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Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012

A pair of unconventional valentines

Amelia Gray's 'Threats' and Gregory Sherl's 'The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail'

By Jim Ruland

The oldest valentine on record dates back to the early 15th century, but the practice of committing one’s amorous intentions to paper goes back at least another thousand years. The details are murky—much like the unsigned valentine I received in the third grade—but its origins are rooted in a heady mix of honor, passion and martyrdom.

While it’s somewhat sad that the valentine has turned into a tacky commodity sold by the dozen so that no classmate is excluded from cupid’s arrow, I still recall the thrill of receiving a note from a mysterious stranger. However, I imagine I would feel differently about this if I were the protagonist of Amelia Gray’s astonishing debut, Threats.


David has been finding notes that he believes are from his recently deceased wife, Franny. What’s problematic for David is that he can’t be certain if the notes were written before or after Franny’s violent and mysterious death:

“It seemed reasonable to assume that Franny was somewhere in the world. If it was possible for her to be contained within a canister of ash on the table, it seemed equally possible that she was taking a walk in the neighborhood, or that she was out for a drive, or perhaps standing in line at the grocery store with faceless individuals who might fail to recognize the miracle that stood beside them holding a gallon of milk.”

While David would like to believe the notes are new because it would mean that his wife is somehow alive, he can’t accept the possibility that they pre-date her demise, because the notes are, well, not very nice. They are, in fact, threats: “I WILL CROSS-STITCH AN IMAGE OF YOUR FUTURE HOME burnING. I WILL HANG THIS IMAGE OVER YOUR BED WHILE YOU SLEEP.”

The discovery of these threats—taped to a coffeemaker, hidden inside a small pot, wedged under a door in the garage—fills David with unbearable dread that he does his best to face. But it’s hard to feel good about one’s performance as a partner in marriage when you find notes taped to the back of a picture frame that read, “I WILL LOCK YOU IN A ROOM MUCH LIKE YOUR OWN UNTIL IT BEGINS TO FILL WITH WATER.”

This grotesque little valentine serves as a metaphor for David’s situation. The home he shared with Franny feels like a simulation inhabited by a stranger, a feeling that is exacerbated when curiosity seekers come by to see the house “Where It Happened.” David becomes so unraveled that the detective assigned to his case can do little else but sympathize as David shuffles about, seeking answers to his questions.

Who’s the author of the notes? When were they written? Are they real or a cruel hoax? While Gray’s novel provides no easy answers, her portrait of grief is a dark and poignant reminder to “recognize the miracle” that stands beside you while you still can. We all have an expiration date.

•••

There are plenty of ways to expire on The Oregon Trail, as the frontiersmen who used the route in the 1840s and anyone who has played the 1970s computer game of the same name can attest. Both the trail and the pioneering computer game that was developed to educate school children about its perils have proved to be maddeningly alluring. So it should come as no surprise that Gregory Sherl’s new collection of poems, The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail, is equally deceptive.

Unlike video games of today, the original The Oregon Trail game took place largely in the imagination. Its purpose wasn’t to glamorize westward expansion but to teach kids that frontiersmen were far more likely to starve or die of illness than to reach their goal. Dreams of gold and glory were vanquished by measles or exhaustion.

In Sherl’s hands, “The Oregon Trail” becomes a complex system of similes for things that seem easily attainable at the outset but prove far more difficult to achieve. In other words, The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail is a love story.

“… We are naked under our clothes, we are drunk when we open our mouths. / You lift yourself onto me. / I can smell how much you love me. / I have put a heater on the inside of your thighs. / In 2D everything looks like it’s burning.”

Part homage to the game that introduced “You have died of dysentery” to nerd parlance, part idiosyncratic love story, Sherl’s collection mines the idiom of the analog trail to map the unexplored territory of the heart. 


Jim Ruland blogs at vermin.blogs.com and you can find him on Twitter @JimVermin.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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