February 2008

Olivia Cronk


Sensational Spectacular by Nate Pritts

I admit that I -- as, I suspect, many readers -- tend toward odd connections based on coincidence, i.e. a song is stuck in my head, and I figure out how it connects to the novel I am reading… or I catch a write-up about the possibility of a multiverse and I come to think of that lofty physics concept as my own malleable metaphor, easily and carelessly applied to John Donne or Franza Kafka. Or whatever. It’s a lazy habit, but I chalk it up to serving the larger goals of thought and expression.

This brings me to Nate Pritts and the newly-released-on-DVD film, The King of Kong. There is something about the effect of combining the two. The film is a surprisingly warm and endearing documentary (ostensibly about the battle to be title-holder for most points -- in the game of Donkey Kong -- in the realm of competitive arcade gaming, but actually about a wonderful, extraordinary ordinary-man and his extraordinary ordinary-life). And here’s Pritts: “Living my life in the distant pink/ buildings of Backgroundsville, I long/ for the full-color foreground.”

On one hand, the connection is surface-y: Pritts uses the language, tone, and awkward silliness of a 1950s sci-fi-comicbook-pow-bang-robot-techical-failure world. And, given what I saw of Donkey Kong and its arcade peers, that’s exactly the sort of aesthetic that emerged in 1980s videogame stylings. On the other hand, the film really suggests a microcosm (within this tiny world of arcade competition exists the most delightful weirdoes and personal dramas) to create a portrait of one man. And that portrait, as an act of film, is, for lack of a more interesting word, touching… And back to Pritts: Sensational Spectacular is a nicely organized collection (three parts, loose narrative arc, pleasurable images) that does two things (amongst many other poetic tasks) very, very well: 1) by recontextualizing the aforementioned notions and nodding ambivalently to the physical reality most Americans now live in, Pritts is able to banish the quotidian -- and in doing so, to make brand new the struggle of one man against the infringing coldness of modern life, and 2) Pritts manages to make this book as much about poetics and the subculture that writers share as it is about existential meaning and individual expression. So, to summarize so far: where The King of Kong uses the strange “landscape” of competitive arcade gaming to reveal an exceptionally interesting man (you’ll see when you watch the movie), Pritts uses his own writing prompt (a Kenneth Koch quote and the skeleton of a bizarre outer space B-movie set) as a way of revealing genuine emotion. And, in many ways, Pritts’s speaker is an everyman, heart wrenchingly casting his powerless fist up into the air as the flying machines and automated check-out lines further crush his soul.

When I say that Pritts banishes the quotidian, I mean: through the lens of his poetics, ordinary life is stranger and funnier than it is with clear vision. Because of this, the reader just sort of falls into someone’s narrative. It all seems reasonable enough, even as Pritts drags you right into death-ray beams and green monsters and tentacles dropping from the sky to squeeze you. There is a bit of the 1980s child here: the overly intellectualized, ironic, gallows humor-ish dread that my generation uses for banter. And it works excellently. The poems are often packed on a page, almost like an e-mail printout you save for sentimental reasons. Here’s the opening page:

                        :World of No Return!:
My friends & I, we’ve got it all
            figured out. We play a game

where we sit facing each other, stone-
faced, unblinking &, after one wrong move,

we watch a staticy purple light engulf
that poor one who won’t come back no more.


:Those Ghost Hands Reaching:

Each of us has a job: pull, push, ram

headlong. Not one of us alone could hope to keep
the shiny gold door closed by their lonesome self!
Way up above anyone’s head we see it

swinging open, those two chalk-colored hands
reaching through. It’s easy to assume hostile intent.
What good has ever come from ghost hands

reaching through a floating gold door?

None, I think, Mr. Pritts. You are right to be scared. As Sensational Spectacular’s narrative unfolds, our funny protagonist and his “friends” deal with all of the things that people deal with (romance vs. love, jobs, feelings of alienation tempered by warm friendships, negotiations with the self in everyday life, imagined and real enemies) and then they slowly come undone. The protagonist makes no qualms about being terrorized by life, about feeling anxious and strange. In one particularly successful moment, he feels a burdensome disconnect between himself and his clothes (his uniform out in the real world); I can’t think of a friend of mine who hasn’t had to give him/herself a good talking-to in order to figure out how to maintain integrity in the space of a job and young-adult existence.

Pritts opens the book with a Kenneth Koch quote about failing to properly place his friends in his poems. Pritts’s use of “friends” is sometimes, I think, for mere story-telling, and other times, for the purpose of revealing that his intellectual peers are the people who provide models for his life. We rely on our friends to illustrate our own ideas for us, and we become versions of their ideas. It seems appropriate, also, to consider the pragmatic: as we age, our relationships with our “friends” must change. The perpetual hanging-out of twenty- and thirty-somethings does not meaning make. The self must break away. Eventually. Somehow.

As with the protagonist of The King of Kong, I find Pritts’s speaker so loveable, so very much experiencing the struggles of this place in time… that the little robotic heart in me just aches: “Lost in the woods, there are two ways to save myself/: breathe the green of the trees & become more rooted/ or scream my name & try to punch myself out./ Either way, I’m left alone/ realizing that I wasn’t what I wanted.” There are a handful of longer, meatier poems that build and build and build to lovely effect. From “In the Hot Seat”:

                        You end up somewhere better than you started, a buzzing hope
                        that the bees who make your honey will finish what they’ve begun,
                        that love plus love can build a lasting machine, a souped-up contraption
                        to get its occupants safely out of their own heads
                        and into some gleaming hope mobile, some holy holy structure.
                        When you begin to ascend those divine stairs, your head
                        clears, you learn to become a better pilot of the contraption you’ve got.

Pritts’s story does not end happily. The protagonist is, indeed, left alone to face the passing of time and the sheer sadness of being human.

So go rent The King of Kong as a complement to Pritts’s book. And make a pie, or watch a really cheesy sunset, or eat some nachos.

Sensational Spectacular by Nate Pritts
BlazeVox Books
ISBN: 193428906X
69 pages