Whether You Win or Lose

  • Aaron Tucker
    Irresponsible Mediums: The Chess Games of Marcel Duchamp. BookThug (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Spencer Gordon
    Cruise Missile Liberals. Nightwood Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Tim Conley

Spencer Gordon remarks on “the way flat and tepid coke can slake thirst.” That line, with its wild variation of vowels banging against the steady alliteration of ts and ks, is indicative of how good his ear can be in Cruise Missile Liberals. But it might be even more indicative of the book’s aesthetics of low expectations. As you might guess from the title, there’s anger in the book, but as the title perhaps also suggests, that anger is not going to get in the way of harmless fun. Readers may find it difficult to decide whether the book is more fun than it is harmless.

Flat Coke aside, the house cocktail here is bored Epicureanism with at least a shot of suburban self-loathing, sour competing with sweet. On the menu are three kinds of memes: ironic nostalgia (nods to Vincent Price, Romper Room, Sega Genesis, Macaulay Culkin), ironic hipness (Shopify, Lena Dunham, MacBook Pro, LinkedIn), and ironic highbrow (Cy Twombly, Mizoguchi, Charlie Parker). There are devotional prayers to Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift: the former swears “there has been no artifice” and the latter advises, “Put some clothes on, honey— / The bathtub’s full of ice.” It can’t be patronizing if it’s not serious, right? Right?

“You’re putting in time,” begins “Wandering, Returning,” one of several of Gordon’s poems that meditates on doing nothing in particular and wondering whether it’s worth it. The poem ends:

vision fades: the clock, the seconds, the
fat universe, indifferent to the garbage
you find
sad. Mornings. Paint chips. Lamps.
Batteries. Your

aging, sorrowful face. There: you should
burn down your life.

Rilke, thou shouldst be living at this hour! No, living is not recommended. Gordon’s slyly enjambed poems are pretty assured about that. As another one declares, “If you are crying, you are not winning. There is no good living.” Play seems to have become disconnected from life.

Marcel Duchamp never thought so. His fascination with chess was as aesthetic an experience as any other he had. Irresponsible Mediums is a translation of Duchamp’s chess games. Enter the chess notation for any given game into an app called ChessBard, the creation of Aaron Tucker and Jody Miller, and the movement of the pieces determines which words are, well, brought into play. So a 1930 game between Duchamp and Brian Patrick Reilly yields this:

each sand, the flavour
and sketch or staged resistance (resis-
tance, resistance)

promotion! machine! basket rebelliously
observes basket

single decimal or melody, instrument
onto temptation around perfect riverbed

powdered game or instant ancient[.]

The punctuation comes directly from the notation, but the words are of less certain origin. And though “promotion!” and “machine!” are wonderfully improbable ejaculations, a word like “game” seems not just unimaginative but also incongruously appropriate, as do such words (from elsewhere in the book) as “king,” “moves,” “knight,” and “diagonal.”

Larger and more varied vocabularies are in evidence in the book’s interesting introduction by chess champion and performer Jennifer Shahade, the acknowledgements, and a note on the text. “The poems,” this note explains, “are based on 12 source poems Aaron Tucker wrote,” which are evidently not included. The reasons for this omission are likewise withheld, but I can’t help thinking of Garry Kasparov’s complaint that whereas the computer Deep Blue, his opponent in an infamous 1997 match, was able to study all of his past games, its win-hungry programmers denied Kasparov any access to Deep Blue’s playing history. In this game, then, the reader is disadvantaged—so much so, in fact, that I’m not even sure that there’s a game for the reader to play.

For Duchamp, a key part of the appeal of chess was the perfect ephemerality, the non-reproducibility of it—as opposed to, say, multiple Mona Lisa postcards or urinals called “fountains.” Irresponsible Mediums may live up to its title (and isn’t the plural of “medium”. . . ? Oh, never mind) by redoing what was never meant to be redone. Vladimir Nabokov, who once himself published a book of poems alongside chess problems, noted that such problems demand “the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity, and splendid insincerity.” The meaning today of the first five probably must be debated, but both of these books can boast the last.

This review “Whether You Win or Lose” originally appeared in House, Home, Hospitality Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 237 (2019): 146-147.

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