Gregory Sherl’s The Oregon Trail is The Oregon Trail is a sexualized and romanticized collection of poems that invites its readers (such as myself) who may not have ever played the infamous “educational” video game as children, into the world of fording rivers, expressive oxen and that damn banker from Boston. Sherl creates a narrator who tells his wife he has “never held a nail the way I hold your chin,” and their children: Child #1, Christopher, who “holds himself like he’s allergic to his own skin,” and Child #2, Wendy, who carves phrases into oxen; all of whom we root for.
Sherl is able to combine historical, after-school values with imaginative, absurdist images that allow the reader to visualize not only the family’s journey, but their own journey in the world of the game and poems. In the poem “The Oregon Trail is a lonely place to die from syphilis” Sherl precedes the moral question of why the banker from Boston starts with more money than the farmer from Illinois, with the question of why a rabid deer will “walk with antlers on fire.” He is able to juxtapose the absurd with major life questions. At the same time, he also doesn’t overwhelm the reader with intricate, inside jokes or details from the video game. Details, like warnings not to ford rivers alone or only being able to carry 100 pounds of oxen or bear meat at once, are taken at face value, because they work in relation to the game, but also in the absurdist worlds of each poem.
In the same poem, Sherl is able to show the narrator’s love for his wife, as well as his love for life itself. After questioning why the Boston banker starts with more money, he doubts if the banker touches his wife “with two hands.” The narrator is not rich, but he does “touch everything worth touching twice.” He is romantic, but horny as heck: his wife’s teeth look the best when she’s naked, he says, but then claims they are both wet even when he isn’t inside her, and he reaches under her skirt during a Barry Manilow concert—a concert where the stage is covered in panties.
Mel Gibson appears on the trail twice, and with these cameos, Sherl is able to mock cinema, but mainly Gibson, and simultaneously point out the poignant:
Genocide was used in the making
of America, my home full of blood
I have yet to swallow.
In his second Gibson poem, Sherl remains just as poignant, and historical, while being as absurdist as he is elsewhere: “We have Manifest Destiny in our cocks.”
Every poem begins with The Oregon Trail is…and for stretches the collection feels as though Sherl is tinkering with the same poems on different pages; it is much like how one would repeatedly play the same level of a video game repeatedly to get to the next. That fixation occurs because, one, there must be an end in sight in poetry and in video games, and two, when re-approaching either, there must be secret passageways or nuggets or images to come back to. The latter—the way the collection lulls the reader’s desire to return, repeatedly—is the strength of the collection and it is evident when Sherl observes that one should not judge the sun for being tardy to show up because “Tomorrow will not taste like today.”
About the reviewer:
Spencer Hendrixson was born/raised/lives in Chicago. He recently graduated from DePaul University and currently will be tutoring at Paul Robeson High School in Englewood. His work has previously appeared in MAKE magazine and on the Rumpus.