Dispatches from the Mushroom Kingdom by Noel Pabillo Mariano / Hyacinth Girl Press / 31 pages / $6.00
Questions of the spoken/external and unspoken/internal sort are at the heart of Dispatches from the Mushroom Kingdom. The chapbook takes elements from video games, especially in regard to structuring, in order to explore loss, memory, the possibility of reconciliation as well as the desire to go back and make changes, even with the knowledge that doing so is impossible. Despite how short it is, Mariano’s poems unravel in layers that don’t entirely come off or sink in after the first read-through, especially since the importance of some elements may not be immediately apparent. There is an understated complexity to them as their strength lies not only in how well they roll off the tongue, but also in how vital each is to the others. Together, the poems form a collective body that pulsates and murmurs to the reader and to itself in a search for self-comfort and internal peace.
Mariano’s poems expand the archetypes found in video games in a way that changed my own perception of and relationship with the genre. The chapbook’s title is only a preview of the contents within as Mariano offers a different take on the familiar journey trope, suggesting a parallel between the real and the imaginary world and stressing the applicability of the word ‘game’ to both. “Character Building Reset” was a strong example of this; the poem’s title lures its reader in and breaks down any preconceptions they may have had immediately after reading the title. Each line pulled me further away from everything I associated with the act of building and resetting, leading me towards a sobering echo of longing at the end. “Character Select” was a favourite of mine in this regard; Mariano took the familiar act of choosing a ‘character type,’ a staple at the beginning of many RPG games, and grounded it in the everyday, ‘grown-up’ world that often claims to want nothing to do with the world of childish roleplaying. As a result, the sidekick is ‘upgraded,’ becoming:
[l]ost and inaccessible,
not enough credit
to get himself out of the house[.]
The poems in Dispatches from the Mushroom Kingdom are skins one can slip in and out of, inevitably surrendering the self in the process. Once the reader has left their preconceptions like boots outside the doorstep, Mariano engages their reader in a dialogue about the self and the struggle of losing a sibling. Mariano weaves archetypes and details from video games into reality, suggesting the two are not so far removed for each other. At the same time, Mariano warns of a boundary between the two and questions the definition of distraction and detachment. The reader is made aware of the difference between being present as opposed to being in the present, much like the speaker who mistakes city lights for stars in “Dispatch #1: Hero’s Journey”:
how I trick myself this way.
Dispatches from the Mushroom Kingdom is a progression through a landscape of memory that is like a search for a checkpoint, a reset button that we occasionally wish for. In this case, the speaker of Mariano’s poems ruminates over memories of their brother, his past and present self that is never quite present, telling the reader:
After the war, my brother [was] unable
to find himself [and] re-imagine[d] himself.
(“The Hero’s Return”, p. 13)
The poem “Save Point” was especially startling for this very reason, both because of its placement as the second-to-last poem in the collection and the title’s significance, but also in the way it speaks to being out of place and too late. The structure of the chapbook, especially the two ‘players’ in ‘Disc One,’ offer a conversation that occurs outside of space and time in which time loses its linear nature and an internal dialogue ensues, in which the internal state of the speaker is presented as if it is two separate people. Mariano’s poems raise questions without explicitly asking them, and for the reader who is keen on seeking out a definitive answer in a quest-like approach to reading, it is “Code” that delivers the difficult verdict, both to the reader and to the speaker:
[No matter how far I run from you the world is
round and I’ll always find my way back no matter what direction I
[which means I can never really go back since I’ll never leave at all]
Mariano’s collection is somber, yet it isn’t exactly ‘dark’ either. Instead, Mariano creates an alternative with Dispatches from the Mushroom Kingdom by showing that distance can be a necessary and vital part in releasing pent-up feelings and memories. Their chapbook carves out a space that is as much for the reader as it is for the speaker, at times blurring the line between the two, to remind the reader that what ifs are part of reconciling not just with one’s memories but also with oneself.