Chris Sylvester’s Still Life With The Pokemon


1. This 691-page book is aptly described on as “A BOOK ABOUT A GAME CALLED POKÉMON YELLOW THAT IS A BOOK CONTAINING ALL THE TEXT FROM A GAME CALLED POKÉMON YELLOW.” Between this and the title, I find myself in a world of stupid, convoluted repetition before even opening the free pdf. Already I’m cocking my head wft?

2. Previous reviews this month have looked at other works from Troll Thread (see 1/2, 1/7, and 1/13), the collective press project run by Chris Sylvester and three compatriots. CA Conrad’s video interview with the Troll Thread crew provides a useful platform for tackling Sylvester’s POKÉMON, a book that falls under the very shady blanket of conceptualism that the four poets attempt to snap and rassle to the ground. Divya Victor talks about the pressure on poets to “continuously invent what does not exist rather than consider what does exist in discourse at all times,” a pressure that must be prodded through “devotional” textual practices revolving around trolling, bagging and manipulating the free, digital universe.

3. Similar to what Kenneth Goldsmith famously said of some of his own books, Sylvester’s is not one that is meant to be read, at least not strictly speaking, as much as it’s meant to exist, to take up excessive space on the page and in the digital territory of BOOKS (this would be heightened in print form, of course). In its aggressive excess, it’s meant to be dealt with. The cover frames the entire work as coming to its own defense: video game writer/translator Ashugi Kamaguchi’s response serves to remind us of the book’s inherent controversy and its potential reception as representative of a whole lousy world of would-be Duchamps and bullshitters. Yawn? Maybe, I think, but there still 690 pages to contend with.

4. As the title promises, the text is nothing more or less than a total capture of language found in a Pokémon video game—starting with what seems to be game world set-up as shown through long lists of characters and creatures, weapons and superpowers, accessories, places, tradable commodities with prices in yen. Nouns and pure linguistic sound accrete rapidly into stacks of animal, mineral, vegetable; texture, color and quality. This is fun? Yes, I am having fun. I am enjoying viewing every single page, keeping zoom set at 60% so I can take in each page at a glance.


5. Eventually I pass into the action: snippets of pre-formulated conversations and disembodied commands, game-generated status reports, battle cries and interjections. The landscape becomes more unpredictable. Concrete things and invisible sequences of narrative ram up against opaque programmese and non-sequitur slapstick.


6. So apparently the player is travelling an imaginary world attempting to collect every type of Pokémon. It’s consumer training at its best. Along the way there are battles to fight, maladies to overcome, relationships to negotiate, materials to buy and paths to locate. But I’m not pushing any buttons. The book is pushing them for me. Political intrigue, infantile insult-hurling and transnational conflict are flattened, burlesqued, and painted black and white.


7. Nothing moves. Nothing is in color. Nothing makes sound. I don’t get to make any choices. I can’t control or even fully grasp the progression of the game’s narrative. This must be comparable to reading an entire comic book series as a list of speech chunks in black-and-white standard block formatting. In other words, it quickly gets boring. I start scrubbing my way through pages by the dozen, no longer able or willing to click through each one individually. This is my only agency.

8. A pheasant is shot from the sky and the pear is plucked from the tree to be painted into naturmort. But here, the dead life is language not image. Snippets of speech are disembodied and the visual narrative is stripped. The utter ridiculousness of the words are revealed out of context (to Kamaguchi’s chagrin). But so are their joyous, spring-loaded vitality and potential.


9. What draws attention to both the power and the limits of language? What removes language from action only to reveal language as its own action?

10. Here’s how a video game is like poetry: language condensation; linguistic invention; attempts at boundlessness; co-creation of experiences within a given system; reliance on and modification of conventions and clichés; a specialized fan base.

11. Here’s how a video game is not like poetry: visual animation (this is changing); who gets to set the boundaries; the number of loose parts available for construction of meaning; the size of the fan base.

12. One convention includes highly sophisticated systems (either real or made-up) of classification. On pages 612-670 (I’m back to clicking page-by-page now), I find a catalogue of dozens of Pokémon species, each with unique characteristics, abilities, and origins. Taxonomies blur and bleed when read in a continuous stream without illustration; it is difficult to tell where one type ends and a different one begins.


13. By drawing on preexisting language, Sylvester admits in Conrad’s interview, you run the risk of confusing ‘the generic’ in language practices with the apolitical. He emphasizes that “the poet doesn’t get out of what we’re all in all the time.” The goal, he says, is to figure out “how to fuck with shit without declaring oneself above the shit.” His fucking with Pokémon creates and then splashes around in a highly specific sort of shit. The dump is searching for significance where there may or may not be any but probably is. The magic (or the trick) is when I go looking for it in earnest because I start believing in earnest that it is there.

14. Reproduction in totality is a stupid exercise. Or, it is an exercise in what Sianne Ngai coins the stuplime. Sylvester’s STILL LIFE WITH THE POKÉMON is a poetry of voluminous stupidity. It is insolent and sometimes transcendent in its dumb, indefatigable self-propulsion, and it just might have special powers. It just might be a whole new type of Pokémon to be collected—a trollish one that records itself making a record of itself and then posts it on the internet for all to see.


15. Enjoy these visual aids:



J. Fossenbell writes, teaches and eats gray snow in Minneapolis. Soon she’ll graduate from MFA school and become a mutha.

One comment

  1. Pingback: De getatoeëerde Dichters Project: J. Fossenbell - Tätowierung Neue Stil

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