Alec Robbins’s debut poetry collection, “Lost Levels,” is not only the flagship collection for August Smith’s Cool Skull Press, but a poignant reflection on internet culture, technology, relationships, and the quintessential geek experience. Since these poems embody the everyday journey of our wandering minds bouncing from message to forum post to email, it’s fitting that “Lost Levels” has no page numbers—like a game with no save points, Alec’s collection is meant to be a continuous ride.
From the get-go, readers find a Notepad document (titled “Table of Contents 2”), which partially obscures a Gmail exchange about this very topic between Alec and August Smith; Spotify hides in the computer screen corner. This collage of details is like much of “Lost Levels,” cleverly feigning the everyday. The opening poem, “googlemaps,” additionally sets the scene:
Using social media and the internet as vehicles for thoughtful observation, these poems will surprise readers expecting cute gimmicks. Whether wishing he could delete somebody else’s instagram (via a screenshot of a tweet), or teaching us how to take the perfect selfie (hint: “make absolutely certain that the lighting in the bathroom is good”), “Lost Levels” leads us through digital awesomeness.
Alec’s succinct bio mentions him being a comedian, which makes sense—this collection is filled with tons of true LOL moments (the real kind). There’s a farewell post for a HBO Entourage forum, snippets from Wikipedia’s plot summaries, and text conversations about playing Zelda songs in saunas. Another email-as-poem, tenderly titled “it’s 2:27AM and you said nobody ever wrote you a love poem,” features late-90s word art with a “sick-as-fuck 3D drop shadow effect” and “rad animated GIF” of a flaming skull. But “Lost Levels” often blends the wit with more serious observations. The speaker in “The Cave of Bad Dreams (21XX)” wonders about Yoda and how it’s possible for “a mere human” to “write dialogue for such a genius alien dude,” only to realize “that yoda is just a greek fate and a magical negro / and a piece of our collective dna / and that nobody has ever written anything that we didn’t already know.”
Balancing highs and lows, “Lost Levels” returns to more emotional content as needed. Like many of us, Robbins has a complicated relationship with his parents, as we’re shown a string of seen-and-unanswered texts from his mother (complete with crying emoji), or a stirring look at fatherhood:
“the marshes of awakening”
my dad pushed me out into the indiana highway
and crushed my skull beneath the mental framework
of his impala
and he told me the entire world would believe him
that i’d flung myself out the into the corn
i showed him this poem and he fills like a bottom-shelf
frustrated that i am even aware of what a poem is
we bonded once and weakly
but it did happen
it happened on the phone and
that was that and it was it
But “Lost Levels” also knows the pain of an ending relationship, such as the “break-up slumber party” where the two partners spend the night talking “for the first time since complaining they never did”—and the awkward follow-up texts Alec gets from friends.
This collection by Alec Robbins has unlocked a power-up that makes it hilarious for everyone, whether you’re a reader, gamer, or hardcore n00b. “Lost Levels” knows about McDonalds and dating. It pays tribute to the criminally unappreciated classic, Donkey Kong Country, and knows the beauty of the great fairy fountain song. It reexamines the many quiet details of scrolling through our phones, turning these analog stats into art. Dare I say, this first collection from Cool Skull Press takes writing about video games to the next level.
I highly recommend this “Lost Levels” trailer / live AIM-based performance of the poem “RP” (warning, briefly NSFW).
For more info about Alec Robbins’s writing, films, and comedy, check here.
Cool Skull Press will be releasing a second print-run of “Lost Levels” in Feb/March 2015. In the meantime, check out the open call for submission for their feminist video game zine, “Goddessmode,” which August Smith calls “implicitly, an attempt to combat the rampant sexism in video game subcultures, and explicitly, a project that’s going to result in an incredibly cool book.”
Review by Christopher Morgan