Classic video games provide the platform, launching point and universe for But Our Princess is in Another Castle, the third book by the uber-talented B.J. Best.
With no offense intended (that phrase itself is offensive, but here I go...) — I would be hard pressed to enter a discussion/conversation where I was less informed than the world of classic video gaming. More to the point, I would be hard pressed to find a subject I was less interested in.
So what in the hell are we doing here?
Look at this:
We were raised in the decade of crashed spaceships. We'd seen them from the school bus; one
would be large as a car wreck, coughing purple smoke. Another was small as a crushed can,
glinting in the gravel.
Science class was only good for answers. We learned space is a vacuum, blank as a bubble. We
guess licking a nine-volt battery was like tasting champagne. A hawk ate a snake ate a mouse
ate some grain. Mars stared at us from page 63, red as a kickball.
It was fall. We were building a fort in the woods, laying out branches like an electrical diagram
drawn in crayon. All those leaves. We kept twin imaginary robots that looked like ordinary
flashlights. One was named Terror. The other was Fear. The weatherman made frost sound like a
mystery, but we learned it was just the natural progression of things—water getting older, harder,
more bitter. We had a backpack filled with fruit snacks, beef jerky, and our mothers' cameras.
We would be ready. We would be ready when they came.
Ok, honestly (another word to be cautious of...) I have no clue what is going on in these prose poems, I couldn't tell you exactly what Best is getting at. Frankly, there are times, and this is one of them, when the ride is so damned good that I don't really care where it is going.
Best is using a lexicon I don't know from a world I have never participated in — yet these poems read familiar. These poems are a quiet coming of age, a philosophical inquiry, an emotional road trip of survival played out on an electronic terrain. Thankfully best handles himself with aplomb, the reader doesn't need a password to gain entry into these poems.
In high school, how useful was if for me to be a wizard in calculus, or a thief who could only steal
glances? As useful as a sharp wit in an axe fight. As useful as a tuning fork in a locker room. Back
then, I was elfish as a miniature Elvis. Yet somehow I still dated a valkyrie, her breasts protected by
steel plates and her mother's proclivity for being home at all the right times.
"Someone shot the food," I'd joke in the lunch line, then we'd take our seats in the cafeteria like
two ghosts in a dungeon of ghouls. She a key to her silver locket; I had a key to a car that
would run only if the heart blew full force. Especially in summer.
Junior year I picked up some Latin as easily as a paper clip, but started swinging it around like a
sword. Carpe diem. Momento mori. "This warrior is about to die," I'd say to her sixth period after
braving the corridors all crammed with cliques. I said it regularly as prayer.
One night, she answered: "I hear potions can kill death." Sixteen years later, I suppose she's
still right. I can still smell the bargain-bin massage oil-jasmine and sandalwood floating atop a
sweaty man smoking a cigar. Still feel the gray blanket with holes big as exit signs. Taste the rum
dribbling down her neck to become a spray of gasoline pooling in her thighs.
B.J. Best has given us one strong surprise after another with But Our Princess is in Another Castle. Some of this poetry has you scratching your head but it is constantly mesmerizing. Best changes gears from dark to light, camp to maudlin, fearsome and subtly nuanced, all of it as quickly as you would plug a new game into your console.
Startling stories from an unfamiliar universe, sage wisdom and Space Invaders, who knew that was possible?
Ms. and Super Pac-Man
They met at Overeaters Anonymous. She liked his muscular mouth; he loved the sweet-sexy
bow in her hair. They chased each other around a playground like school kids-her knees on a
swing; his dizziness from the merry-go-round, staring at stars. She would make him fruit salad-
bananas, strawberries the color of lipstick, apples, the soft flesh of a pear. He gave her the key to
his neon apartment. They talked about having a child: a lemon growing from the size of a dot in
her womb. Everything was comfortable as a good shoe.
Slowly, she wondered about being with someone who knew how to cut corners. He relapsed.,
guzzling donuts while she was at work. She once said, "No heart should be knotted like a pretzel";
he longed to lift the hem of another's orange dress.
—You surprised me when you said you wanted to try new things: amaretto sours, maybe ecstasy,
flirting with the waiter who brought us our bottle of wine. You began with cigarettes, a cloud of
coughs ghosting through the room. I would stand outside, contemplating the maze of sidewalks,
wearing my coat like a cape in the rain.
For this reader Best has done that most difficult of jobs - he made me read beyond my previous areas of interest and he made me like it.
That's the best trick in the world.
B. J. Best has published two previous poetry titles: Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press) and State Sonnets (sunnyoutside).
But Our Princess is in Another Castle - Book Trailer
Video - Malinda Perazzo
B.J. Best reads at AWP offsite reading The Rally
Video - Rose Metal Press