A Brilliant Button Without Any Cloth

Reviewed By

The promised west in The Oregon Trail IS The Oregon Trail is an amalgam of bootstrap romance, wilderness bordered by suburban sprawl, death, and the ferocity of natural processes.

I entered the fifth grade in 1992, a year of my life characterized by Troll Dolls, Ross Perot, and The Oregon Trail computer game. My grandfather took me to D.C. and surrounding areas over the holiday break. For two weeks we visited museums, landmarks, and retired plantations and I suckled from the immense teat of American History. Back in class, in our civil war unit, my hand shot into the air at every question, “Shirley plantation!” I’d tell the class, “That was colonel ‘Light-horse’ Harry Lee,” I’d answer. I’d become a know-it-all, and that fact in concert with my chubby legs and knock-off Nikes did not fetch any popularity prizes.

I spent my recesses logged into our library’s computer playing The Oregon Trail, feeling the grandeur of my history, meditating on the hardship my ancestors endured to bring me to this better life. In reality my family migrated west from Iowa in the early eighties by way of a red Datsun, in search of milder weather and better weed, and arrived on a Willamette Valley checkered with subdivisions and the sprawling complexes of tech firms. Ten years later, in 2002, a rural doctor in Guatemala would inform me that I’d contracted Typhoid, a disease that existed for me in a singular context, alongside dysentery and whatever it meant to “ford the river.” Suffice to say, I come to this text with a considerable share of personal feeling and association.

It’s been 20 years since I played Oregon Trail, but I read, “My wagon is a carcass of remorse. I ford the river alone,” on the back cover, and swell with emotion. I have no idea what it would be like to read the book had I never played the game.

Like the Willamette Valley I inherited, the promised west in TOTITOT is an amalgam of bootstrap romance, wilderness bordered by suburban sprawl, death, and the ferocity of natural processes. The speaker in these poems epitomizes the charismatic wagon leader, guiding his young family (Wife, Child #1 Christopher, Child #2, Wendy) past the Kansas River into battles, sickness, and death.

The best writing comes when the speaker is in love: “Let this trail grab us like an old ghost. Let these / Oxen pull the weight of our future love.” In lust “…the other carpenters from Ohio / are jealous. They think about your hair /while they’re inside their wives.” And when this enthusiasm spirals into hallucinogenic fever, “The problem is that there are bees in my head birthing / more bees.” Or “I want to take / my pants off while you whistle at the sun. I want to watch / the dead wake up…” Core elements of the American identity are reflected throughout; loneliness, ambition, love in a nuclear family, exclusion, paranoia. And TOTITOT’s format serves its themes well, with each poem’s title centered alone on the left page, the bodies of the poems on the right. With few stanza breaks, like the migrating masses, the poems themselves are engines, driving steadily, relentlessly, toward the back cover.

In addition to love, lust, and illness, The Oregon Trail IS The Oregon Trail covers class disparity, “Tell me / why the banker from Boston starts the trail with / twelve hundred dollars more than the farmer / from Illinois. Does he not touch his wife with two / hands? I am not rich but I touch everything worth / touching twice.” Parenting, “Wendy says, If you beat the game, will I disappear?” And a few disorienting poems involving alien invasions and Mel Gibson. The alien/Gibson poems may be intended to mash-up ideologies, or childhood fantasies, or maybe they’re just supposed to be funny, but mostly they distract from the established continuity of theme and feeling. That’s not to say an occasional set change doesn’t work. One love poem that takes place in the parking lot of a Honky-tonk features a Stetson hat and a boner, and the amalgam of Americanisms works.

Of course, the whole book is tongue in cheek and is not meant to be taken seriously: “Child #1, Christopher, has typhoid. / His forehead is so hot we could boil water, / which, of course, we do. And Syphilis Rips Through Fort Kearney!” But at its best these punchlines achieve tension with the real human drama that made the game so compelling.

In a recent interview Sherl said: “…These poems started as a joke. I was in an MFA program that I shouldn’t have been in, surrounded by everyone taking themselves so goddamn seriously. ..I was sitting in a workshop every week, reading poems that were trying to be bigger than they needed to be, and continually getting in trouble for talking about pop culture in my own work. So instead of shying away, I said fuck it.”

If you’re like me, you’ll open The Oregon Trail IS The Oregon Trail expecting to find the “fuck it”, pop-culture heavy , quirk-verse that so interests a certain set of younger poets, and some of the time that’s what you get. But where many of his contemporaries cultivate dispassion, and distance, Sherl barely contains his force. Under the punchlines there is a depth of raw emotion and obsession in short supply these days, and his passion is refreshing, heartening, addictive. “Love me, I whisper. / Love me, I carve into the side of my least favorite ox. / I am a brilliant button without any cloth.” It’s passion that makes Sherl such an intriguing young poet. If in the future he should choose to play things closer to the bone, big poems will happen. We’ll have no choice but take them seriously.

Read “Nine Out of Ten Dentists Agree I Am Not an Octopus” our Day 28 entry in our 2012 National Poetry Month project.

Lisa Wells is the author of Beast, a collection of poems, and Yeah. No. Totally., a book of essays. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon she currently lives in Iowa City. More from this author →