GENEVIEVE KAPLAN Reviews
The Important Thing is...Card Game by Marjorie Tesser(card game chap, Firewheel Editions, Danbury, Conn, 2010)
Marjorie Tesser’s poetic text, winner of the 2009 Firewheel Press Chapbook award, is not traditionally bound but is instead packaged -- in a 9x9x¾” box. Inside the box are ten square pages, like bingo-cards, but printed with series of words rather than numbers. Each page comes with its own subtitle: “THE IMPORTANT THING IS… Questions” or “THE IMPORTANT THING IS… Dramatis Personae” or “THE IMPORTANT THING IS… Location Cards”; one page is lined so that we may list the names of players on our “Team Roster”; one page consists of a blank grid we can fill in with our own words to create new cards.
Is this a book? Maybe. It’s also, as its title The Important Thing is… Card Game suggests, a game. The first page of instructs us to “Carefully gnaw on the dotted lines” to free the cards from the confines of the page. These cards offer pithy, if sort of depressing, phrases: “it’s the lesser of two evils,” “no one got hurt,” “you haven’t given up,” “he was only wounded,” “you were honest.” And what should we do with these cards once we’ve cut them from the page? “Battle ‘em! Trade ‘em!”, Tesser suggests.
But how do we play? Like a board game, the instructions for playing The Important Thing is… Card Game are printed on the inside of the box lid; the directions tell us that “The rules are what you think they are, or what you think they ought to be.” 1st attempt: I cut the cards, make a “rule” to randomly choose one card from each category, and make the following list: “you see,” “demon,” “do I look fat,” “nothing,” “graveside,” “Fuzzers the cat,” “poetry,” and finally, “fire.” Hmmm. 2nd attempt: I do away with my rules and enlist a friend. Selecting cards from different piles, we write: “You’re not stagnating,” “it’s for a purpose,” “they spelled your name right,” “rut,” “hell,” “middle of nowhere,” “best friend,” “strumpet,” “poser,” “should I stay or should I go,” “do you ever fucking think of me at all,” “sez who,” “is there a GOD,” “sex” (Player 1) and “you haven’t given up,” “there is a roof over your head,” “this”, “pet,” “couch,” “lookout point,” “do I think too much,” “did I look stupid,” “did anyone notice,” “did anyone notice,” “did I look stupid,” “why do I think so much,” “are we there yet,” “space” (Player 2).
We surmise that it’s possible these cards aren’t so much a game as a collection of phrases in need of conjunctions. The title, though, nags. What is The Important Thing? Maybe the important thing is “you keep it quiet” but the important thing is “best friend” for the important thing is “do I look fat” so the important thing is “infinity” and the more important thing is “quiet” and the most important thing is “water.” We notice that no matter how we play the game, the important thing keeps changing. And sometimes we’re not satisfied with the important thing. We draw, for example, that the important thing is “slavery” and think, yes—important! But is “slavery” a card we want to “trade” with our friends? And, if “slavery” is the answer to the sub-heading on the page, “Is your glass half-full or half-empty?”, is this a game we want to be playing?
Tesser’s instructions remind us that “sometimes it’s good to take a break, go check your email…; walk the dog.” So we take a step backwards. We pretend we haven’t just learned that The Important Thing is … nothing. We pretend we haven’t cut the cards. Taking away these elements of arrangement and selection, we read across the printed page. Page one now begins “THE IMPORTANT THING IS… “you tried” “you did it on your own” “you have your health” “you have your family” “you care” and ends “you keep it quiet” “you keep it going” “you let it go” “you see” “this.” Now we’re feeling a little better.
Tesser’s instructions also tell us it’s okay to “just read the poem.” So we read the poem. In “Location Cards” we hone in on line six’s strangely moving progression from “in line” to “online” to “walking the line” to “easy street” to “lost.” We enjoy the sonic qualities of “space eat sex / tell this love / true thing hurt / poetry honor quiet” in the “Big” poem. We notice the poem “Pairs” begins with “war” but ends in “peace”; “all” and “nothing” are at opposite corners; “shelter” contrasts with “exposure” in line 5; the words “water” and “drought” mirror each other at the center of the poem. We’ve found a pattern! And then we find ourselves faced with “despair” and its antonym-twin, “comfortable shoes” (line 6).
Reading, playing, or simply interacting with Tesser’s The Important Thing is… Card Game is alternately disturbing, confusing, surprising, reflective, and satisfying. In the instructions, Tesser reminds us that “winning is not the important thing; the important thing is having had the experience,” and Tesser’s project, which is ultimately neither book nor game, is pretty much impossible not to experience. Spending time with the Card Game, it becomes clear that The Important Thing is not necessarily contained in the box: the most important thing is what you bring to it. Tesser’s project, with its board-game packaging and its elliptical instructions, subverts expectations from the very first moment of encounter. And, unlike many books of poetry, the carefully constructed Card Game demands an attentive, interactive reader who is willing to let go of poetic expectations and open themselves to the possibilities of play.
Genevieve Kaplan is the author of In the ice house (Red Hen Press, 2009) and settings for these scenes (Convulsive Editions, 2013). She lives in southern California, where she edits the Toad Press International chapbook series, publishing contemporary translations of poetry and prose.