In game theory’s prisoner’s dilemma problem, two prisoners are given the choice between silence, and the betrayal of the other. The optimal choice turns out to be betrayal and therein lies the game’s paradox. In PRISONER'S DILEMMA, the book of art and poetry by the Snell sisters, the undercurrent of treachery winds its way through lyrical, narrative free verse accompanied by drawings of eccentric heads.
The book opens with depictions of three wounds—Tear, Cut, and Split—and examines reactions to physical and psychological hurt. In “Tear,” the drawing of a blind-eyed head with an endless tongue, done in charcoal, illustrates the poem’s central metaphor. The tongue extends into the brain and out of the head in spikes, making manifest the synesthesia of the moment: “the way you dragged your tongue/across the metal railing, /the snow irresistible, your brother/tugging you out of your skin,/with a devotion exquisite as pain.” The book goes on to delineate ways in which other corruptions-- by the body, time, luck-- influence our behavior. Who will rat on who? What is the final cost?
We meet characters like a disappointed former cheerleader who thinks she’s settling for a man who is “…building her a barbeque pit, trying to ignite the flame/that will stun her into loving him”; a woman whose desire to escape overtakes her at her garden of White Hellebore--“perhaps this is a metaphor for flesh.” In “Chase,” a man would “have followed her the way she wanted, /but night curves without warning, the stars/do not touch, the road stretches down to the sea.”
The drawing of an averted eye in “Absence” shows an empty socket with a line leading to the displaced eye. It scans its environment for the man who will “retrieve my muffled/answer, lips at my ear naming everything/you missed.” The mouth is drawn in pencil and smudged charcoal, erased slightly with a kneaded eraser, an effective way to portray the woman’s muffled answer to the man’s question, “Will you be alright?”
Sometimes things go from “Bad to Worse.” The drawing that accompanies the poem of that name shows a shadowed one-eyed face molded in white, stuck to the skull as if to suffocate it. In “Lover’s Lane,” a woman returns to the scene of a mistake, “a hatchback,/a string of yeses pulled from a no” to open “the door, though you’re in no mood for a ride.” And in “Good Cry” –and why shouldn’t we?—an onion comes apart in layers, “unlike your own skin, holding in its factories.”
The sequence of poems about leaving—one of the prisoner’s choices-- brings the narrative arc back again to a final wound. “The Persistence of Holes” is a study in grief, and ends the collection on a melancholy note: “Come here, she might have said. Hold me.”