I asked the teenager if they had any ideas for a poem I could use for May Day, the international workers day. She thought for a minute and then said, “Well there’s one, but it’s from a video game.”
Have I intrigued you? Perhaps only the unusual folks who follow this project might be. May Day. Video game? Poem? Maybe even: teenager? Every one of those things are keywords that might drop readers. Add that your author is an old guy, one not very hip to video games, and I don’t know how many are still reading by this paragraph.
Still here. Good — because the poem is excellent, and we’ll get to it in a moment. First, a short summary of the context it came from. The video game is titled Night in the Woods. It’s now around 5 years old, and it seems to this outsider to have an unusual premise: it revolves around teenagers and their peer relationships in a declining industrial town of Possum Springs. There’s a mystery to be solved, at least after a fashion, but the richness of the characters and their milieu makes it more a novelistic experience than a puzzle escape room or series of mini to macro baddies to battle. Oh, and did I mention that the characters are anthropomorphic animals?
Sound cute? Well, here we go with opposites again. Mental illness and violence are part of the world. Nancy Drew Case-Of… or PBS Kids style animal parables this isn’t. Our main characters are teenagers, and yet the weight of this world is on them — and the world, despite the fantastic elements, is our world, set in the declining rural America inhabited not by animated animal-faced kids but by a gig economy and our new-fangled robber barons.
The poem is spoken in the game by a minor character — in the nomenclature of game mechanics, a non-playable character — a spear-carrier in this small-town opera. I’m told she appears in various episodes as the game proceeds, speaking funny little poems while the foreground, playable characters, deal with weightier things. As she starts to read this, it’s not clear from the opening words that this poem isn’t just another little sideways humorous piece of verse.
It’s not. Yes, the people in it, the working class this May Day is ostensibly for, are counted as small, but the poem builds in its litany of smallness increasing, of inequality compounding. At the end the poet-character finishes stating her dream of justice. In that night dream, she’s alone, and that’s why it’s a dream — and will always be a dream on those terms. A century ago when the Wobbly songwriter Alfred Hayes dreamed he saw the dead Joe Hill, Joe Hill tells him to organize. When Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” he was standing in front of thousands who’d say it with him. That’s why we have a May Day.
Here’s the poem presented as the chord sheet that I performed it from today, credited to the fictional character in the game. Best as we can figure, the actual authors of the game’s dialog and therefore this poem are Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson.* The chords listed show the chords I was fingering on guitar, but I had a capo on the first fret in this recording, so they sound a half-step higher. The main reason I’ve been presenting these chord sheets is that while I do my best in my rapid production schedule on these pieces, I figure others out there might do a better job with this. One person singing a song is a performance. The second is a cover version. More than that, and it might be a folk song!
To hear my performance there’s an audio player below. Player not there? Then this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab with its own audio player.
*They have no connection with this performance, other than the eloquence of the words impressing my daughter and then myself. Apologies in that I hurried to do this for May Day and haven’t contacted them.