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Gregory Sherl

In addition to penning the poetry collection Heavy Petting, Gregory Sherl is the author of The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail and I Have Touched You, a chapbook of linked stories from Dark Sky Books.

Blurbs

"Lovers of the game will delight in the many references from long ago computer screens. Lovers of life will unearth emotions from deep within their own history.”

– Don Rawitsch

“How did we get so lonely America? The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail is all the love we’ve ever had and all the love no one has ever had. This book is a fever."

– Melissa Broder

"This is not a museum, it’s a channel to the heart of the problem of how greed and comfort left the real life behind. It’s my pleasure to tell you that you need to read this book! Carve your note in the oxen’s side.”

– CA Conrad

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The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail

I have to admit I was skeptical at first.

05/30/12

A book of poems that uses the old computer game as inspiration and source material? I feared it would be a book thoroughly dripping with hipster irony and nostalgia. There I was, flipping through the book and seeing titles like “The Oregon Trail goes to prom” and “The Oregon Trail takes pills for that,” wondering what they meant and just what I was getting into. All of the titles are structured in the same way, beginning with “The Oregon Trail . . .” and then describing what or where or how it is. The titles are often humorous, simply by their sheer ridiculousness: “The Oregon Trail goes to a Barry Manilow concert,” for example.

But there’s so much more going on here than that. The humor of the poem’s titles often contrasts with the serious tone of the poem itself. The book set me up to expect one thing, and then totally blew me away by being something else altogether. What I got instead was a beautifully complex series of poems that masterfully blend multiple layers of setting, character, and plot to create a collaged world that exists simultaneously in the old computer game of The Oregon Trail as well as in the historic period of the eponymous trail itself. This dexterous blending of real history and computer game fiction is a genius move on its own, but Sherl takes it even further by also placing the speaker in our current world.

Sherl shares my fondness for the game that we both grew up playing. I personally killed hours of my elementary school years playing The Oregon Trail during recess on school computers. I was never very good at it, and drowned in the river, or starved, or got killed by Indians more times than I can count. And that experience is reflected in this book through repeated references to things like fording the Kansas River, finding rusty bullets, dying of dysentery, or being limited to carrying a hundred pounds of meat at any time, regardless of how successful you were at hunting (I never was). These allusions occur in the midst of poems that seemingly have very little to do with the game: “A thief comes in the middle of the night, steals 37 bullets” Sherl writes in the middle of “The Oregon Trail is a marching band,”  between lines about the wind and about a marching band “tired of their bones.” Many of the poems that I found most compelling can be read as love poems, like “The Oregon Trail gets picked last for dodgeball,” which begins:

I forgot what I was going to say here, but if you died
I would miss your chin the most, miss the cracks
in the blinds that highlight the parts of your breasts
I would learn first.

The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail is a collection of poems that inhabit a dream-like state, obscuring the lines between reality, fantasy, and history, and making us question which world any of us are truly living in. That question is ultimately irrelevant, however, as it assumes that a person must live entirely in one place or time. Sherl shows that it is possible to occupy three very different worlds at once, and brilliantly finds the love, tedium, humor, and heartbreak to be found in each.

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