reviewed by Richard Holinger

Published in Issue No. 161 ~ October, 2010

Tesser, Marjorie. THE IMPORTANT THING IS…Card Game. Danbury, Connecticut: Firewheel Editions. 2010. Paperback, $15.00. Winner of the 2009 Firewheel Chapbook Award.

“Look! Up on the shelf!” “It’s a game!” “It’s a Ouija board!” “No, it’s a poetry chapbook!”

Take it down and look at it. You’re holding a shallow ten-inch square box. On top, resembling a Ouija board, a pasted-on paper announces “THE IMPORTANT THING IS…Card Game,” along with “Wild Card,” “Play alone or with friends,” single digits “1, 2…9, 0,” and the author’s name, Marjorie Tesser.

Remove the top and find there, pasted on the back of the cover, “How to Play,” directions broken into “Players,” “Playing Cards,” “Procedures,” and “Winning.”

“Players” tells you that any number can play, from solitaire to teams. The box contains “pages” made of heavy stock and stacked in the box. Most pages contain fifty “cards” separated by dotted lines for easy cutting. Each card contains a word or words, from the political to impolitic, from abstract to specific: “you keep it together”; “this”; “altar”; “shaman”; “a cup of tea with your mother”; “Bush Blew Up the Towers.”

Some pages have fewer than fifty cards, as the four-squared “earth, air, fire, water” page, and some contain no cards, like the “ROSTERS” page, offering lines for the names on “Your Team” and the “Other Team.” A do-it-yourself page contains only dotted lines so, presumably, you can write your own cards.

Each page above the fifty cards is titled differently, as a poem would be. For example, on the page titled, “THE IMPORTANT THING IS…Pairs // Is your glass half-full or half-empty?” most cards contain a single word, all different. Reading the cards from the top row left to right, we find, “war”; “you”; “famine”; “time”; and “all.” The second row offers, “health”; “joy”; “water”; “solitude”; and equity.” The longest message says, “the smartest person in the world,” and two cards contain upper case letters, “TAME CARD” and “WILD CARD.”

Now that you have the physical gist of Tesser’s game/chapbook, let’s return to “HOW TO PLAY” for the directions. You’re first told to “Cut the pages into cards, or just read the poem,” suggesting the poem is the cards, the directions, the front cover, the box. The poem is the experience of choice, of puzzlement, of confusion. Of fun. The poem is wondering if the pages have an order, whether each page coheres as a poem, whether this is poetry or a con game. The poem is a statement that all poetry, all literature, all life, is a con game, a game of chance, a game of choices, a game of deciding what’s THE IMPORTANT THING and what’s not. The poem’s tone is decidedly cheery; knowing that everyone will choose differently what’s important in this game, Tesser’s work implies we should enjoy the variety, laugh at the myriad of choices, and create a plethora of ways to play.

The “PROCEDURES” part of the directions encourages this sense of play: “The rules are what you think they are, or what you think they ought to be. Or what another player says they are, or group consensus. Or not.” “Suggested modes of play” include, “BATTLE” and “IMPOSE/PERSUADE.” As for “Winning,” “Of course, winning is not the important thing; the important thing is having had the experience. Or winning.”

This existential emphasis comes closest to pinning down a theme within such a protean framework. Tesser has taken an enormous risk with her conceptual, non-linear poetic form that deconstructs our idea of a traditional lyric poem built in consecutive lines on a page yielding a single thought or emotion. Undermining a secure sense of verisimilitude, she forces the reader into the role of a player, encouraging an approach to not only literature by seeing multiple possibilities, as in a writerly text, but also how to confront the decisions we make every day—as a game, not as a text with one authorial meaning.

“freedom” “space” “me” “peace” “drought” “plenty” “all” “hope”? You choose what’s important. Or not. Just remember, however, as the directions state, “The universe can always impose additional cards.”

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Richard Holinger's poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and book reviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Witness, The Southern Review, Boulevard, and Flashquake. He has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. He has lived in the Fox Valley west of Chicago for 30 years, where he writes a column for a local newspaper, facilitates a writing workshop, and lives with his perfectly nuclear family of four, plus dog. Currently, a collection of flash fiction is in the works. Degrees include a Ph.D. in creative writing from U.I.C.