Andrew K. Peterson’s Good Game, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos
In his poem “Ars Poetica,” Archibald Macleish concludes, “A poem should not mean/ But be.” The implication is that the poem—a poem— is an experience unto itself, and not merely a rendering of an idea or set of ideas that could be paraphrased in prose. The experience (or set of experiences) occasioned by my reading of Andrew K. Peterson’s collection of poems, Good Game, is, I must confess, largely unparaphrasable. While the poems in Good Game display pyrotechnical virtuosity in their use of imagery and structure, too often I found my engagement thwarted by tantalizing allusions that hung just out of my reach, by semantic inversions that seemed linked only to themselves, and to scattershot experiments in form that seemed intended as a kind of Rorschach test for the reader’s journey to self-discovery, but which in fact came across as frustratingly solipsistic and opaque puzzles.
Looking for an entry, a point of embarkation, I turn to the collection’s title, and then to the first poem, “The Big Game is Every Night.” Peterson’s last stanza “it’s a big game/ & the big game is every night/ a mountainous rose/ swells of diamond surfers,/ dub sparks on the moon’s hood,/ a wolf at the brim of her kind” creates a hunger that I ache to have satisfied. As vivid as are the images of the rose, the diamond surfers, the sparks on the hood of the moon, and the wolf at the brim, for me, they collide without illuminating. Ever the pragmatist, when faced with weightlessness, I search for an anchor, and, as I have advised countless students over the years, when in doubt, return to the title. What’s to be made of Peterson’s offering up of the phrase “good game”? Seeking to experience Peterson’s work to the fullest, I run through any and all associations I can make. “Good game” is a platitude generally exchanged between competitors at the conclusion of a competition. Is it possible that Peterson has regarded his readers as opponents? Or are we ruminant targets, like rhinos and buffaloes, “big game” to be rendered fit for a museum diorama at the mercy of the poet’s obscurantism? Is Peterson’s title self-congratulatory, intended to describe the collection itself as a challenge that will ultimately benefit the reader? Adjectivally speaking, when I surrender myself to a poem or collections of poems, I like to think of myself as “game”—I am generally willing to suspend or accept, if even temporarily, the epistemological frame the poet is offering through their work. If I can make sense of their rules. But I want to be a participant, not merely an observer, of the poet’s “game.” Watching pyrotechnics for the sake of watching is a two-dimensional experience—it lacks depth.
I search for anchors, for clues: Peterson offers a direction in his opening poem, suggesting that what we’re searching for is “slow going, but it is going.” So there is movement to watch for—but movement to where (and from where), and how do we recognize it? In “Poem on Joan Mitchell’s Birthday,” there is a suggestion after imagery hinting at the singer’s cover art (“wild blueberry/ when I could/in the middle of that blued & purple cinema”) that “form shatters the void/ as a knife slides off her palette.” So it seems that the decision to “make” something, i.e., to impose form, equals “art.” And what then to make of Peterson choosing to refer to Joanie Mitchell as “Joan”? Naming (or renaming) is an aggressive act—a hint of cultural imperialism. I have a brother who intentionally mispronounces the names of French actresses. To what end? To draw attention to himself? To make it clear that he is possessing these personalities in his own, unique way? But what am I to get it out of it? As with Peterson’s poems and many of the forms he chooses for them, my first feeling is that of exclusion.
But I’m in “the game,” and I’m no quitter. And, seriously, I want to play. Reading Peterson’s “Serious Moonlight,” I’m drawn to the last lines: “in the moonlight/ in the serious moonlight/ oh unserious moon.” Peterson here seems to suggest the subjectivity of interpretation—whatever we make of the moon, it exists nakedly; if we turn moonlight into “a monument to memory’s fresh dance clothes set to tremble,” as Peterson does in the poem’s opening line, it is a matter of choice. Yet before I can dive deeply into “Serious Moonlight,” I’m confronted by Peterson’s decision to “i.m.” the poem to David Bowie. A handful of poem’s in the opening section of Good Game are “i.m.-ed” to musicians and writers, all dead. Is an “instant message” a dedication? A declaration of inspiration? A tribute? Deference to or ironic condemnation of a culture lost to social media? (Full disclosure—except for Bowie, I had to Google Peterson’s other “i.m.” reciptients.)
And so the reader is taken out of the immediate experience of the poem itself, connected to (or becoming lost within) a different kind of experience that requires assistance—either we look up Peterson’s allusions, or we defer to the final pages of the volume, which list the poet’s “Notes” on several of his poems. Is the added information these notes supply meant to further our interface with the poem? Are they intended to offer us glimpses into the poet’s notebooks so we can trace the genesis of a work from its birth-idea to its completion? Are they meant to show off Peterson’s wide-ranged exploration of diverse texts? If so, is the “Notes” section intended less as an explanatory connection to the volume’s early poems and more as a separate section in and of itself, in which Peterson noisily stakes his ground as an iconoclast? What is a reader to make of a note such as Peterson’s on his “Poem for a Disappearing Roommate”: “The poem’s form—stanza length, line word count, quotation length and page location of source material—was determined by chance methodology (I-Ching consultation).”
There are several poems in Good Game, particular in an eponymous section, that suggest the movement implied in the also-eponymous introductory poem—poems that “are going.” At least the titles of these guerilla poems (guerilla poetry involves, among other things, placing poems in unusual or unexpected places or circumstances) imply action. They also, perhaps for the only occasions in this volume allow me to place my feet on solid ground for a moment. Among these titles are: “Poem Placed on the Green Monster During Law Enforcement Counterterror Practice Fenway Park June 12th 2016”; “Poem to be Dropped into Encore Boston Harbor Resort and Casino Construction Site (Failed)”; “Poem Placed BU Footbridge Over Storrow Drive Where Santos Laboy was Shot and Killed by Massachusetts State Trooper June 19th 2015”. There is vivid imagery in some of these poems; I struggled however, to connect the language of the poems themselves to the clearly political implications of the titles (especially a long segment in the “Green Monster” poem that tested my lost years of intermediate level Latin.)
Andrew K. Peterson’s poems are a festival of forms, of fecund imagery, of challenging allusiveness. The collection features: the aforementioned descriptions of guerrilla poems (the thrill of participating in such guerilla activity is somewhat neutered by reporting them on paper in conventional form: they become cold history rather than a living statement); collages of meaning presented as a midnight cloudburst; instant messages to dearly departed artists; abstruse notes that do less to illuminate the poem they are connected with than draw attention to their own obscurity. If part of Andrew K. Peterson’s goal with Good Game is to open this reader to fresh thinking by breaking down preconceptions, he has accomplished that end. Is it fair of me to question whether or not the collection hangs together when Peterson’s object might be akin to proving Yeats’s observation in “Second Coming” to be true: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold./ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”? Does Peterson’s collection spring from an impulse parallel to that of Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who believed “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion”? Maybe. I can only report, for good or ill, that experiencing Good Game left me feeling as if I’d been invited to the gym to play ball, but never got picked for a team.