Review of Stephen Sexton’s, ‘If all the world and love were young’ (Penguin 2019)
The video game ‘Halo: Combat Evolved’ makes me think of funerals. To be more specific, it’s the third level of the game, Truth and Reconciliation, where master chief and the space marines board the eponymous alien dreadnought ‘The truth and reconciliation’. I sometimes think about wandering through the unreality of the smooth purple and blue corridors, and I think of my grandmother’s death.
Halo: Combat Evolved has a weird floatiness to it, a very slight delay on actions and movement, and an inertia that carries your character around corners even after you’ve stopped moving. The corridors of the “truth and reconciliation” are without landmarks or maps, and so I can remember wandering through them lost, feeling as if my character were plowing through treacle, while I sat in a loosened suit, with eyes sore from crying, playing through the level as a thing to do in the hours after grandma’s funeral.
I still feel grateful to Bungie, the developers of Halo, for making a game whose third level had the superannuated movement physics necessary to match my exhausted grief; a floaty, oneiric, and detached sadness that I could not shake off, having just buried my last surviving grandparent. I’m grateful too for Stephen sexton, whose wonderful debut collection, If all the world and love were young (Penguin, 2019), traces the slightly hallucinogenic experience that is created when video games and grief overlap.
The book is about two things, Super Mario World, a 1991 video game for the Super Nintendo Entertainment system, and the death of Stephen Sexton’s mother. For those unfamiliar with Mario World, it is a game about running and jumping through a colourful dinosaur-themed island, and has no explicit connections to grief. The connections that Sexton makes are personal to him. The death of his mother has caused him to reflect upon his childhood, and he finds that Mario and Mum are the two central figures of his youth.
Super Mario World is the model for the collection. Each section of the book is named after one of the ‘Worlds’ of the 1991 game (Donut Plains, the Forest of Illusion, the Valley of Bowser, etc.), and each poem in turn is named after a level. This results in some incongruous titles for lyric poetry. A poem about Sexton’s Mum being diagnosed with cancer is called, ‘Yoshi’s Island 2’.
The non-gamer need not be put off this collection by the centrality of Super Mario World. Sexton is really following the example of James Joyce. He used the travels of Odysseus as a model for the story of a day in the life of a middle aged Irish man, wandering, eating, crapping and chatting his way around Dublin. The travels of a cheerful Italian plumber across a mysterious island are no more incongruous a comparison to the everyday than what is found in Ulysses. Like Joyce, Sexton’s model gives a form to his story. Unlike Joyce, the model is not forced upon the tale. Sexton’s grief and Super Mario World are somehow one and the same thing, a dreamlike attachment of unlike parts that are completely fused together.
The result of this mixture is almost almost bafflingly affecting; the young sexton’s love for Mario world and his grief for his mother mix into a beautiful collection of poetry. Take the aforementioned ‘Yoshi’s Island 2’, where a young Sexton makes sense of his mother’s degrading cells by comparing them to an SNES catridge’s degradation over time,’
One summer’s day I’m summoned home to hear of cells which
split and glitch
so haphazardly that someone is called to intervene with poisons’
(If All the World and Love were Young, p 8)
Children understand the world through the lens of their obsessions, and so Sexton’s comparison here is authentic. A young man is making sense of the worst event in his life in the only way he can.
Sexton goes beyond general gaming allusions, and bases some poems around explicit connections between the contents of the eponymous level and the aspect of grief being discussed. The Top secret area is a hidden stage in Mario World. If the player enters and exits the level, performing the correct combination of item collections and block presses, they can gain infinite one-ups. Anyone familiar these infinite -life tricks will know about the odd fugue state you can enter while performing them; you sort of forget what you’re doing and automatically repeat the same actions in the hope of preventing your Italian plumber from ever getting a game over.
Sexton’s poem, ‘Top Secret Area’ takes the idea of repeating an action in pursuit of immortality and gives it a tragic and ironic expression, as he describes how his mother passed the time after her terminal diagnosis, ‘
she plants roses in the garden she plants wrasses in the ocean
she plants roses in the garden she paths road signs from
she plants roses in the garden she plans ruses in the argot
(Ibid, p 18)
The fusion of form and meaning here is as natural and compelling as any chapter of Ulysses, and on its own merits justifies the use of Mario world as a model. Not that such justification is needed. The connection is never forced, rather Sexton quietly allows the reader to see how tied together the video game and his grief are.
Sextons sentence construction is another marvel. His lines are of mid length; not quite structured and not entirely free of metric regularity. They lack punctuation beyond full stops. His words tend to flow into each other, and without caesura telling the reader when to stop, it forces them to go slow. One has to carefully tread and re-tread over the lines. Sexton manages this effect; the sentences are not so dense or tricky that you become tired out reading them; ‘
Now we must be aware of the cave after a few days of fasting
the anesthesiologist apothecaries carefully
and the personable surgeon goes under the skin precisely’
(Ibid, p 29)
There is again a parallel to playing Super Mario World; of having to carefully re-play a level after losing a life. The lack of punctuation in this way transcends gimmickry and becomes a core part of the poetry’s impact.
Sexton has attracted comparisons to Seamus Heaney, and not without reason. His debut is startling, his references are at once modern and rustic, and his perception is sensitive; it is only natural to compare the impact of this collection to Death of a Naturalist. There are also some explicitly Heaney-esque touches. Much like Heaney’s self affirmation in “Digging” (‘…between my finger and my thumb /The squat pen rests/ I’ll dig with it.’) Sexton too has a moment of poetic vocation, ‘
I will myself to contain it : paen labouring under
so many feet I have taken in a breath of the world so huge
the rest of my life will be spent breathing the world into the world.’
(Ibid, p 96)
The poet here imagines that his role is to reimburse the brilliance of the world through artistic representation; to receive things from nature and society and then to give back. This vision of poetry is both generous and fundamentally optimisti, and in this way Sexton is Heaney-esque.
Super Mario World is a game about joy. The theme tune is famous among video game fans; the upbeat melody was described by a pair of famous youtubers as, ‘getting in your soul’. The colourful worlds and stages of Yoshi’s Island are most familiar to fans as the location of happy childhood memories.
Sexton’s achievement is not just to take an ‘unliterary’ topic as a theme, but to take one that is so at odds with his elegiac project. He traces overlaps that conventional language finds difficult to describe; of past and present, of childhood and maturity, of life and death, and of virtual worlds and the more or less real one we inhabit. Sexton’s brilliant debut collection moves forward not just a personal or sentimental project, but the capacity and capaciousness of language itself.