Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Mystery vs. the Mysterious

 I was reading a poetry book and very much enjoying it. The writing was crisp and the language enthralling. But I had a nagging sense that I wasn't giving it 100%. As good as the poems were, there was something missing. And it was not the first time I've encountered this feeling. 

I  don't need to identify the book or author;  this isn't a critique of her book. As I say, the problem I was having is not unique to this one book — I encounter it a lot. What bothered me this time was that the book was so good, I wanted the poems to succeed completely, but they stopped just short. 

The problem is that the poems do a wonderful job of communicating that sense of  the mysterious — the omen, the shadow — that haunts the narrator. But what is missing are sufficient clues to the specific mystery that is at the root of the poem. You are left with a deep sense of impending doom but no clarity about what the actual danger is lurking in the fog. 

As I say, this is not an uncommon problem in modern poetry. Young poets do it all the time. (I know I did it in my early poems and probably am guilty of it occasionally even now.) But usually it is just one of several issues with novice writers so even the sense of something mysterious afflicting the narrator seems staged or artificial. In this case, the poems were so good, the overall emotional draw so complete, the work survives and even thrives without any specifics on what drives the poem, the engine behind the drama. But even then, after four or five poems you begin to wonder if there really is anything back there. Is it real or is the author just pressing buttons and pulling levers behind the curtain?

Saturday, September 3, 2022

What I am reading: Turn Up the Ocean by Tony Hoagland

 Tony Hoagland was one of the highlights of American poetry over the past thirty years, His precision, humor, and deeply human world view make him a must-read in a crowded field. Unfortunately, Hoagland died of cancer in 2018, leaving a very noticeable hole in the panorama of America verse.

What particularly stands out in Hoagland's work is its consistent excellence — from his very first book, Sweet Ruin, until the poems dealing with his imminent demise in Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God, which was published the year of his death. The clarity of vision and mastery of language is there from beginning to end.

At the time, I had assumed Priest Turned Therapist was his last book. However, it turns out Hoagland was working on a manuscript of additional poems, called Turn Up the Ocean, until his death. This compilation was completed by his wife, Kathleen Lee, and recently published by Graywolf Press. Which is good cause for both surprise and excitement. 

Any new Tony Hoagland book is an event to be celebrated. His poems are inspirational both in content and their mastery of language and poetics. And Turn Up the Ocean is no exception. 

 These are most definitely Tony Hoagland poems. There is the characteristic melding of epic subjects (life, death, etc) with colloquial American idioms. There is the exacting rational structure of thought interspersed with wild leaps of imagination. And, of course, his idiosyncratic and very personable narrative persona.

But as much as I am enjoying the poems in this book, there still seems to be something missing. Not missing necessarily... changed, let's say.

It's not that the poems are unfinished or incomplete as much as they emanate from a different locale than his previous books. 

There are three differences I noticed in this book from his previous work:

  • No dillydallying. These poems get straight to the point. Hoagland's previous works have a predilection for reveling in the joy of language, playing around a bit before settling in on the actual topic of the poem. The new work gets right to business and pushes ahead, with few diversions.

  • Finished, but not complete. In some cases, the poems are not as fully developed as you might expect. What's there is complete, but you get the feeling he loosened up on his usual precision and thoroughness in favor of being done. For example, the poem "'On a Scale of 1-10' Said the Nurse, 'How Would You Rate Your Pain Today?'" which riffs on potential examples of each level of pain, somehow skips from level six to eight. Uncharacteristic for Hoagland. Almost as if he had a stanza for number seven planned, but not ready enough for inclusion.

  • Reality does not always allow for certainty. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the latest poems is a diminution of Hoagland's pervasive optimism. It is one of the hallmark's of his poems — no matter how dark they may get, there is a persistent sense of positivity. Even if it is only from learning hard lessons, it is — at its heart — a form of learning and moving forward. However, many of these poems end more with a sigh than with a snap. The certainty is washed out of them and acceptance is more often the conclusion. 

The fact is, writing poems while dying must be hard work. And although darker than his previous work, these poems are an essential part of Hoagland's poetic journey and his legacy. And as such, deserve to be treasured.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Some Wonderful First (and Last) Books

I recently reread Linda Orr's A Certain X. I remember enjoying it when I first read it years ago. But age has a way of distorting one's view and youthful enthusiasm can look awkward in retrospect. So I was pleasantly surprised at how much I like the book now. Perhaps more than I did before.

A Certain X is really a wonderful book, full of insightful, surprising, and touching poems. Which led me to ask —  what other books of poetry has she published? To my surprise, the answer appears to be none. If I am not mistaken, she has published two scholarly works, but no other poetry. Which is a shame.

Which led me to another question: I wonder how many remarkable first-and-only books I have? Two I can think of right away — which are a couple of my all-time favorites — are The Touch Code by John Love and If the River's This High All Summer by Martha Fritz. Touch Code, in particular, is a totally unique book with a frenetic energy and sense of play like no other. But again, it appears to be Love's only book of poetry.

Sure, I have single books from poets who, for one reason or another, published a limited number of works. Some down to one book, or a book and a couple of chapbooks. Some because life can be short (or cut short, such as John Bowie's Screen Gems). Some because, well, getting  published is not easy. 

But what stands out with Orr, Fritz, and Love is that they appear to be people who started out strong then decided to "give up" poetry for other endeavors. I say it is a shame because I'd love to read more of their work. But then these singular books are like unique flowers; they have a fully-formed beauty that can stand on its own. And perhaps it is best to leave one's readers wanting more...

Saturday, October 9, 2021

I bought a bootleg NDS and it was... OK

 The title says it all. I bought a bootleg Nintendo DS and it was surprisingly decent as a game console. Why did I buy it? Several reasons.

First, my previous DS died when the screen stopped responding correctly. Any touch was seen as a series of taps. So touch and hold or drag became impossible.

The DS is no longer sold by Nintendo and new ones are rare as hen's teeth. I have several 3DSes, which can play my  library of DS games. However, I have only one functioning GameBoy Advance (an SP which is one of my all-time favorite devices), and replacement GBAs are harder to find than DSes. So I was looking for a backup in case my SP ever fails and was willing, for a reasonable price, to risk a gray market substitute.

There are plenty of used DSes for sale on sites such as eBay for anything from $40 to $200. Many of which are "refurbished". The DS I bought was listed as refurbished. But since it was coming from China, I assumed there was a high probability it would be of questionable legitimacy. 

And I was right. Sure, it has the standard Nintendo imprimatur and serial number on the back. However, the case itself is made from a cheaper, glossy yet but less reflective, plastic than official Nintendo products. But the real giveaway is the charger and charger port. The charging cable is some mutant USB thing — not a standard USB male plug nor DS plug but something half way between the two attached to a USB charger. Now, it might possibly contain a real, repurposed Nintendo DS motherboard inside. (I'm not interested enough to risk opening it up just for curiosity's sake.) But I suspect the chances of that are low. Especially given the change in power plugs.

But now that I have it, how does it fare? As I say, the construction looks cheaper than official Nintendo goods. On the other hand, I was surprised at how good the touch screen is. Clear, responsive. No discernible difference.

It successfully runs all of the DS and GBA cartridges I've thrown at it, including downloadable games sent from DS cartridges in my 3DS.

The most noticeable flaw in my gray market DS is the buttons. Nintendo hardware and controls are so smooth and well constructed, it is easy to forget how exceptional they are — until you play a generic system such as this. The buttons are "loose" to the point where it is easy to press them, even moderately, and have no response. So you end up playing with a much more heavy-handed style than you are used to or are comfortable with.  

This won't affect play too much except for those games that require very precise button timing. Also, I can't help thinking the need for my pressure on the controls will ultimately impact the longevity of the device as a whole. 

In summary, I am happy with my new device as an emergency replacement. However, it is also a good reminder of how exceptional the design and build on Nintendo products is and makes we want to take extra care with those systems I still have that are no longer being made.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Talking Manuscripts

[Originally posted on Twitter]

Some thoughts about trying to put together a manuscript of poems...

I enjoy writing poems. And, after years of experience, I feel quite confident about the results. But putting together a manuscript of poems for a book is a different beast entirely.

Normally, organizing things is not a problem. Ask me to write a book about programming or some technical topic — no sweat. I enjoy the process of identifying and selecting the optimal structure for practical information. Even abstract concepts, websites, or taxonomies provide a rewarding challenge.

But poems are a different kettle of fish. (Actually sorting a kettle of fish might be an apt analogy. What's the point? What do you want to achieve? Is order even necessary if, say, you are cooking a fish stew?)

Part of the problem is I tend to view my poems chronologically — as a constantly evolving journey. However, it is unclear if any of that is visible to the average reader. (Unlikely.)

Another approach is to decide what story you want your poems to tell? Or more accurately, what story *do* they tell? Do they tell a story at all? And if not, is that a problem?

If not, one alternative is to sort them by subject matter, style, or length. But then you get the problem where too many similar poems together can get very samey-samey.

The converse is to deliberately intermix styles, subjects, or structures (e.g. 3 short poems, 2 long, 2 short, 1 long, and so on.) But that still results in random ordering of the other characteristics of the poems.

In the end, I usually resort to micro-sorting: selecting ~5-10% as "keystone" poems, sorting the rest into groups around each key poem, then sorting the groups. (Not unlike a UX card sort.)

The issue is, when I am done, I never feel confident that I got the order "right", since there is no ideal order I am working towards (no matter how much I'd like to think there is).

The result is that there is a constant urge to tweak the order. Or worse, start the process over from the beginning.

Only time, ultimately, solidifies the order into a fixed form, out of habit or exhaustion more than conscious decision. 

Like fossils pressed into striated layers of rock, the manuscript takes on a permanence that cannot be altered, without the risk of breaking the whole.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Year of Games, Week #2: Chibi-Robo

I like Chibi-Robo. He is one of those quirky video game characters Nintendo is known for, along the same lines as Kirby, Olimar from Pikmin,  or any of the characters from Animal Crossing (especially my favorite video character to hate, Mr. Resetti). Besides their undeniable cuteness, they all share one trait: they don't follow the standard rules of video game conduct. Some don't fight. Some can't jump. Some don't do anything but go around cleaning up after themselves and writing each other letters.

Eventually, many of these games do end up as straight up beat-up-bad-guys or collectathons (or both). But the attraction of the game is often based on the uniqueness of the character and their non-gamey-ness.

Chibi-Robo is a robot who likes to help people. In the first game, Chibi-Robo on GameCube, you spend a lot of time cleaning up for a fairly dysfunctional family.  When I first played it years ago, the cleaning up — and the requirement that you sleep at night, which came far too frequently — ultimately interfered with my finishing the game. Similar to, but not nearly as severe as Nintendogs.

But I liked the game because of the character. Besides the oddity of being forced to clean up, his movements exemplified his personality: his movements were all a little loose as if the bolts weren't tightened enough and he blinked a lot. A real lot. A sort of robotic Charlie Chaplin.

Of the three games he has starred in, I actually think the second, Chibi-Robo: Park Ranger on the Nintendo DS is the best. You still have the naive movements, but with a little less work required. And the work is more constructive (you can grow flowers, for example). And the simplicity of the graphics played well into the DS's 3D limitations.

Which is why it is so shocking that the third game, Chibi-Robo: Zip Lash, went completely south. Oh, it is not surprising that the game play is weak. (You can read the reviews to see why it is a sub-par 2D platformer.)

Neither of the previous games were exactly perfect examples of their genres either. But what's really irksome about Zip Lash is they removed any signs of personality from the main character. He runs, he jumps, and his dashes (using his power cord). But most of all, he kills various bits of space junk — over and over again. Gone are any signs of naivety. He doesn't blink, he doesn't wobble. Even his happy dance when he completes a task has turned into some sort of egotistical victory lap.

There is no reason the character is there except for name recognition. He might as well be any  generic robot, a random Disney character, or a hotdog with wings. (Actually, the game might improve if it were that last item.)

Applying Chibi-Robo to a 2D platformer did not necessitate destroying his character. You can tell that by comparing Zip Lash with another recent attempt by Nintendo to capitalize on existing intellectual property. Hey! Pikmin takes characters from another quirky game series (Pikmin and Pikmin 2) and adapts them to a 2D platformer. Hey! Pikmin has its own problems. It is too simple as a game, for one. And no one would say it has the emotional draw that the original games did. (You aren't going to cry over losing your Pikmin in this one.) But they are still Pikmin and the spaceman is still very clearly Olimar.And the gameplay is a simplified version of the originals. But most of all they are recognizably Olimar and Pikmin and, quite frankly, they are fun to play with. Which is often sufficient to cover over many other flaws a game might have.

Update: @chibitrobotweets points out that Chibi-Robo appeared in two other games as well:  Clean Sweep, which was released in Japan for the DS, and Photo Finder on the 3DS. They also say  that Clean Sweep is actually the best of the games in their opinion.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Year of Games, Week #1: Mobile Madden MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

For those unfamiliar with agile development, minimum viable product (MVP) is where you start by delivering the simplest, most basic yet functional version of a product possible and then build out from there, incrementally improving and extending in "sprints". It's an interesting concept to keep in mind when thinking about some early mobile games. For example, you might consider Flappy Bird the penultimate example of an MVP for mobile games.

But back to my subject, Madden Football. And more specifically Madden on the Nintendo 3DS.

I've played Madden on many game consoles, starting with the N64, through GameCube, Wii, and PS2, 3 and 4. Each iteration getting more complex, more detailed, and more "realistic", graphically. I bought Madden for the 3DS when I first got the handheld (because it was one of the few day one games). However, I never played it at the time and it has sat, still shrink wrapped, on my shelf until recently, when I took it down, opened it and played it.

Considering its age and the limitations and newness of the platform at the time, Madden Football on the 3DS is actually a pretty good football game. Which surprised me.

I've played handheld Madden games before — on both the DS and PSP. But they aren't quite football. Don't get me wrong, they are fun video games. But it is kind of like playing cowboys and Indians using thread spools and clothespins as people. The sprites are clunky and malformed, everyone runs at 90 degree angles (kind of like trying to draw a diagonal line on an Eatch-A-Sketch), and the perspective is pulled back so far you're not really controlling the characters as much as bouncing them off each other in a giant game of pinball.

So if you are looking for a realistic football experience, you'll be disappointed. And frustrated. But if you forget the footballness of it and think of it simply as a type of abstract game dressed in football attire, they can be quite fun. Kind of like Pachinko with passing plays.

[Note: there was also a Game Boy Advanced version of Madden. However, I have never played it so I leave I to the reader's imagination what that might be like...]

Which is where Madden Football on the 3DS differs. It is more like its console kin than its handheld forebearers. The perspective is closer in and the controls are tighter. Mind you, this is not high end graphics in any way. It is just passably into the 3D realm — minimally viable as an actual football game.

Because it was first out on the 3DS, it also provides 3D-ish views. Which is OK, but acceptable because you can turn them off. The one feature that does irk me is that, since it was doing actual 3D polygons, the developers decided to show this off by actively rotating the camera as the play developed. A fancy but useless addition to game play and quite honestly made me a little seasick. Because the camera swings from end-to-end up to three times in a single play (such as a kickoff). This unnecessary feature, that can't be turned off, might be a fatal flaw.