B.J. Best. But Our Princess Is in Another Castle. Rose Metal Press, 2013.
But Our Princess Is in Another Castle by B. J. Best is a coming-of-age story set in the virtual world of the late 1980s/early 1990s. The prose poems range from meditations on love, friendship and faith, to riffs on Rad Racer, Pac-Man, and The Oregon Trail. The poems are a strange mix of prose and lyric transcendence, of childhood nostalgia and real world dilemmas, of video game heroes and high school sweethearts. Best’s collection asks the question that seems to be on our collective minds lately: do our video game selves of yore inform our adult, real world selves of today?
Divided into eight “worlds,” a prologue (“The Story”), and an epilogue (“Game Over”), But Our Princess Is in Another Castle enacts the feeling of staying up all night to beat a video game. We are exhausted on the one hand, elated on the other. We are afraid Mom is going to wake up and discover us hunched over the controller at 3:00 a.m., but this collection is worth the risk because in the end “you are / among them, your initials glorious, forever electric in their pantheon” (“Congratulations, Enter Your Initials”). Although it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the “worlds” signify (the passing of time, perhaps?), they work in an abstract way to demonstrate progress, as in beating level after level of Zelda. There is growth from world to world, for the speaker and for the reader.
The passing of time is arguably the central theme of the collection. In “Qix,” for example:
It was as if your calculus could complete us.
And so we went to the Italian restaurant, ate focaccia and wood-oven pizza. And so your bra was like your highlighter: hot and pink. And so my grandfather died three days before Easter.
The step-by-step narrative unfolding of events causes readers to question what will happen next, and the randomness of events mirrors both our real lives and the lives of our virtual selves. The familiar smell of adolescence permeates all of these poems, especially for those of us who came of age in the 1990s. This “I” does the things that so many of us did in childhood: “the card I tacked above my bed for what I swore would be forever” (“Mega Man”), for example. This “I” is surely the same throughout the collection, and we can trace this “I”’s life through the games that are familiar and nostalgic to the speaker and to us.
And then the move into adulthood happens without announcement, as in “Maniac Mansion” when the speaker suddenly owns a house, is married and “now our son is sleeping in the next room” (“Maniac Mansion”). The move between ages, between worlds, is as seamless as it is in our lives and because of this the collection comes across as sincere. So much about this collection has the texture of a real life lived, but ironically, a real life lived through video games. There are moments we feel the gritty roughness of life in lines such as “your cat had to be put to sleep, the tanning place charges / $45 per month, the Pope died, your brother is driving inscrutably West” (“The Legend of Zelda”) and other moments in the same poem of deep contemplation on the human condition: “It is human to expect narrative, to thread meaning… // We become the stories / we tell ourselves” (“The Legend of Zelda”). It is surprising how deftly Best manages to weave the particular human world into the popular video games of days gone by.
Best is true to the prose form consistently throughout the collection, although at times deep lyric—and romantic—moments occur amidst the prose: “But it is love, love for me, I can tell by your Easter-pink heart” (“Donkey Kong”) and “It’s not the moon, mooring in the wharf of your eyes” (“The Secret of Monkey Island”). These lyric moments move the collection into the realm of the dialectic, the crown of thorns we carry around with us in our hearts. Like life, like video games, there is sadness and there is humor. Best seems a master at bringing back the memories of adolescence that perhaps many of us would rather not dredge up, and coupling these memories with the video game selves we had at that time, the games we played as “easily as a scale on your middle school flute” (“Double Dragon”).
Arguably repetitive but certainly unusual, But Our Princess Is in Another Castle is a readable collection that takes lowbrow entertainment and connects it to philosophical questions about lost love and what it means to finally become an adult in a world not unlike the world of Nintendo. Best does well summarizing his own collection in the poem “Journey”: “something about young, something about fly away.”