Chemo and questing in a Super Mario odyssey like no other

Sep
05

Chemo and questing in a Super Mario odyssey like no other

Mario often feels like poetry in motion, a cheery pinball in plumber’s dungarees forever boinging around brightly-coloured environments. In 1990’s Super Mario World, he is specifically on a mission of mercy, criss-crossing Dinosaur Land to save Yoshi’s pals from Bowser’s malicious forces. In the three decades since its release, strategy guides and walkthroughs have pored over every pixel to unlock Super Mario World’s secrets. But no-one has ever written anything about it quite like If All The World And Love Were Young, the debut collection by young Stephen Sexton. This slim volume takes Yoshi’s House as the unlikely embarkation point for a dizzying journey into memory, imagination and gut-punch grief.

When Sexton was a nine-year-old growing up in Belfast in the mid-1990s, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, triggering a cycle of treatment, convalescence and recurrence that understandably upended the family’s usual domestic routines. Like many kids his age, Sexton was playing a lot of Super Nintendo at the time. In an introductory note, he pinpoints the catalyst for If All The World And Love Were Young as a literal snapshot from that era, a photograph Sexton’s mother had taken of him hunkered in front of the family’s boxy vintage telly, a “cross-legged meditant” engrossed in his console. Who could blame him for looking for escape when everything suddenly seemed so uncertain?

Sexton’s 120-page poem cycle is an act of remembrance and expansion that flows from that one image, mapping the precarious period of his mother’s illness to advancing through the stages of his favourite game. It’s a juxtaposition that has a kernel of absurdity at its heart – fretful meditations on death, delivered in Chocolate Island chunks – but Sexton plays it totally straight. There is nothing as facile as equating ghosts from his past to the spirits floating around the Donut Ghost House or his avatar handily diving into a pipe to flee from reality. Thankfully, there is also no shoutout to Doctor Mario. Instead, his mother’s diagnosis is identified in unsettling detail as “cells which split and glitch”, requiring exposure to “poison” to try and halt its advance.

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