Roguelike by Mathew Henderson

Video Games and Voltas

[dropcap]If[/dropcap] you flip to the glossary in Mathew Henderson’s slick new poetry book Roguelike from Anansi Press, it explains the title comes from, “Rogue, a computer game released in 1980 characterized by its procedurally generated levels, turn-based combat/exploration, and permanent character death.”

In many ways, Henderson has created a roguelike structure to this sophomore collection full of questing and retro-heroics as he divides it into sections Early/Game, The Grind and End/Game.

It strikes me what people will love about this new collection is what people loved about Henderson’s first book The Lease. The New York Times praised it for its “raw-knuckled, come-as-you-are quality” and, more specifically, noted among Henderson’s gifts “is his ability to populate his poems vividly”.

This hard-scrabble, laser-focus approach to poetry full of streetwise characters and custom-modded conflicts is on rich display in Roguelike.

Take, for instance, Henderson’s poem “Your Father Sleeping Off The Night Shift” which seems haunted by the memory of a father and the poet’s desire to know the man behind his powerful archetypal presence. The speaker ruminates,

“He coughed sleeptalk, a voice rumbling from your stomach,
his mind to yours, his thoughts to yours. You know your room,
you think, the navy walls. But just as you’ve never known
the man, only the father of him, you can’t recall the walls
in the rest of the house. You carry in your mind a navy room,
littered toys, a sleeping man. When he shifts from stomach
to side, you lose balance and weight. You beg him to wake up.”

The narrative precision and economy of language of this excerpt reminds me of Philip Levine, but that restless, searching for answers, questing spirit is all Henderson. Here the speaker is scouting the frontiers of sense and memory for his father as if language could recover the man from the myth.

In a poem called “Conflict Resolution” under The Grind section of the book, Henderson makes the connection between living and a videogame-build much more explicit. He writes,

“Someday we won’t remember this,
our lives like homebrew campaigns,
bundled sprites and shader packs
by some designer who’s just as worried
as we are that she’s losing her art,
just as scared the office is where she’ll die.
I’m off track. My face is stretched around
the ball from Babes in Inktown Pinball.
I can’t slow down without opening my mouth.
There are some geniuses out there still,
finding new ways to vanish/x-zone, to build
themselves strange. But I’m not one of them.
It doesn’t take a genius to tell you to max
your agility. It’s a basic build, but I’m so fast,
I can kite mobs forever, dodge problems
before I even know they’re real.”

As the end of this poem makes apparent, it seems Henderson, not satisfied with the beta build of his life, is looking for that next level, Gold standard edition.

In the last section of the book, there is a poem entitled “Knowing” which for me gets at the heart of Henderson’s approach to poetry. Here he outlines three different ways of perceiving, or knowing the world:

“There are two kinds of knowing: the one that knows
above, like a hawk that sees nothing of the meadow,
knows, a mile out, the shake of heartbeats under fur;
and the prey, who knows below, knows each pebble
stepped on, each flower hid behind or eaten. And there
is a third kind of knowing, in the bones, in how hands
can interlock the first time they meet.”

As much as Henderson has been previously lauded for those up-close blue-collar portraits in his first book, less spoken about is the ability to hover above it all, and try to see a larger grand design in the minutiae of his life. “The separate coming together,” as he writes in this same poem.

There is much more to say about this book – the precise narrative control of a poem like “Taxonomy”, the brilliant long sequence “Crono”, etc. – but ultimately it comes down to this: Mathew Henderson’s Roguelike is a rousing book of surprising poems about family stories, addictions, and videogames exposing the inner life of one of Canada’s best young poets.

Roguelike by Mathew Henderson
House of Anansi Press

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Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of six collections of poems with Deepfake Serenade from Nightwood Editions forthcoming in Fall 2021. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.