Rock, Star, North.

 

In the summer of 2015, in pursuit of the virtual sublime, I set out on a journey, modelled on Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, around the mountainous game-world of Grand Theft Auto V. This poem is a brief chronicle of my travels.

 

All the stars are being overwritten

by cloud from the south, a flat circle

pressed in thick, slow drifts. I stick

left-stick                    right-stick

as if in a dream, to the summit-path.

Everything somnambulantly seems.

Rock, the sense of a star, north.

Various shades of dark blue. I fancy I

see Zeus emerging from the magnitude

of cloud but it is only my fancy.

I know there to be no Olympians here.

 

I am the only god or human present

in all the Tataviam Mountains –

their contours, corries, plateaus and arêtes

their dirt paths dug for motorbikes and bloodbaths

their overhead helicopters, random events

and infinite coyotes by the Land Act Reservoir –

at this late or any other hour.

 

I don’t know where the city went

nor do I wish to know. I count

my hundred bones and nine orifices

and think of Bashō, the haiku master,

poet-saint of journeys, who left

the courts of Edo for the narrow road

to the deep north. Once, among mountains

not at all like these the only moving things

were the poet and his brush, and these his words:

                  How many cloud shapes

                  Capped the peak before the moon

                  Rose on Moon Mountain?

I ask the same of my moon – my perfect

rendered moon – and the answer is the same

though it is not the same moon.

 

Rock is the path that I follow, the polygonal grove where I pause

Star is the extraterrestrial beauty, the azure, the iris, the awe

North are the poets, the footsteps, the journey, the taste of the blood that I draw

 

O evening eternal

are you animal, vegetable, mineral?

You are all mineral, and I the vital part

merging with (surging within) the mineral dusk.

I think of Wordsworth, poet-saint of nature,

who rolled around in Earth’s diurnal course

and whose words are my talismanic beat:

                                                      laid asleep

                  In body, and become a living soul:

                  […] with an eye made quiet by the power

                  Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,

                  We see into the life of things.

By the power of the last of this zaffre, this

synthetic blue, I call on you Wordsworth,

and Bashō I call on you too! To guide me,

make me lost. Teach me to be silent.

My footsteps slow but constant. The life

of things, to see, to be the most of it

a part, to be its client. A host

of white and yellow flowers.

 

Rock is the square, the thumb on the button, the neurons that trigger the tiniest motion

Star is the jump, the something-not-human, the phantom limb made tangible twitching

North is the press square to jump, the distance between them, that holds and keeps separate, that severs and binds them

Here be the haecceity of night-time

and here the second summit where I rest.

All existence but bare rock, stars,

blips and a steep road north.

I think of empathic words, Nan Shepherd,

poet-saint of mountains, who said:

                  I like the unpath best

who went not up but into, who said:

                  What more there is lies

                  within the mountain. Something

                  moves between me and it.

Rock, the sense of a star, north.

To wit, to find a footing on this earth

and with it truth.

                  ■

 

God, what the fuck am I doing?

                  Rock, Star, North

It is Saturday. I’m thirty. I’m inside when it’s sunny playing

                  Rock, Star, North

playing Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 3 in

                  Rock, Star, North

in my flat in Garnethill and my friend just called to say

                  Rock, Star, North

to say he’s in the park and I should come they’ve got the slackline they’ve got

                  Rock, Star, North

they’ve got beers and Robbie’s coming with the barbecue and languistine and

                  Rock, Star, North

and it hasn’t been this hot since last July you realise Calum it’s been

                  Rock, Star, North

serious the park is hoaching get off your arse and join us man or

                  Rock, Star, North

 

Rock. I cannot come.

I am locked in a very serious enterprise.

These red eyes and clammy thumbs bely

a spiritual numbness, a metaphysical malady I wish to remedy.

Star. Leave me be with my avatar.

All my Kelvingrove love has been lost to Los Santos.

North. Come forth into the light of things.

Sing some body electronic.

 

                  ■

 

Cuz GTA I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.

GTA playtime 92 hours 45 minutes 42 seconds

GTA 76.46% complete

GTA 26,665 shots fired

GTA 1858 miles travelled

GTA 72 million 639 thousand 9 hundred dollars

GTA 457 headshots

GTA 2163 kills

GTA 320 warning stars evaded

GTA 538 warning stars attained

GTA 366 cars stolen

GTA 232 cops killed

GTA 25 hours 27 minutes 32 seconds driving cars

GTA 1 hour 59 minutes 33 seconds flying helicopters

GTA 27 minutes 33 seconds riding bicycles

GTA 42 minutes 28 seconds sailing submarines

GTA 4692 car crashes

GTA 7170 near misses

GTA 462 thousand dollars spent on healthcare

GTA 317 dollars spent on bail

GTA 67 thousand dollars spent on car mods

GTA 47 thousand dollars spent on clothes

GTA 175 dollars spent on hairstyles

GTA 180 dollars spent in the strip club

GTA 3 thousand dollars spent on taxis

GTA 5.1 million dollars spent on property

GTA it’s all not real it’s none of it real!

Playtime 92 hours 45 minutes 42 seconds

Playtime 92 hours 45 minutes 44 seconds

Playtime 92 hours 45 minutes 46 seconds

GTA I can’t stand my own mind!

GTA your machinery is too much for me.

GTA you made me want to be a saint.

GTA there must be some other way to settle this argument.

 

                  ■

 

On the first night of my journey, having left the noise of the city far behind me for the silence of the Palamino Highlands, I found myself nestled under the shade of some red rock counting the flat swaying flowers in the dusk, their colours all reds, oranges, purples, blues, counted them as if a flock of sheep and I their keeper. Growing sleepier, I turned to face the path I’d travelled, and there found the city glittering in the night-time when came the shock of an epiphany, seeing suddenly the reds, oranges, purples, blues in the city lights, the self-same hues as animated the flowers by my side. Alone on that great span of mountain, I sensed the code behind this world as an algorithmic Pan, a unifying force, connected as if by a thousand bluetooth membranes to the controller in my hand. Pan, here, who could have known this! In terms of parodying the Romantic tradition, this is an unexpected bonus.

                  ■

 

Let me explain. I am a pilgrim

without faith. I have only this game

– Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation3

developed by Edinburgh-based company

RockStarNorth over 5 years

at an estimated cost of 265 million dollars which

since its release in 2013 has become

the biggest and fastest selling entertainment product

in any medium – book, film, album, TV programme –

of all time ever, with 75 million

regular players all over the globe –

imagine: this world, 31 square miles in size

a hyperrealist caricature cartography

of Southern California, a faux-map realer

and more strange than its territory

folded back into a disc tray, forever; imagine:

every gangster film you’ve seen and never seen

on a feedback loop, with boosted pitch and gain

conceived of a Hobbesian liberty of violence

grown in a chrysalis of ironic self-reference

and born in an HD frame;

imagine: this on hundreds of thousands

of flat-screen televisions in every home on earth;

and imagine its players: each one alone

a hundred thousand vast solipsisms

a hundred thousand singular dreams

in identical sleeps; imagine: the kills

that are not kills, the thefts that are not thefts,

the handbrake turns, insane stunt jumps,

polis, gangsters, gas station attendants

tourists, farmers, taxi fares and hipsters;

the ak47 at the beach

the jumpjet stolen from the army base

the rain reflecting all the city streets

and the ludicrous contortions of a demi-face;

imagine: all these deaths that are not deaths;

imagine: all these souls that are not souls;

imagine these suns which are warm and are cold.

And imagine the sunsets, the cloud shapes capping peaks

the hills that rise insensibly and leave

the eye a vast uninterrupted prospect

imagine: the summits, the silence,

imagine a taxidermist’s wings

imagine: the unpath, the hidden tracks

imagine: to see into the life of things.

I am a pilgrim without faith.

                                                          And this

is the greatest piece of secular fiction

ever created. Once, I was told that God

can be known to exist on account

of the existence of altars. So too can truth

be known to exist on account

of the search. For I decry

those godless poets who surmise

that language is a viral force to be treated

with suspicion – it’s all too much

unmaking of what’s already broken.

As if you could imagine a night

without a star (a starless night is still

defined by its starlessness), or a rock

without its scissors to smash, its paper

to be smothered by. As if north were

not magnetic. As if we could live

without myth. (I tried it and felt empty.)

Beauty is not adventitious but essential

and as we make the world from the parts

we are presented – a circle, a triangle, a square,

an X – so everything that lives and acts is

wholly adept to the myth-stuff. Truth is

beauty; beauty just a line drawn north

and the sense of a star from a place of bare rock.

Rock is the world, and we thrown in its being, its presences, absences, voids and revealings

Star is the word, as if in the beginning, the utopian name, perfect like Eden

North is the poem, the call of a longing, the broken language that sings their division

 

Now the game comes with a map

mocked up like something from the Lonely Planet

detailing the fictional city of Los Santos and

the surrounding countryside which together

comprises the game’s virtual world. Upon that map

are marked numerous points of interest –

safe houses, gun shops, police stations

etc. – and among these little icons are eight

mountain peaks, unique among the markings

insofar as each is like a poem i.e. they have no function

no quantifiable function at all: no product,

no cash, no minigames, no camouflage

no routes of escape.

                                    These are the game’s places

on the edge of placeness; where the air is thin

with silence and every past and future mission

recedes into the sea-mist; these hills whose

unpaths reveal this cosmos at its unbloodiest

and perhaps most beautiful. Among them I

am making my own game within the game,

its objects: beauty, truth. Its method: to ascend

all eight peaks with only my Virgils to guide me

according to the following rules:

one: to enter no vehicle; to travel only and always on foot

two: to kill in self-defence only

three: to be, as Shepherd wrote, ‘the instrument

of my own discovering’, to train ‘the eye to look,

the ear to listen, and the body to move with the right harmonies.’

                  Rock,

                  Star,

                  North.

 

                  ■

 

For I am like a vampire

grown weary of blood, who counteth

the steps of a sun.

I have been dead many times

and I am not alone here,

severed from and tied to the one with whom

I spawn and respawn and re-

                                                                        Ah,

hear them, the tentative movements!

The small stick shifted away from

the body and the thumb di-dumming its metre

with you, dear Trevor, my swift-footed avatar!

Your coffee brogues, uncanny rocking to-and-fro

your features pursed in a tight grimace

to think you were a man once, died, and were reborn

as vacant as the stars above this place

so that you might find grace, and I

this gaze of cold command. My palms are warm.

I cradle all our distance in my hands.

 

O gentle-hearted Trevor, whose sociopathic

ramblings are as a sweet familiar balm

in this feigned and lonely wilderness!

Our eight fine functionless peaks we will cover

with the lines of the poems we are writing together

to trace the divine at the heart of this matter

to find… no wait. No heart. No matter. No divine

or a bad letter. Never mind.

                                                                        Die.

Respawn.

                                    Start again.

                                                                        Dear Trevor,

I want nothing less than the virtual sublime,

what Burke called ‘the strongest emotion

which the mind is capable of feeling’.

I may not get what I want but I trust you, Trevor

to take me beyond every waypoint

to anoint me in the dew of the Palomino Highlands

to baptise me in the salt of the Alamo Sea

to show me the frisson of a rainstorm over Heart Attacks Beach

to bathe me in the river at Zancudo

to make the mountains sing, each to each.

I rock, you star, north: our expanse.

I confess I love you Trevor

I cradle all our distance in my hands.

 

                  ■

 

One night, camped out in the Tonga Hills I centred my sniper’s scope on the city below. The barrel was as empty as my heart; I was a vessel. The distant caw of a crow, somewhere coyotes, moon daubed in a trickle of clouds. There was the city, rendered as if from the 80s: crude blocks of colour parading in mute regiments, intimating something like agency beyond the stars. Friends, I thought, we’ve been playing our games all wrong! As Pac-Man’s mazes only lead to more mazes, let us rather glimpse the cherries through the bars. Not up the mountain but into it; not the points but the taste of the fruit. For it’s this momentary peace when the ghosts turn blue I long for – that millisecond clinamen when neither chased nor chaser. Give me the beauty of cherries – mosaic square pixels who conjure a perfect roundness, red as Stein’s rose, that sublime stalk-bitmap. As dawn breaks over the hills, all games are present. Rock in my hand. Rock whom nothing can cut. Rock. I write on the paper which smothers you, which gives you form, which envelopes. Star. City. Cherry. North.

 

                  ■

 

Cuz I was born in the year of the Super Mario

of Sony Walkmans, wrestling, dayglo

Chicago House and Detroit Techno

Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’

of Usenet, Arpanet, Skynet, Carcanet

when Pluto was definitely still a planet

of the last thousand days of the Berlin Wall

of the first recorded use of the word ‘lol’

of simulacra, ZX Spectra, miracle Japan

the rise and rise of Derrida, the rise (but not the fall) of Paul de Man

the age of 8-bit irony fresh-facing ends of history

and whose too-crude naivete looks so glib in retrospect.

 

But I digress. I was a child of my time. And the only line

I cared to draw from myself into the world

was from a red-brick cul-de-sac in Bolton

direct to the Mushroom Kingdom, via my friend

next door’s big brother’s bedroom. There, while the brother

danced to early hardcore and raved about the Bolton Wanderers

me and her hit the power button, each with a controller

in our tiny hands, faces stuffed with flying saucers, holding our breath.

Move right. Move left. A to jump. B to run.

Press start. The music comes. World 1-1.

I never made it home for tea that night.

I’d leapt into a world with just two thumbs.

 

Later, age eleven, twelve, thirteen

I’d go with my parents for walks on the beach

and as the wee waves lapped on the rustic shore

and the firmament blazed all pastel and ochre

I’d bathe in those twin iridescences, so far

into an oneiric picture of a world not there

but not not there either; it glowed between the sun

and the sand among my toes. I’d fall so deep

into that daydream that when my parents

called I never heard them. On the way home

I told them I’d prefer a mind-made virtual sunset

to any meagre thing that God or chance made.

 

Twenty-odd years and four generations later

the eagles of Mount Chiliad and the gulls of Garnethill

flock together in my bedroom, while I –

a thirty year old adult human being man –

am still dreaming of impossible sunsets

and the computable infinities of sand.

I think of my friend Gregor – he’s north now

making multiplayer space operas in Reykjavik.

I remember how (’tis a dozen years’ since!)

we spent six months among infinite riches in a little room

trying to score 100% completion on San Andreas

and if that wasn’t love then I don’t know what is.

 

Rock is the life, a red brick cul-de-sac, a seagull in Garnethill, a friend in Reykjavik

Star is the game, its impossible eagles, its idylls and portents, the sense of an epic

North is the playing, the fragment, the story, the unmaking and making it, the glitch and the journey

 

                  ■

 

Perhaps you will never be worthy, GTA, of your quintillion sunsets

but I can write your litany despite your silly mood.

You tried to make me a natural man

turned god: nasty, brutish and grand.

But time is a flat circle; X marks any spot we choose.

I do not beat the game but find its beatitude.

 

And why? Cuz I believe – no – long to believe

that everything that lives is holy, whether real or dreamed

and everything that’s holy must be the north between

this rock  that star  for which we need

an attunement of the thumb, the eye, the ear.

I’ve come into the light of things, all

bleeds into the other; trigger dint.

So many miles to go before I sleep

in a world where miles are instant

and blood makes no footprints.

                  Rock,

                  Star,

                  North.

Calum Rodger

© 2018 Colin Herd and all the individual poets

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