“Flashcards” by Thomas Nowak

from Cartridge Lit, May 19, 2014

Review by Elisabeth Cook


Recently, on a car trip, I readFlashcards” by Thomas Nowak to my boyfriend. I had been happy to find the series of poems in Cartridge Lit after coming across Nowak’s “Mr. Fruit,” a hilarious account of a deranged Sims character, in Arsenic Lobster two years ago. While my primary reaction to “Mr. Fruit” was laughing myself to tears, I remember thinking at the time that I was lucky to have stumbled upon such exciting, original work by a relatively unknown poet. “Flashcards” provided the same sense of excitement without simply being more of the same. Before reading it aloud to my boyfriend, I felt compelled to explain the format: Each poem is a rectangular block cropped to size and divided into two “sides” with a double forward slash. I wasn’t sure how to convey this, so we agreed that I should say “flip” when I came to the division.

Each poem is titled with a piece of terminology used in online gaming. When read out loud, it would logically seem that the title and the first block of text (which is part of the poem but also a rather straightforward definition) form the whole of the flashcard. The “back” section of the card, however, provides the bulk of the poetic content and scale. Reading the poems out loud and saying “flip” at the appropriate times didn’t feel unnatural. Nowak has constructed the poems in such a way that what could have been an explanatory blurb at the beginning of each (the definition portion) constitutes a part of the poem itself. He contrasts the academic and the artistic, the former introducing the subject matter for the benefit of the latter.

The opening poem, “GLFH,” offers the definition “good luck, have fun,” and declares it “A polite salutation at / the beginning of a game.” Following the “flip,” the description shifts to the evocative: “Someone rolls out a red carpet. It is the / tongue of a sea monster. It is the insides of ten- / thousand different soldiers.” The active image of the carpet rolling steals the reader’s focus until “tongue” at the line break. The third “red” image in this section, however, is revealed unevenly. We don’t know exactly what the word “insides” refers to until the thought is complete. This expanding, gradually more visceral series of pictures represented in short, declarative sentences results in an acute sense of motion.


Based purely on poetic merit, each “back” section could stand as a piece of writing on its own. Subtle wordplay in “GLHF” (such as the warm vowel sounds linking “someone,” “rolls,” and “tongue,” or the nearly equidistant spacing between the three “s” words) creates an affecting rhythm and continuity. Combined with the niche subject of gaming, Nowak’s work inevitably raises the issue of knowledge and contextualization of subject matter for artistic purposes. Cartridge Lit publishes writing exclusively about video games and the staff states on their website that they believe video games are “important and vital to [pop] culture” (brackets theirs). While I agree with this sentiment, it doesn’t mean that everyone who reads a poem about video games will also have the proper knowledge to be able to understand and appreciate it. This isn’t by any means a prejudiced statement; I’ve read plenty of poems about trees or thistles that presumed some bit of knowledge or understanding on my part that simply didn’t exist. For another poem, a reader may as well be expected to know or take enough of a cursory interest to do some Googling. In this case, the act of explanation in and of itself is an opportunity for poetic invention, and Nowak takes advantage of that opportunity here.

The familiar simplicity of flashcards as a learning tool lends an appealingly prosaic touch, and in a way that avoids dryness or too stark a constrast with the second parts of the poems. “Clipping,” the third poem in the series, initially defines the term as a “process of game design,” then goes on to state that some games allow you to turn clipping off, which “allows the player to walk / through walls, floors, doors, trash-cans, fire / extinguishers, scientists, you name it.” The “front” sides of the cards may be less sensory and intense, but the word choice here is just as conscientious. The disarming humor of the lesson leaves the reader with a fresh sense of meaning, which is promptly challenged on the second side of each card. It is learning and un-learning in a single experience.

The dreamlike images that emerge as conceptual extensions of the definitions are vivid capsules of content in and of themselves, but the definitions are what hold the poems together as a series. “Flashcards” is not only an example of good writing but of good self-editing, as the relation of the parts of the poems to each other as well as the poems themselves to each other is a large element of their overall appeal and power. Beginning with “GLFH” and ending with “GG” (good game), they create and present a context for themselves. No matter what someone’s knowledge or appreciation of video games may be, “Flashcards” takes an approach that guarantees a new experience.

Elisabeth Cook is a writer and blogger living in Wisconsin who studied writing and literature at Beloit College.  She has had work recently published in Crack the Spine.  Her blog can be viewed at literarychicken.blogspot.com.

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