Playfulness & Pretend Light the Dark in ‘Our Dark Academia’ Poems

Chess pieces, a white queen and a white knight, in front of a sunset

Adrienne Raphel’s new poetry collection, Our Dark Academia, deftly blurs the lines between performance, play, and identity. Seemingly autobiographical and written throughout the “Pandemic years” (2020-?), the poems in this collection are delicately and surprisingly interwoven.

Motifs like an upcoming birthday, a lost piece of jewelry (a family heirloom), and an addiction to online shopping spiral throughout the poems. Characters recur and academic archetypes living in the dark shadows of Ivy League institutions survive somehow. Sickness, death, and the fear of it pervade these pages like mold in a damp library.

These motifs, characters, and themes create coherence in a somewhat incoherent narrative that is rife with the anxiety and otherworldliness of early quarantimes. Adrienne’s poems often take unexpected turns into nonsensical alliteration and confusing dead ends, yet I don’t have a hard time understanding them. They speak a language that I understand intuitively, turning free association, sonic satisfaction, and wordplay into space- and time-traveling portals.

They speak a language that I understand intuitively, turning free association, sonic satisfaction, and wordplay into space- and time-traveling portals.

They do this, I suspect, because they had to.

As I write (in January 2023), the world is no longer under quarantine, but a massive storm system (weirdly called an “atmospheric river event” by meteorologists) is pummeling the United States. Where I live in Northern California, that means torrential rains dash my winter break dreams of hikes through the hills and days on the beach. Instead, the necessary walk around the block with my dog becomes a grueling foray into oblivion. In other words, an adventure.

For this adventure, I dress up. Underneath my pink raincoat, I am a cowgirl—pearl snaps, braids, boots, and all. When I get home (after toweling down the dripping dog I call Joni Pony) I top it all off with a cowboy hat. In a mood reminiscent of 2020, there’s not a lot to do this winter break aside from play pretend.

With Our Dark Academia, Adrienne invites us to play all sorts of games. She gives us poems based on chess boards, on CLUE boards, on Jeopardy!. She writes odes to Gigapets, bleak renditions of nursery rhymes, a trick quiz, a crossword puzzle.

With Our Dark Academia, Adrienne invites us to play all sorts of games.

The first poem in the collection primes us for pretend with its title, “Daily Lies.” “Don’t trust anything you read here,” that title tells us. But what freedom that allows for everyone involved! The poet is freed to be whoever they want to be within the pages of this collection. The reader is freed to trust or distrust the poems, to pretend right along with Adrienne.

The second-to-last poem in the collection, “Workbook” takes up 34 pages. The title, which only appears in the table of contents, suggests a homework assignment, something to be done.

Indeed, this poem is highly interactive (ideal for a rainy winter break): first, a list of characters and their key attributes, under the imperative subtitle “Choose Your Archetype.” A few pages later (after a quiz, some of whose answers can be found in previous poems), a selection of those characters as paper dolls and their outfits—illustrated by Ilya Milstein— makes your choice for you.

After an ambitiously difficult crossword puzzle, Adrienne lifts the curtains on her grand finale of pretend: “Dark Academia, A Wikipedia.” This “stub,” as it refers to itself as, gets to be many things and allows Adrienne to be many people. Sometimes it’s an academic essay on the aesthetics of the genre, their origins, and their shortcomings. Sometimes it’s a lyrical personal essay about winter in Vermont. Sometimes it’s an illustrative short story about romance (or the lack thereof) in academia.

In the footnotes of the “wikipedia,” Adrienne references articles by Hollis Bennett, which don’t appear in my Google searches. These fictional references are characters Adrienne has made up. While she references them, writing a pretend encyclopedia entry about a subject, she also gets to be them, pretending to write the articles she pretends to reference.

This act, and the whole “Workbook” poem, playfully builds an entire world. It reminds me that my own writing journey began with me as a child pretending to be someone else, and pretending to be all of the people that person knew.

When I pretended to be someone I wasn’t—a cowgirl, for instance, and her cowboy in distress—I got to be more myself.

When I pretended to be someone I wasn’t—a cowgirl, for instance, and her cowboy in distress—I got to be more myself. Unlimited by my circumstances or my abilities, I could be whoever I wanted. Knowing who I wanted to be was the clearest way to tell myself who I really was.

As the title of this collection suggests, Adrienne’s “pretend” is dark; schoolgirls and cigarettes, dead girls and blood written on the walls, doe eyes rolling free of their faces. But pretend often is dark. How can one imagine oneself a hero without a villain to conquer?

The villain in this collection doesn’t have a clear agenda, or even a body. At times, the villain may even be the manifestation of pretending itself. What is pretending if not “aspiration,” capitalism’s favorite tool? The online shopping that snakes through the collection is freaky because it’s familiar, dark because it’s true.

Donning my cowgirl gear doesn’t make me feel like a real cowgirl. It just makes me look like one. If I want to feel like a real cowgirl, obviously I need the leather belt and the silver buckle, the worn saddle and the woven saddle blanket. I need the prairie to ride through, the horse to ride on, the cowboy to rescue from peril. There’s always something more I need in order to feel complete as the character I want to play, and the internet is right there with most of it.

Similarly, with Our Dark Academia, we get the sense that Adrienne will never achieve the persona that she strives for. The perfectly preppy, queerly intelligent, skinny and fit and healthy academic who has it all—even, eventually, a child—is out of her reach. Will she keep making purchases in the hopes that one day she’ll buy the emerald ring that will turn her into the person she wants to be?

© Hannah Lamb-Vines (1/25/23) Special for FF2 Media®

Book cover: black and white photo of a fragmented bust with the words 'Our Dark Academia' and 'Adrienne Raphel' in pink cursive script


Read A Brief History of (My) Dark Academia by Adrienne Raphel on LitHub (published in the poetry collection as “Dark Academia, A Wikipedia”).

Buy Our Dark Academia from Rescue Press.

Read the “real” Dark Academia Wikipedia entry.


Featured photo: Chess pieces by Jachym Michal on Unsplash.

Bottom photo: Our Dark Academia book cover from Rescue Press.

Tags: Adrienne Raphel, dark academia, games, online shopping, Our Dark Academia, poetry, Quarantimes, Rescue Press

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Hannah Lamb-Vines is a writer, editor, and library worker in the Bay area. She received her MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in 2021. Her poetry has been published in or is forthcoming from Columbia Journal, HAD, Black Telephone Magazine, Shit Wonder, and Bennington Review, among others. She is an interviews editor for Full Stop magazine.
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