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Monday, November 04, 2019

The Book of the Red King as Board Game?

Image pilfered from Paul Pastor's twitter page

A month back, writer Fred Chappell wrote me a long, curious letter about The Book of the Red King, and he suggested a way of looking at the book that I found interesting and enlightening. He talked about puns, sound play, musical language, and many other things, but it's his thoughts about board game and the book that I'm sharing here. I'll back up slightly so I don't miss what he says about the illuminatory accompaniment of Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Such lovely work deserves its accolades!

...the production is handsome, elegant and surprising. Mr. Hicks-Jenkins has done a grand job; his images and designs are in classy harmony with the spirit of the poems--as best as I can read them, anyhow.
I am content that he and [writer] Kelly [Cherry] have made better readings than I. She notes "a difficult and dangerous journey." I was not able to follow the progress of a journey--except through or over time, maybe. I read the volume as a nonsequential sequence and after some fanciful meditation thought of it as a sort of mystical, metaphysical board game with icon pieces: King, Fool, ideal Wentletrap, Alchemist, Flowers, Castle, Garden, and etc. as occasion required or suggested.
The game would be a little like chess and backgammon combined. Each poem is set in a new situation, the positioning of the pieces, their relationship to one another, determined by some shift of inner or outer circumstance. Each new situation requires on the part of Fool or King, a different new mode of perception--rather in the way that any movement of a piece on a chessboard generates and is contained by a new configuration of possible future moves. The Mere Fool sees things differently than does the Twelfth-night Fool; the Mere Fool is in quest of enlightenment; the Twelfth-night Fool experiences an epiphany which is not the result of his quest but which would be unavailable to him without that experience. The King of "Raptures" is very different indeed from the figure in "The Turret Stairs." And of course there are a number of poems in which both King and Fool appear and their perceptions / conceptions of the world are contrasted, though even in these the contrasts are not complete; often, in slant ways, they are complementary. King and Fool undertake very different ways of looking at the world and come (if they do) to very different conclusions, but these are not mutually exclusive--different but complementary, a little like logic and mathematics, perhaps. Although neither of them would be confused with a logician. 
Nor will I, if you have been trying to comprehend this letter.
I have from line to line enjoyed and admired it unflaggingly. For it is as if I traversed a long gallery of separate dramatic moments: stately, antic, thoughtful, gay, gravid, artful, decorative, spontaneous, ritualized, reverent, satiric, learned and almost always to some degree playful. At times I thought, This book is the product of a metaphysician writing a series of comedy sketches. At other times, This is what happens when Pierrot philosophizes as a culture critic.
When I say "decorative" I mean no disrespect. For me Wallace Stevens is a decorative poet but supremely serious also and I might say the same of the paintings of Paul Klee. A lightsome approach can be most revealing--when it is rendered by a deft and practiced hand.
...maybe you can gather some estimate of my admiration and towering respect. This many-colored Paean to Imagination is unmatchable.
I didn't need to put in a bit from the close, but I just love it, naturally enough!

Though I'm not sure where the Red King and the Fool came from, I have to admit that I was deeply influenced as a child by the Alice books. (Two slip-cased volumes were given to me in Louisiana when I was four. The Louisiana of my memory fits neatly with Wonderland.) And they certainly unite a board game and a Red King, and they introduce us to strange gardens, odd courtly figures, puns, and musical language. So Carroll and his strangeness may well (so to speak) be at the very bottom of the book, somehow, and at the bottom of my being. And surely an Alice-child is a sort of Fool, entering another world and trying to decipher it, directed by insufficient knowledge that yet grows as she goes. As a little girl who was made to move every few years all through childhood, I probably had some special affinity with the sensation of tumbling into another world and needing to navigate, and feeling quite, quite foolish.

Thinking about some of my fiction, I remember that I wrote a story about a Red King sleeping... And one of my early stories ends with a child in Collins, Georgia, reaching out her hand to a pier glass, still trusting that the mirror might dissolve under her touch. So: I am clearly guilty of Carroll influence!

As for Fred Chappell's view of a constant new positioning on a kind of metaphysical board, I have no trouble finding that view to be helpful: I always thought of the Red King as a being who was unpinned in meaning. I thought of the Fool as someone who is changing, changing--the book is punctuated by and structured to some degree by the alchemical colors that mark his transformation. And yes, I always felt that the book would be playful, sometimes even when it dealt with terrible things--and surely that links up with the board game idea, the metaphysician comedy, the Pierrot philosophy, and lightsome decoration.

While I can't say that I was pondering board games during the writing, on this very evening I have a date with my three children to play Arkham Horror, a board game set in H.P Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos. The game has been spread down the length of the dining room table since the last Monday night, when we four (Michael being in India) left our heroes and heroines in a highly dangerous situation. Will we survive? Will we defeat the Ancient Ones? I, you may wish to know, am a man with a long and admirable beard, a seeker who gathers clues and a mystic who wards against evil. Wish me luck in helping to save the world, and be sure and consult The Book of the Red King for a metaphysician's comedy or a Pierrot's philosophy!

[Quotes used by permission.]

November 5th postscript for the curious and lovers of board games: It was a hard struggle, but the Ancient Ones destroyed the world last night.


  1. I didn't know they were called slip-cases. That's useful so long as I remember it. Not necessarily an unalloyed delight, however. When I discovered that CDs were contained in "jewel cases" I over-used the term and irritated VR.

    I think FC's idea has merit. I believe you and I have differed on the subject of fictional plots, their nature and their usefulness. In a sense a plot that somehow followed the rules of chess (I've never played backgammon) would, by inference, proceed logically. I've never been a fan of illogical plots since they allow the author to go every which-way, potentially escaping the reader. Forgetting that the first aim of any book is to be read. Without that all is as dust.

    1. And what happens to all your jewel cases when the CD vanishes... At least you will not irk VR!

      In terms of structure, I felt a number of elements in play (though I think perhaps the maker should keep her mouth shut on such matters. Because I've already learned a few interesting things about my own book from comments here and there...) In terms of causality, what plot there is that accrues to the Fool seems originally propelled by the nature of the Fool and the after-shocks of his childhood, and then to progress in the manner of a particular life: that is, encountering and responding to mentors, aspiration, failure, physical obstacles, the metaphysical, etc. That, too, is like the game of life.

      I'm avoiding talking about the book in a straightforward manner again... But I am very interested in what people see in it. I imagine that a long series that is thick with incident and image and changes in characters is probably going to have shapes that felt instinctual to the writer but will feel more determined to the reader. If that makes any sense...

      On Friday, I went to see Coppola's Dracula movie at a local museum, and while I was lured by the curious, old-fashioned ways it was filmed, the plot was maddening, with the outer story denied resolution and one of the main characters rendered a cipher, and the interior story (which took over) "resolved" in a way that made no sense whatsoever given the beliefs connected to the Orthodox setting and conveyed early on. So I was recently thinking about the annoying nature of the illogical plot, at least in a narrative that purports not to be surreal but grounded in causality and the material world, even when including a set of irreal characters and events from the fantastical realm of horror.

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  3. Insightful. I am only partway through the whole work, but the "game" element is obvious. I however, stopped at the more obvious references to Tarot. (Zero for the Fool, just as one example, besides the clearer references in title/imagery.)

    The spatial element of any work with archetypes might be responsible for some of the "shiftiness" noted. Whether an image bodes well or ill depends completely on context. Shifting the relationship between two images--relationship in proximity, in sequence, etc.--determines how their core being is expressed. Does the limitless "blankness" of the Fool connote destruction or infinite potential? Where he walks determines that, and the people he meets (who will each bring their energy to bear on his own, shifting the whole).

    In this way, I think of the book (so far) as less a chessboard than a draw of the cards. They might be reshuffled in a hundred ways, each a delight. But different.

    In this way, the "decorative" element really is meaningful. These images are meant to be touched, to gain ruffed edges and bent corners. Perhaps tucked up a sleeve. In any case, to be dealt and drawn time and again.

    1. Oh, that's interesting... Having just played a board game that included many card-stacks, I can see that way of looking at the sequence. When preparing the book, I had to drop a good many poems (it was so long!) but think that the encounters you mention--"people he meets (who will each bring their energy to bear on his own, shifting the whole"--seemed important to preserve.

      It's curious that when a long series is made and then set in a particular order, elements that the maker didn't see as governing the whole become more important, and other elements fall into some degree of abeyance. I'm finding that I do not disagree with comments that sometimes stress elements that I thought of as lesser (or of passing concern) when writing the poems (back when they were a great hodgepodge with little order), for they now seem stronger than before.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.