a quick, punchy, pixel-bright style that moves as quickly as images on a game screen.

This lack of structure is nowhere more evident than in the “Mega Man Haikus,” not one of which conforms to the 5-7-5-syllable structure that by definition makes a poem a haiku. Barkan addresses this in one of the book’s appendices, where he writes:

[T]he number of syllables one uses when writing a haiku does not really matter… Haikus describe something that is, essentially, without meaning (beyond the spiritual impact of having experienced the subject of the haiku) and can only communicate the resonance of that experience to the reader. This fact alone makes the exact number of syllables that an individual uses while writing one a total non-issue.

Yes and no. These lines may well stir Barkan’s soul in a way he equates with haiku, but centuries of formal evidence give lie to his appropriation of the term. To use another example, calling a notional poem about Zaxxon that has an a-b-c-a-b-c-d-e-f-d-e-f-g-g rhyme scheme a Shakespearean Zaxxonet wouldn’t make that so either. The poems are short, punchy and entertaining, they conform to Barkan’s goal of “[getting] to the heart of the thing you are describing, leaving out all superfluous detail and information,” but haiku they are most definitely not. Or maybe I just never played enough Mega Man.

To be fair, gamers of all stripes tend to be anarchic, nonconformist and smartass. Like his appropriation of a term whose formal limits he summarily rejects, Barkan’s writing style frequently wanders off the beaten paths of syntax, grammar and usage into territory he defines for himself. For me as a reader, his use of it’s when he means its, whose for who’s and his apparent confusion of duel (as in, two men enter, one man leaves) and dual (as in, paired) are the print equivalent of nails on a blackboard.

Here’s the thing, though: as I mentioned before, I’m old. I’m a sad relic of that whole rotary dial, 45 rpm single, Atari 2600 generation. Despite Barkan’s reverence for the games of my youth, I suspect his heart and mind were shaped more by the LAN gaming, real time taunting, spelling, grammar and punctuation optional online interactive environment. I may inhabit this world, but Barkan and his contemporaries, and to an even greater extent the generation that came after them, take it for granted as only those born into a social system can. Thus, what I perceive as glaring lapses are either part of a naturalistic writing style or were consciously chosen to mimic a certain style. In either case, these “mistakes” contribute to an authentic authorial style, so I’d do well to just get over myself and move on.

Now if I only had a quarter for another game credit, I’d do just that.

Blue Wizard Is About to Die: Prose, Poems, and Emoto-Versatronic Expressionist Pieces About Video Games 1980-2003 by Seth "Fingers" Flynn Barkan
Rusty Immelman Press
ISBN: 0974100005