Stephen Sexton: ‘For me, death and Super Mario have always been connected’
The Belfast poet on the poetry and analogies for life in video games
Screen fr. Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Mario World video game. Photograph: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty
I remember distinctly the day the Super Nintendo arrived, but little about the season except that it was a bright day, and I have to guess at 1996 or 1997 as the year. After our grandmother died in 1995, and we no longer had a babysitter to look after us, me and my brother spent afternoons after school, and entire summers, it felt, under the wing of a childminder while our parents went to work. Time operated in the way I imagine time still operates for children: syrupy and capacious. Space was different too: even a few streets beyond the confines of the cul-de-sac felt like another parish entirely, one directed by slightly tougher, slightly older boys, one of whom once produced from his pocket – like an off-brand magician – a dead field mouse.
We stayed indoors mostly, since the household owned a Nintendo (or Famicom, as it’s known in Japan: Family Computer). Both of us developed an enthusiasm for the adventures of Mario and his brother Luigi, and one could imagine why: another world of time and space and colour and ecology beyond the containment of a relative stranger’s house in semi-rural County Down. We must have talked about Mario or itched to get back to him. Our zeal must have been palpable, or else our parents talked to each other in the way I imagine parents still talk. One Friday evening, my mother came to pick us up in her red Vauxhall Corsa with a big, mostly yellow box with a black L-shaped panel on it, and, in red, the words “Super Nintendo”. Even now I can summon from somewhere in my DNA that sheer, cardiac joy. Now that I think about it, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that for me, death and Super Mario have always been connected.
I started writing what would become If All the World and Love Were Young almost two decades later, in the summer of 2015, three years after my mother died. I was a PhD student at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s, producing work which considered the interaction of poems and images. I’m fascinated by how verbal and visual signs correspond, but I grew a little bored of writing poems after paintings. As a kind of joke, I figured I’d write a poem for every level of Super Mario World, harnessing the urge towards completeness so deeply felt by many players of video games. I say it was a joke, because the tradition of poems after paintings – or ekphrasis, to be Greek about it – has a certain classical air to it; a seriousness.
Why not, I thought, devote one’s powers of observation and one’s intensity of gaze not at Waterhouse or Moreau, but at the image of an Italian plumber and his brother and their fantastical worlds. When I started working on the project in earnest, it quickly became clear to me that I couldn’t interrogate these worlds without thinking about my childhood, and I couldn’t think about my childhood without thinking about my mother. Elegy started to creep into this digital world too: I couldn’t describe a representation of a house and its tree of berries in the game without describing our house and its holly tree.
There’s a fundamental two-ness to the book: me and Mario; adulthood and childhood (or bigness and smallness, depending on the mushrooms); real landscapes and those in the video game. For large parts of my growing up in the 1990s, I was two people at once, or one person in two worlds. A child might not have thought much of “Donut Plains” – an area of Super Mario World missing its middle, hence, “donut” – but an adult might notice the almost-donut shape of the North of Ireland, Lough Neagh its missing middle. “Donut Plains” even has a cave in the west (no mention of marble arches) and a precarious-looking bridge on its north coast. The poet Charles Wright has said that “All forms of landscape are autobiographical”. Sometimes it feels like Mario’s world is as much a part of my biography as its real[er] counterpart.
The book’s title is the first line of Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”, a poem in response to Christopher Marlowe’s pastoral poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”. Raleigh’s Nymph rejects the ideal, lovely, eternal and ageless world Marlowe’s Shepherd promises: “The flowers do fade”, says the Nymph: time goes on, things change, there is no forever.
If All the World and Love Were Young is a pastoral elegy which desperately wants to occupy both of these positions: the idealism, or perhaps self-denial of the Shepherd, but equally it must acknowledge the facts of time, its consequences and its losses. The book is filled with flowers, grasses, creatures and landscapes which occur in the video game, but they might also occur in my garden, or in yours. In this regard, they’re fairly conventional pastoral poems, which always concern an unreal landscape: an imaginary one, a digital one.
When I’d just started working on these poems, I remembered a photograph my mother had taken of me playing Super Mario World as a child, my back to the camera. I based the book on this image – me as Mario seeing myself. It turns out there are many images like this one, in which children – often boys – sit in front of a glowing screen. I turned our house almost upside down looking for it, going through stacks of photographs in many ancient biscuit tins (Family Circle, mostly), but no sign of it. As much as the book is about loss, it’s about the preservation of what one is left with. The book might be the only version of that photograph that still exists.
One thinks of the coin on the tongue and hopes it’s enough
A few times, just after the book was completed, and even recently, I found myself thinking “What are people going to think about all of this anyway? What’s she going to think about it?” Of course, I caught myself just after the thought had formed. I regret in some ways that I can’t show her the book and what I made from a photograph she took, but I regret in huge, indescribable, world-sized ways that I have something I might have shown her. I can’t have it both ways. I can’t have both worlds.
All elegies involve a kind of economy: one has lost the subject of the poem, but one has gained the elegy. One knows the elegy won’t do, but one tries so hard to make it large: as big as a world, or worlds even, and one persists, knowing it won’t do, in filling those worlds with colours and creatures and places and things and circumstances; light and sadness and joy. In order to write this book, I’ve had to give up the innocent experience of Super Mario World: I can no longer participate in its images without sensing the elegiac glow I’ve instilled in it. It feels like I’ve committed an act of vandalism.
One still goes back, though, to those earliest moments of exhilaration – oneself as someone else – collecting coins, leaping over gaps in the earth, descending in tunnels to the underworld. Naturally one thinks of the obol with which one would pay the ferryman to convey the souls of the deceased from the world of the living to the world of the dead. One thinks of the coin on the tongue and hopes it’s enough.
If All the World and Love Were Young is published by Penguin on 29th August