Gregory Sherl’s The Oregon Trail is The Oregon Trail uses a video game about survival to meditate on its impossibility. This does not mean the book languishes in existential gloom, though. Instead, Sherl has written a book full of love and surprising emotional power.
Though The Oregon Trail is mostly known as a cult-classic computer game, it is also about a journey—and the labyrinthine hedge maze on the book’s cover suggests we should not think about this journey only literally. The Kansas River is forded many times, but it seems as if our hero only travels from one side to the other, so as to later return, and so on. The journey is not through a landscape, and is not about trailblazing. It is a circular journey, interested in love, consumption, and decay.
How does one use an instructional computer game created in 1971 to talk about human emotion and concern about impermanence today, though? One way is to exploit the game’s narrative structure to its full possibility. More specifically, Sherl fills a plot skeleton with provocative moments, with the detailed image a poor 8-bit screen couldn’t give. He uses the past as a metaphor for today, and he also writes a lot of poems about sex—that essential part of life that a game about survival left out:
We never hire the Indian guide. Instead,
we keep the five dollars, roll it up, hide
it in my wool sock. You look better in 3D.
I touch your breasts with my fingertips.
Then I touch your breasts with my whole
hand. I swallow the idea of independence . . .
Here, in “The Oregon Trail Taught Me How to Love,” Sherl draws attention to the restrictions of the program’s framework, and replaces that cold structure with a daring intimacy. There are explicit moments, especially in the more optimistic, earlier poems of the book, but the goal is always an intimacy that defies the possibility of the game itself. The real world and the video game world often become one in this text, and in their conflation Sherl indulges the limitations of each.
One of the key distinctions between those two worlds is between the permanent and the temporary, a rich source of tension throughout these poems. “If you beat the game, will I disappear?” the speaker’s daughter asks in “The Oregon Trail: O Romance!”—but the mood deepens, and the sense of impending loss is palpable: “Today the trail smells like soap. Someone is cleaning / the sky. Who will wash the soil when I turn this game off?” There are playful moments throughout the book, of course (“You said I love you more than not getting dysentery”), but they always have depth of purpose.
The Oregon Trail itself is a complicated character throughout the book—both a giving environment and a central villain. Death recurs throughout the book, and Sherl often pushes far beyond the playful “game over” idea, as members of the speaker’s family, one by one, fall: “A thief comes in the middle of the night & / steals Wendy’s breath. Wendy is melting faster / than the snow. / I am lonely in the worst way.” Sherl never lets the poems become mere fictional iterations of the game itself, though, and a sense of melancholy inhabits the many surreal moments in this collection. In fact, these poems read like a series of love poems followed by a series of elegies, and sometimes they are both. The desire for permanence though, is unrealized on the fictional trail, and so love is always also a loss (eventually). In the final poem in the book, Sherl captures this quite eloquently: “I could, I know now, live forever if I was quiet enough, / but I need to scream you back into me.” Survival has been redefined as something beyond the physical, and the formal constraint, like a labyrinth, has created a journey more than itself.