When I was seven or eight years old, I was desperate to own either a Sega Mega Drive or a Super Nintendo. Much to my frustration I wasn’t allowed either and had to make-do with holing up at various friends’ houses for hours on end watching them play whilst I sat quietly. Looking back, though, I was happy just watching; the screen a window on another world.
Stephen Sexton’s incredible sequence of poems If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, 2019) is a moving elegy for his mother but told through the lens of the game Super Mario World (released on the Super Nintendo in 1990). This may seem an unlikely combination, but by the end of the book nothing seems more appropriate. The sequence is a simultaneous journey through two distinct worlds, each of which informs the other, creating an affecting portrait of a life lived and recalled.
The book’s arrangement echoes the structure of Super Mario World. Each poem is named after a level — including the secret areas — and they appear in a similar order to which a player would encounter them in a normal playthrough. The beginning area of the game is called ‘Yoshi’s House’ and consists of a treehouse with a chimney, fireplace and mailbox; it is where Mario finds that Yoshi has gone to look for his kidnapped friends, which begins the adventure. The book’s first poem not only carries the same title and faithfully follows its narrative (Sexton manages this, quite remarkably, with almost every poem-level) but it is also where we are formally introduced to another concept that underpins the book: the 16-bit nature of the Super Nintendo itself. In the introduction Sexton states: ‘The Super Nintendo is a 16-bit console. Put simply, 16-bit refers to how much memory the system can process at one time.’ Each poem here is an intricate yet finite act of memory, operating within the author’s very own 16-bit framework — every line is made up of 16 syllables:
These are the days of no letters the magenta mailbox jitters out of the visible spectrum babies chirp in our holly tree mountains yield to the foreground and sadly again they’re beautiful: my friends scattered in the lowlands the fire seizes in the grate the smoke signals across the eaves say all I really mean to say I have gone to rescue my friends I’ll think of you and you and you.
Sexton captures the aesthetic details of the in-game and infuses them with his own sense of place. It is a fascinating mixture of fantasy and reality, bound together by form. Of course, a poem and a sequence like this must be more than just formally interesting or structurally accomplished to activate something in the reader. In interviews Sexton has spoken of his attraction to the assertion of Gotthold Lessing that, to paraphrase, ‘poetry is an art of time and painting is an art of space’. Sexton’s poetry manages to combine time and space with the imaginative world of Mario as a crucial third ingredient. This blend is the key to a book which delivers a vivid, memorable and poignant narrative. The fusion of the fantastical with the everyday produces sentences and whole sections that brim with strangeness and depth. From ‘Vanilla Dome 3’:
His raft become automated poor Charon dosses on the banks a penny here a penny there I would give him for his troubles. And Dante has under it all a kingdom of ice their breaths clear in the air down the ragged fur they climb up into the morning
Charon is a fitting character to mention here as Sexton performs something like his role, ferrying us through an ‘underworld’ of memories; each one spliced with elements of the surreal. A good example is the description of the ‘living fossils’ found in ‘Vanilla Fortress’:
I’m swimming with coelacanths rotting in the flooded fortress. The unbeautiful things propel themselves in flat trajectories. So many years we have missed you little fish little Lazarus fossil-king of the underbite not that you knew you were missing.
The description and atmosphere are perfectly in tune with the level that the poem references (if you are interested you can see the level itself here) but as we move to the conclusion it reveals itself to be more than just descriptive, becoming something more reflective and personal:
To suffer suffer everywhere and not a moment stop to think let the world go on without me the next life will find me happy
The sequence as a whole is necessarily punctuated with these moments of introspection and deep sadness, but they never feel manipulative or manufactured. There is a quiet dignity of phrase which, nestled amongst more technicolour moments, serves to heighten the emotional impact. Take for example ‘#6 Wendy’s Castle’, which uses the fortress setting in the game as a stand-in for the hospital in which Sexton’s mother is being treated. It begins:
The afternoon is bright and clear as a bell tolling on the hour. Music seeps from a radio playing at the nurses’ station: some Wendy sings her final songs in a voice low as a whisper as bright as a shower of sparks sheared off in a welder’s workshop.
But this bright opening slowly dissolves into the harsh reality of illness:
I’m sorry she wanted to say my body won’t cooperate my body’s become overcome though she did not say anything but stared as if to recall how my face looked when she first saw me.
There are numerous heart-wrenching moments throughout the book — especially in the second half as the gravity of the situation becomes ever clearer. In ‘Valley Fortress’ the opening line mirrors that of the opening poem, ‘Yoshi’s House’, but slightly altered, more fragile: ‘These are the days of no letters her signature starved with jitters’. The final few lines of the poem bring us closer to that fragility and the fear it creates:
Then she says I want to go home once more for one once more one night and I can say you can’t go home now she says I know not now after.
The last section of the sequence is titled ‘Special World’ — the name is taken from the secret final zone of Super Mario World. It’s no coincidence that this in-game area contains the most difficult levels in the game and that the poems in this section deal with the most difficult moments of grief and recovery. Perhaps the finest of these final poems is ‘Way Cool’. The interplay between the familial setting with its ‘Television’s On/Off / button whose once black surface has been worn away to silver by / thousands of thumbs’ and what that space is now lacking is tender and devastating. As things start to unravel in a personal sense, the lines between reality and fantasy become ever more blurred:
Every other day I think I see her passing by the window or crossing a bridge or walking ahead of me in the village but this is the wrong universe among all the universes.
As the title of the book suggests, although the poems may have unusual roots, at their heart is a kinship with a more traditional, pastoral verse. They are punctuated with an ‘iridescent shimmer’; a farmer who ‘continues to plough’; ‘roses sleeping in their bulbs’ and other naturalistic flourishes. This is most evident in ‘Forest of Illusion 1’ where the language of the wood is:
Not to be read but understood says the trickle of the river and without saying anything on the tree lands the butterfly some call the Camberwell Beauty and others call the Mourning Cloak.
Much like his handling of the book’s darker motifs, Sexton manages to insert these evocative passages without friction, and without them seeming trite or overworked. There is a wonderful simplicity and honesty to these bucolic moments—particularly throughout the section titled ‘Forrest World’—which adds another layer to what is already a varied, absorbing work.
It is difficult when considering If All the World… to pick out individual lines or phrases which adequately convey the effect of what it is like to read in sequence. Each individual poem works so well on its own level (to risk the pun) that extracting things feels like diminishing the whole. It would perhaps be true to say that the foremost achievement of the book is its capacity to weave small, almost domestic scenes into a coherent ‘real-life’ arc, whilst utilising the settings and story of the imagined, computerised world as a foil. But in truth that would be underplaying the breadth and depth of these poems and the world they create. It is easy for a collection based so heavily on a thematic concept to lose its way, become a slave to the mode instead of manipulating it for the good of the poems. This certainly isn’t a trap that Sexton falls into. If All the World… is an extraordinary achievement and one that Sexton should be proud of. Near the end of the book he asks:
Should I pray to gods of thunder or the wounded gods of myself the storm crumbles the bank into the river and what can I say this has not been easy thank you friend you are a super reader.
There is also an altered reprise of ‘Yoshi’s House’ at the very last, which finishes by imploring:
And if you find some day dear friend my sad head upon your shoulders go out into the world and say world it’s been so long say world hello.
Sexton may believe he needs to thank his ‘super readers’ but, really, after giving us these hopeful and touching poems it is undoubtedly the reader that should go out into the world and be thankful.