Game Theory: Brigit Pegeen Kelly
by Nicholas Rombes
My life, in those days, was to be defined by three female poets: Dana Levin, Olena Kalytiak Davis, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Where lies the fault in that? Could I be blamed for seeing darkness in everything? Or for feeling, at some point of no return, that it was not I who had chosen them, but rather they who had chosen me? I had been living, during the last year of graduate school, in a small one-bedroom apartment in a building that seemed to have no other tenants. (Well, there was at least one other.) The glow of all the light bulbs was too dim by dozens of watts. I had a ragged haircut. For some reason, I had amassed a collection of historic maps showing only conquered territories, some of which hung on my walls. The only other building occupant, as far as I could tell, was a young woman named Cardenal, of dubious South American origin (I guessed), based solely on the smattering of words we exchanged (hers thickly accented sometimes, and at other times with no trace of accent at all) in the hallway and the far, distant sound of R.E.M.’s “Flowers of Guatemala” which she played over and over again, its sound leaking into my room from hers like radiation (with special clarity, for some reason, the part between 2:04 and 2:35, and the weird squeak at 2:12 that always startled me). Cardenal’s black hair was also cut severely, and seemed to disguise something in her features.
How Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book of poems The Orchard came into my hands I don’t recall. Many of the poems—like “The Wolf”—are long, unbroken stanzas, pools of tar-pit-trap words on the page:
And the truth is both dog and wolf
Are ancient, for the sick dog comes not from the garden
But from another time, in another city, a sabbath day, foreign,
The street completely empty, the day shapely around me,
The houses, the walks, all ordered and white; and then
Out of the ordered whiteness proceeds a thing of great disorder,
A shape from the world of shadows, something to drive
Kelly uses enjambment sparingly, as in the last two lines something to drive / Away. Instead, the shock her lines comes, in part, from luring the reader into fast patterns of rhyme which are just quickly abandoned, as in the line The street completely empty, the day shapely around me, with its barrage of rhymes in completely, empty, shapely, me, followed by four rhymeless lines. And then—just as jarringly—her lines will fall into iambic cadences:
The houses, the walks, all ordered and white
The ironic (nostalgic?) familiarity of the sing-song iambic rhythm is reversed in the next line, which begins in trochaic meter:
out of the ordered whiteness proceeds
as if to warn about what comes next: a thing of great disorder, a shape from the world of shadows.
In truth I was glad to be living alone in a mostly empty building. The previous year had taken me to a distant, northern part of the nation for a Game Theory field research experiment involving a game that, through bad luck and what seemed to be an almost supernatural conspiracy against us, ended in disaster. Real disaster. The assisted GPS system for mobile phones was just becoming available, and the research group wanted to use the last of its funds to test it out using Thune, our game theory manifesto that also doubled as a real game. By that time, Glavanovich and Speers had been hired on elsewhere as post docs, and Claudia was out of the picture for reasons which I’ve promised never to reveal. So that left Williams, Anderson, Anya, and me. Of the four, Anya was the strongest theorist, and Williams the strongest (even with his one weak eye) player. I was probably somewhere in the middle.
We drove for three days to Iron Mountain, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, because of the importance of the Chapin Mine Pumping Engine to Thune. The flywheel, forty feet in diameter, was key to the game, and its physical presence—its actual physical presence—was required to test and confirm the game’s hypothesis. We switched drivers every four hours during the journey north, which meant that for about three-fourths of the time I was free to work on the game equations or read Kelly’s The Orchard, the only book I brought along. The long, long-lined poems somehow spooled out to match the long lines of narrow straight Black Spruce trees outside the car window, filling my peripheral vision as I read the poem “The Sparrow’s Gate”:
not the small girl years ago when her arm went numb after she had
been swung and swung in a circle saying, when her mother
pressed the mute flesh, It is hiding, it is hiding, Mother,
(and what, had the arm been taken altogether, would the girl
have said, To a far country it has gone, Mother, it is lost and cannot
find its way back?)
Kelly’s use of repetition—swung and swung; it is hiding, it is hiding—somehow made perfect sense, as if she was using language as a drill, repeatedly boring down into the cold rock, going deeper and deeper. And the near rhyme of numb and swung and pressed and flesh gave me a fresh insight into a problem I had been having with Thune: how to parallel equate positions at Xa12 and Xb12 without having them replicate? This was always a problem with Game Theory—what the theorists referred to as “reified signification”—and one that was most commonly solved by reducing the game’s iterations from nine levels to seven. But, miraculously, Kelly’s poem has suggested a way out through near (as opposed to precise) repetition, and sure enough, after a long night of equation modeling at a hotel in Manistee, we concluded that it just might work.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly
A day-and-a-half later we had arrived at Iron Mountain though by that time, to be honest, the game had already begun. We had been weaving in and out of it for the past day or so, but in truth, we had been playing Thune since the very beginning. We checked in at the Iron Mountain Inn (we took two rooms) and after resting ended up at a bar tended by a red-haired, thin-boned, somnambulist waitress, who seemed, in some inscrutable way, to fear our presence, and where the rum and cokes tasted of sulfur water.
“Do you think the prop’s in place?” asked Anderson.
“I hope so,” I said. I looked at my watch. “It’s supposed to be.”
The alcohol must have gone straight to Anya’s head, because she said, out of the blue and out of character, “Of course I’d sleep with one of you but not all three of you!” Williams—with his Afro—just laughed, but you could see that Anderson wasn’t sure what to make of the comment. He ended up laughing as well, but something must have broken inside him when Anya said that, and for the rest of the night he just hung back silently, a ghostly presence of his former self. As for me, I understood exactly what she meant, or at least I thought I did, and I ordered us another round.
They had been pursuing me for days. A slow-paced pursuit, but a pursuit. At least two of them, maybe all three. And maybe Cardenal from the apartment, too, but that seemed impossible. The cabin somewhere in the cold distance, not too far off. The smell of moss crushed underfoot, something living and dying at the same time. I stopped, out of breath, and looked down the foggy slope—Lake Superior in its blank immensity in the distance—and thought I saw the shape of a man, leaning against a pine tree. But I couldn’t be sure. I waited and watched, panting. I looked away and when I looked back, the shape was gone. By this time, the remote GPS was completely useless, and I had to rely on old-fashioned instinct.
I pushed on until the cabin, with its low shingled roof, and wavy, leaded windows, came into sight, in a small clearing. I moved slowly. The fog was heavier now, the light dimmer, like blue drained of its blue-ness. I took the folded piece of paper from my coat pocket and studied the game symbols, marked in heavy black pencil. I turned the paper around to orient myself with the drawing. The cabin door around back. Inside, the black square on the floor.
They were near now. I could smell one of them. In the fog, I slipped around the cabin and in through the small door. The single room was dark, illuminated only by a dull-red kerosene lamp on a crooked wooden table in the corner. A chair near the door. A yellowed mattress in another corner. Everything was where it was supposed to be. I heard something—a soft, muffled moan?—from the darkest corner of the room. A body, wrapped in a blanket, huddled against the wall.
“Thune?” I asked. I crouched down.
It was Thune alright, but not the Thune I hoped to find. Not like this. In the dim light,
I could see that his right hand was wrapped in a blood-soaked towel. He was pale and crumpled, breathing unevenly, clotted gore stuck to the side of his head where his ear should be.
“Shit Thune, what have they done to you?”
Thune opened his mouth, and then closed it. There followed a sudden pounding at the door. It shook the very frame of the cabin. I pushed the chair-back tighter beneath the door handle, and returned to Thune.
“I need to take you with me,” I said.
But Thune was finished, his bandaged hand palm-up across his lap. The pounding at the door stopped. I gently unwrapped Thune’s hand. Amidst the scabs and blood, I could see that his palm had been pierced, all the way through. Thune had bled to death. It was Thune who had first introduced me to verse. I remembered the lines from “Plants Fed On by Fawns,” a poem I read over and over again in the car on the way up to this God-forsaken town:
The whole veil of things seemed less substantial
Than the thing that moved in the dark behind me,
An unseen bird or beast, something shifting in its sleep
I composed Thune on the floor in the most respectful pose one could accord the so-called dead in such circumstances. I covered his winced face gently with a handkerchief. The pounding on the door, once again, was the only event that mattered. I moved to the center of the floor. There, as the scrap of game protocols indicated, was the square, painted in black. I kneeled down, ran the palm of my hand over the square, feeling for the small iron ring rusted hard to the wood. The pounding at the door continued, shaking the cabin. I worked the ring with my fingers but to no end. As if for so long it had lain flat there that the floorboards themselves grew around it.
I took my small knife and worried it beneath the ring, picking out the hard wood in splinters until there was space enough for my fingers to pry beneath. With the ring free on its hinges I grasped it fully and pulled and with surprising ease three attached floorboards raised up, like some trap door. A rush of heat on my face, and fumes that I could not identify. The pounding at the door was so fierce now that without thinking I put one foot in the blackness and lowered myself slowly in until I felt the rung of the ladder that I knew would be there. With both feet on the rung I reached up to the trap door above my head and pulled it shut with the handle on the underside.
I climbed down, rung by rung. Above me a crash and the barking and scraping of heavy feet on the floor. The gathering of voices in one corner of the room, and then a heavy, sickening thud. Thune’s body? What were they doing to Thune’s body? A burst of laughter and the sound of dropping flesh again. Then the clodding of feet directly above me. The trapdoor.
Further and further down the ladder into even ranker darkness and heat. The fumes—what seemed to me an impossible mixture of lemons and gasoline—stung at my eyes and nose. At any moment expecting the door to open and a shaft of light to expose me there clinging to the endless ladder. The tunnel (into what? an abandoned mine?) yawning beneath my feet in darkness as vast as it seemed as the universe. I descended deeper, and deeper, into the black depths of the tunnels, hidden like an undiscovered country. And then, out of the blackness, a soft light, the bottom of the ladder touching a clay floor. Cooler now, everything cast in a dim blue light from who knows where.
I thought about the Chapin Mine Pumping Engine, and sat down on the cool floor to rehearse my coordinates, which seemed to have taken me deeper than I planned. I scratched out some modification notes for future Thune iterations and troubled myself to endure another run through of the Xa12, Xb12 replication problem. In my pocket sketchbook, I did several more spins on the Thune color wheel. As I expected, #25 remained untouched; in over 2,000 spins, the number had not once been selected. All the others had been landed on (many times over) but not #25. As I discovered later, long after I thought none of this really mattered anymore, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s poem “Sheet Music,” which begins on page 25 of The Orchard, contains these lines:
Like a band of low-bred mummers, dripping scent,
Pulling my hair, my arms, trying to distract me,
But I still hear it, the dark sound that begins at the edge
Of the mind, at the far edge of the uncut field
I had kept the apparently untouchable, unbearable nature of #25 to myself, for it confirmed a dark theory I had, although I had made an oblique reference to it to Anya the night we drank too much. I don’t know if she caught the reference or not; I had simply called out to the bartender, during a celebratory moment late into the night, “We’ll all have another 25!” She should have winced; she should have noticed. Did she? Maybe. The funny thing is, when I said it she did look at me though not through her own eyes, but Cardenal’s. In fact, it was as if for a split second Anya had become Cardenal, or maybe the right way to say it is that for a moment Cardenal was superimposed over Anya. It terrified me, and that’s the reason I left the bar alone and went back to the Iron Mountain Inn by myself.
I half-slept and imagined a conversation with Cardenal that went like this. It was as if we had stepped from The Third Man into this world:
“So,” Cardenal said, “did you forget about me?”
“They all do. Care for a smoke?”
She stepped out of the shadow, offering a cigarette. She struck a match off the bottom of her shoe, the old familiar gesture, and I leaned in for the light.
“Where’s the tall one?” she asked.
“The ‘tall one’? You mean Thune?”
“If that’s his name.”
“Was. Thune’s dead. Upstairs. In the cabin.”
“But not Thune, the game?” she asked.
“Of course not. A game can’t die. It’s not alive to begin with.”
“That’s too bad.”
“I always liked him,” I said. “He seemed sure of himself.”
“Precisely his problem. That’s what landed him dead. Uncertainty is a key to winning, or at least to surviving.”
In the distance, what sounded like the hum of a machine. Cardenal half-smiled. I had to look away. For a while, neither of us said a thing.
Finally—as if receiving some signal from a faraway place—she spoke again, “Don’t you think we ought to talk about why you’re here?”
“I wanted to ask you that same question,” I said.
“Because of you, of course. I’m here because you’re here.”
“Do you know why I’m here?” I asked.
“That’s what I intend to find out.”
“Well to start with, by asking you. Which is what I’m doing now.”
“And you think I know,” I said, finishing my cigarette.
“How couldn’t you know. After all, you’re here, aren’t you? There must be a reason.”
“But you’re the one who followed me here.”
Then I remember Cardenal reaching her hand out to touch my face, and I was no longer half-asleep but fully awake, I swear, and I could smell her breath, like garlic, and the savage cut of her bangs was right there before my eyes, and if we shared a secret it was that the words of Brigit Pegeen Kelly had somehow brought us together, in northern Michigan, underground, during the middle of a game that seemed to require of its players the sort of sacrifice that, frankly, you’d have to be a lunatic to accept.
Then we talked about what the hell I was doing here, and what the hell she was doing here, and she said, If you want to kiss me, do it right now, and I almost did, and of course then I wanted to tell her things, but I couldn’t possibly tell her everything that had happened to me, and so she looked at me and said, You know this has nothing to do with the game, or even the words of that poet, which struck me as odd, that she wouldn’t say her name, and so I told her—to my eternal regret—that I had something to show her, and she followed me, up and out of that dark place into the dim blue light of Iron Mountain (it must have been twilight) past the hotel and the open greenspace with the wrecked stone statues of Lake Superior maritime victors and martyrs and into the parking lot where I unlocked the frosted-over car and found The Orchard just where I had left it, in the back seat.
I opened up to page 21, my hands trembling, and shoved the book at Cardenal, like it was some sort of accusation, or evidence. But evidence of what? How could I tell her that between the time I had arrived at Iron Mountain to model-run the Thune game and last night, someone had glued into The Orchard a fragment from what appeared to be a very old German text. (Only later would I discover that it was the title page to Thomas Murner’s poem Schelmenzunft (“Guild of Rogues”) from 1512, a satire, which contains certain expressions that, according to one scholar, “have never been satisfactorily explained.”)
“What to make of this!” I demanded.
And then Cardenal, her face sinister and beautiful in the light, said something I’ll never forget: “What’s happening to you shall happen to us all.”
Out of shame and confusion, I looked down at the book, at words of Brigit Pegeen Kelly on the page above the ancient illustration, from the end of a poem called “Brightness from the North,” words which seemed to be swimming and moving and reshaping themselves in code-like phrases:
A toppled jar, a narrow bird, an ornamental tree
In the iambic perfection of that line lurked the promise of disorder, and the futility of form against chaos. When I looked up from the book Cardenal was gone, and in the distance I heard the voices of Anya, Anderson, and the others, calling my name. Within a few moments they would arrive, and I would resume my old life.
About the Author:
Nicholas Rombes is the author of Cinema in the Digital Age, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, and Ramones, part of the 33 1/3 series published by Continuum. He is a professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Detroit Mercy. His work has appeared in The Oxford American, The Believer, The Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, Wigleaf, and other places.