Pamphlet by Mathias Svalina
The Cupboard Pamphlet Series, 2009
36 pages
Book design by Todd Seabrook
Cover design by Randy Bright

Reviewed by Matthew Simmons

Growing up, on a bookshelf we had a dictionary-sized hardcover full of games and home art projects of the rainy day fun variety. Now it seems a pamphlet by the writer Mathias Svalina from The Cupboard will replace it—at least when I have children of my own. Play is a collection of prose poems, the formal conceit for each piece being that they are the rules for games available for children with nothing to do. From “Drop the Handkerchief (for 7 or more players)”:“Children must be taught not to play favorites. One child is born It.”

Svalina’s chosen an appropriate form, really. The games children play are passed on from child to child by word of mouth, much as poetry is an oral tradition that made its way onto the page as the written word evolved and spread. Children’s games start with a small group, rules bandied back and forth until they codify, go formal, concretize. Poetic forms, too. Svalina is a smart poet: he has taken advantage of this subtext. From “Rat & Cat (for 10 or more players)”: “One child is the Cat. Another is the Rat. The other children join hands and form a circle. At a given signal the Cat tries to catch the rat…No child likes the Cat. But one child must be the Cat.”

The function of a game played by children is to socialize them, move them from childhood to adulthood with the skills necessary to live in culturally acceptable ways. The function of Svalina’s games seems to be to socialize readers to poetry. And poetry, it has always seemed to me, is a way to embrace the culturally unacceptable—the absurd, the surreal, the nonsensical, the beautiful. Everything that is not in any way useful or pragmatic. Everything that makes life good.

From “Jiggle the Handle (for 2 players)”: “One child is the hunter & one child is the knife. One child is the ocean & one child is the sliver of metal stuck in the pad of the thumb. One child screams with pleasure & one child holds a heat-flaccid candle. One child bears the pain & one child stares at the spinning rims on a shiny Toyota…”

Play plays with its readers like that—in “Jiggle the Handle,” clear is the relationship between hunter and knife, but harder to unpack is the one between ocean and sliver of metal in the pad of the thumb. Play also mines the psychologically rich language and rules of games: “One child is born It.” Children stand in a circle, hold hands, keep some within, some without. The songs are call and response.

It’s a madcap little book, by turns funny and disturbing. And though merely 30 odd pages, Play is deep enough for multiple readings. The language is direct and conscious of its rainy day fun book ancestry, but the games are surreal, impossible. Svalina is an artist at play in the fields of his imagination, at play with language on the page, at play with reader expectations, and it gives the book a light tone—at least on the surface. Deep within, though, the darker, id-driven, sometimes narcissistic side of childhood lurks. And it is the way one’s reading of these very different tones, the shuttling back and forth between very different themes, that makes Play more than an exercise in forms, but instead a really remarkable book.


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