Chess Pieces

Chess Pieces

David Solway
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 88
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    Chess Pieces
    Book Description:

    But never underestimate the powers of the pawn who can promote into a queen and put a kingdom on, or moving humbly up the board, killing on the side, outpriest the priest, and leave the knight without a horse to ride, and trip the elevated rook to bring it crashing down, and nudge the misanthropic queen into oblivion, and stop before great Caesar's throne, a tiny regicide, and watch a cornered monarch fall, and ponder how he died. --from The Powers of the Pawn

    eISBN: 978-0-7735-8480-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-2)
    (pp. 3-4)

    When, having placed my piece

    where it can do least harm

    to my campaign or yours,

    I stop my clock

    as you proceed to meditate

    your answering move,

    and if - though neither of us talks

    of prior moves and earlier gambits,

    wary of the specular tricks

    memory plays in a losing cause -

    the clock tock-ticked back,

    slipping the pawl

    of gesture and commitment

    that locked us into this intricate position

    in which we cannot recognize

    our least desire or ambition,

    then chess, the game that plays us

    like the most remorseless master,

    would banish the tic of recollection...

    (pp. 5-6)

    The king can move a single square

    without restriction made

    but once he topples from his place,

    no ransom to be paid.

    The queen, as you might well expect’s

    a dominating dame;

    she does most anything she wants

    and quite controls the game.

    The bishop is a sly old fox,

    strategically oblique;

    if there is trouble on the board

    he is not far to seek.

    And some are fascinated by

    that most eccentric knight

    who gallops rather awkwardly

    but loves a bloody fight.

    The stately rook’s a mighty piece

    and mainstay of the force;

    he’ll beat the bishop anytime


    (pp. 7-7)

    See him flex his muscles,

    the brawny pawn,

    who thinks, since he is legion,

    that he is strong.

    It's true that he can thwart

    an elegant,

    calculated game with

    a sideways shunt

    but soon he’ll decorate

    the table-top

    in hecatombs of pawns;

    just watch him drop -

    an insignificant,


    dead dwarf, not worth the wood

    they cut him from....

    (pp. 8-8)

    From handling of the chessmen you infer

    the secret springs of human character.

    To pluck the enemy chessman between

    your fingers and replace it with your own

    reveals the cultivated, well-bred

    killer who cannot stand the sight of blood;

    knock the chessman over with a small click

    of wood on wood tells of an aesthetic

    craving for the fatal instrument,

    of one more passionate than violent;

    to push the piece from its intended square

    is signal of aggressive character

    and plainly indicates that power

    is the motive for committing murder;

    some will hold the captured piece and caress

    it nervously:...

    (pp. 9-10)

    Sir, the kingdom is all in turmoil.

    The knights refuse to bring you tribute

    and converse only with their grooms;

    the rooks are unprepared for war

    and covet the center of the board;

    and as for the queen, I must report

    she enjoys the hourly attentions

    of your trusted praetorian pawn.

    The pawns themselves are in revolt:

    why risk their precious lives, they ask,

    in your hereditary wars

    for a speech at the funeral-pyre?

    You see what lack of faith will do?

    The bishops, who preach and advise,

    are in despair. It’s modern times.

    And even the bishops themselves


    (pp. 11-13)

    Once, when Persia was involved

    some ridiculous war or other

    and invaders were burning down the City

    and raping the women etcetera,

    two chess players were engaged

    in an eternal game of chess.

    Yes, yes, houses were burning,

    walls and arcades demolished,

    children lying in the bloody streets

    bristling with lances like pincushions,

    and so on, but the chess players,

    ah! the chess players were absorbed

    in the game that they were playing.

    For when the king is in danger,

    when the knight and the bishop

    abandon the queen in her peril,

    and when the daring opponent

    breaches the impressive...

    (pp. 14-14)

    She plays a curious game;

    unexpectedly will strike

    from any quarter in a storm

    of near-perpetual check

    and yet at the end expose

    a too-long forgotten king

    or for no good reason lose

    her queen, quite as confusing

    as confused. Does her better

    nature gain the upper hand,

    the inveterate sweetness there,

    incapacity to reprimand? -

    which makes for dubious chess

    but an indulgent parent.

    I might have wished it otherwise:

    better chess; less lenient....

    (pp. 15-16)

    Sweet Philomel, mute queen, I the great king

    Regius Erectus do attend upon

    thy raven beauty, ravished by

    flamboyant silence, the dumb appeal

    of thy most fierce and helpless violence,

    royal nymph, for thou art also victim

    to the high magnificence of thy rage

    as thou sweepest clean the board of envoys

    chosen for the glory of accomplishment

    and for the delicate lucidity

    to plead my cause and make my deep amends

    for having so offended thee, mute queen,

    by the impetuosity of my

    ill-considered, inconsiderate attack,

    and for having in a fatal moment

    or stooped or risen to comparison...

    (pp. 17-18)

    Pale Karpov, patient, sure,

    untempted by adventure,

    wards life off, conceives the win

    as a form of medicine;

    while the bored aristocrat,

    Lord Spassky, considers that

    chess impedes the exercise

    of tennis, but wants the prize.

    Mikhail Tal perceives the board

    as youth discovered or restored

    or as a springboard for his sense

    of humor - at your expense.

    Strict in his analysis,

    taciturn, acute, he plays -

    Portisch - seeming to offend,

    only to be self-contained.

    Hiibner plunges in his beard

    pondering (the board is cleared),

    seeking the intrinsic law

    of chess, and achieves a draw.

    Larsen is ten...

    (pp. 19-20)

    Somewhere in the heart’s eye

    I see you leaning

    across a chessboard

    like a little brother over his bible,

    pausing to scry out

    mystical combinations

    rich with unpremeditated forfeitures.

    I see you bending

    over a banquet table,

    the plates cleared away,

    improvising your melody

    not on the oboe or violin

    but the small harmonica,

    one leg jigging elegiac counterpoint.

    Absorbed in these interludes,

    wishing to become

    everyone’s anointed pauper,

    you play only to command

    an eloquence of scarcity,

    almost Franciscan in your moves.

    I observe you carefully

    shedding your acquisitions.

    Now, the pared bones of the pieces

    spell out the...

    (pp. 21-22)

    Ever the gentleman, he knows

    honor requires concession

    of colonial priority

    to the lady. Biding

    her tentative initiative

    he does not know the measure

    of his adversary, nor that

    his game acquires shape

    only from the mold of white’s advance.

    New-crowned in identity, he becomes

    the Sicilian, the plumed Catalan,

    or the subtle and plausible French,

    savoring the ascension

    of a brave, unbridled self.

    Confronting that imperial lack,

    white extends her hand

    and, for her opening move, decisively

    tips the king, acknowledging

    immediate mate. Black

    discovers he has won the game

    before the game has even begun.

    That is the...

    (pp. 23-24)

    One plays the game, intent and wan,

    consults prestigious texts,

    and only moves the chosen pawn

    another pawn protects;

    or given white’s initiative,

    what plans has he in store?

    He broods and broods, and then will move

    the king pawn to King Four.

    Another plays with great esprit,

    a genius or a dunce;

    he scores a brilliant victory

    or disintegrates at once,

    who’ll move the queen with much display

    and sacrifice the rook

    and bring the king into the fray

    and contradict the book.

    But in between the two is best

    who plays a cautious game,

    leaves his opponent unimpressed,...

    (pp. 25-25)

    It’s the only way left! Challenge the paradigm,

    found a new federation

    (pursuing a renegade grudge)

    and topple a king by the sole expedient

    of breaking the alliance;

    or take on the latest cyberchamp,

    virtual dragon gorged on many minds

    countered by a gypsy temperament

    tented in a single self, that

    triumph of necessary arrogance -

    O nobility of defiance

    in the service

    of an exiled prince- to resist

    the scattering of the pieces,

    the towers and horses in disarray.

    Appointed in the coronals

    of antiquity, launching an offensive

    playing staunchest black, you defend

    the last integrity of the...

    (pp. 26-27)

    A gedanken madonna troubles

    his analysis. The hum of

    circuitry’s no proof against

    the arias of the phantom queen

    who reclines in the boudoirs

    of the motherboard or glides

    from chamber to bower powered

    by sexy multiprocessors.

    Rapt by her viral melodies

    he ponders the impending

    calamity of breasts and studies

    the binary synthesis of the rump.

    For the monster is bemused

    by his sliver of chip, all ribald

    with longing, his coil of loins

    pumping their ions, shrinking

    that jumbo intelligence down

    to one pawn’s scrawny minimum.

    Even in triumph there's no rest:

    the witch is undeletable.

    Now he...

    (pp. 28-29)

    TREVOR: The novel’s longer breath,

    its dynastic sweep and heft

    (if I may phrase it so)

    takes us far into the endgame,

    measuring out a human life

    or mapping an entire era

    in a sort of solemn-playful symmetry.

    SCOTT: The long short story or novella

    should be just about

    as far as one’s allowed to go.

    To spring a snafty combination

    early in the midgame,

    a neat epiphany or artful thrust,

    tries the reader’s patience least.

    MICHAEL: We have our corresponding modes:

    the epic and the ode, now obsolete.

    With all its deft economy,

    elfin shifts and knavish charm,


    (pp. 30-30)

    He who plays his bishop well

    has gained an aptitude in hell;

    who relies upon the knight

    is a connoisseur of sleight;

    he who operates the rook

    wears a Corleone look;

    who manipulates the queen

    is a potent epicene;

    he who plays the king must be

    an undaunted enemy.

    But fear the master of the pawn,

    that rosy-cheeked Napoleon

    whom we estimate at first

    one by his dimensions cursed

    yet hides behind that harmless mien

    rook, knight, bishop, king and queen....

    (pp. 31-31)

    The day is hot and windless; the sail

    above my head, a white flag I have

    raised to the unimagined powers -

    or this page I write confession on;

    and as I lean across the chessboard

    searching for the best way not to win,

    suggesting how one may sacrifice

    a knight for a precarious king,

    a shadow interposes; it is

    my lady's maid with a decanter

    in her hand, from which she pours

    the cool medicinal of wine. I

    am arranging my defeat, playing

    to reject all eccentricity,

    and in deference, not ambition,

    see the pieces move as I command....

    (pp. 32-33)

    At first all quirk and reticence,

    a Plato-driven eremite

    whose nervousness made others tense

    with books at table, and at night

    counting chess pieces in his sleep,

    if sleep it was, part valium,

    part exhaustion with self, part leap

    into a dark millennium.

    Did he develop genius

    in extremity, as a skill

    to compensate for loneliness,

    or was loneliness the sequel?

    So in his company we felt

    a certain alien presence,

    a giving-over to theWelt

    des Geistes- his ascetic sense

    of body-burden and his fear

    of finding dinner to his taste

    compelling him to be severe,

    as if...

    (pp. 34-35)

    He was the king. The game depended

    on how well he was defended,

    and life proceeded as intended,

    and all was done for one sole reason,

    to shelter him from plot or poison;

    anything less he accounted treason.

    His queen, it seemed, could do no wrong; her

    life devoted to make his longer.

    He was the king, but she the stronger.

    Time went on, the kingdom prospered,

    no presentiment came and whispered -

    this was a game he might have mastered;

    but held his queen in scant regard,

    considering all she did and dared

    as but his right and his...

    (pp. 36-36)

    I might have played it otherwise

    had I been master,

    if not of fate or of the situation,

    of some appropriate technique;

    I might have had a draw from it,

    a balancing of forces,

    or at least made interesting mistakes,

    deviating from the text,

    had I been master of complications

    or capable of solving

    the problems I myself composed;

    could I have come to terms

    with the man-demented queen

    I might have played it otherwise

    and not have played the game I did,

    tempted by the sacrifice

    for the glory of the gesture,

    good tactics in the service of poor...

    (pp. 37-38)

    ‘Twas Zugzwang, and the Ludus Boor

    achoo’d and snuffled in its rag;

    the Staunton slumped upon the moor

    and the mad Morph cried, “Aghh!”

    “Beware the hired pawns behind

    the spiffy hitmen on the flank;

    beware the Nimzovitch, and mind

    the booming Zukertank.”

    He took his bristly bishop with,

    his nifty knight, his wrecker rook,

    he took his dread Caissa myth

    and doodled in his book.

    And as he riffed the pages through,

    with mucilaginous sangfroid

    the Nimzovitch, its eye askew,

    came shuffling on its paw.

    Attack! Defence! Blockade and Ruse!

    He played the Dragon for its breath,

    he sneezed,...

    (pp. 39-40)

    Bending over the board

    like a watchman playing solitaire

    he observes the white queen,

    polar and marmoreal, advance

    down the rigid grid

    of streets and squares,

    corroding the darkness

    with her crown of icy silver,

    flooding with white light

    the terraces of the sleepwalkers.

    He observes how

    she pares away all shadows,

    how these bits and patches

    of portable night

    are sheared by the white queen’s

    crenellated glare,

    and how she imprisons

    the insomniac in her tower -

    from where he stares

    like a hero in stone

    out at the ruled city,

    so alone it’s almost company.

    So now he...

    (pp. 41-41)

    Nothing’s working anymore.

    Each move disintegrates

    to its unruly molecules.

    Playing white, you discover

    your plan incorporates

    black’s bishop, or castles

    your king into dangerous

    exile and imminent mate.

    An untimely sneeze scatters

    thought and chessmen, or you cross

    with the bishop and upset

    two pieces, mixing their squares -

    and similar catastrophes.

    No way to take this game

    with grace or dignity

    or even at all, and yet these

    miseries may help you maim

    your poor opponent's sanity,

    reduce him to a hopeless,

    disconnected, nail-bitten

    mass of clumsiness and pique,

    playing paranoic chess,

    convulsed with apprehension

    at your mastery...

    (pp. 42-43)







    the Temporal Power

    (towers on the backs of elephants,

    burly trebuchets, rocket cannon)

    cuts its barbarous swath

    assisted by

    the dagger in

    the soul,

    the sheathed assassin

    the mind behind the brains

    manipulates and wields

    - her translations of desire

    cloaked in the feeblest of loyalties

    to the emptiest of symbols

    though dazzled

    as she sometimes is

    by the mounted

    swaggering illiterate

    whose unexpected leaps

    defy all precedence,

    trample all logic and intention,

    and flank, incredibly






    (pp. 44-44)

    He’ll play a swift, incisive match

    and snake-quick to observe a flaw

    in Haifa dozen moves dispatch

    his victim. He'd rather lose than draw.

    Has trouble playing by lamplight

    for shadows still obscure his mind

    but in the day his black or white

    will dazzle his opponents blind;

    yet makes mistakes, as one expects,

    with moves the chess mole might descry,

    but when the game will grow complex

    revenges his simplicity.

    He has no joy in turtle-chess,

    dislikes the endgame, will turn green

    with boredom, but see him press

    with vicious bishop and killer queen;

    for black or white, but...

    (pp. 45-45)

    A poor start is my prerequisite.

    True, there are occasions I survive

    a good beginning, or not knowing it

    play a game I don’t derive

    from other games, make moves I don’t repent,

    and win sometimes by plan, not accident;

    but on the whole a bad beginning,

    an early, inextricable mess,

    a quick disaster, seems to be the thing

    that promises promising chess.

    Cornered, minus a precocious queen,

    quixotic knight nowhere to be seen,

    or embarrassment of double-check

    before I’ve slid a single bishop out,

    the chess noose tightening round my neck,

    effeminate pawns in total rout

    and all come...

    (pp. 46-46)

    An advantage based on pawn position

    is a thing of relative permanence;

    such are the infinitesimal, million,

    petty contacts in parlors and kitchens,

    daily arguments but without offence,

    that consolidate the loved relation;

    but based on the structure of the pieces,

    since the pieces move from place to place,

    relatively vain and ostentatious,

    fickle, deceptive, gone without a trace -

    the obsession with intellect or face,

    the great encounters, the intensities....

    (pp. 47-48)

    How should she mind if Ferdinand had played

    her false, not that being a king’s son

    entailed privileges, or that

    being blessed by nature brought exemption

    from the quibble of injustice? Whatever

    Ferdinand might do was fair play

    by blond Miranda, though soon enough

    he’d exercise his deft obliquities,

    sift, dissect, dispose of obstacles,

    sacrifice his friends - as in every

    royal calculation, not for his

    advancement, but the general good.

    The right wife for a young ambitious prince

    who, likable as yet, plies his subtle

    affectation of the casual

    and an aptitude for small deceptions.

    And though for a...

    (pp. 49-50)

    Old Hiibner, judging me a dunce,

    kindly offered to play me once;

    made a few perfunctory moves

    with cool indifference, as behooves

    a master matched against a fool

    who can’t distinguish chess from pool.

    The game went on, I pushed my wood,

    then Hüibner coughed and said, “Quite good.”

    I checked his king, he said, “What next?”,

    and even looked a trifle vexed

    that I should trouble his repose

    obliging him to interpose

    a knight, a bishop or a rook,

    which I swept in and nimbly took

    so that he now began to think

    and forge a pawn chain link...

    (pp. 51-52)

    “Those are my best days when I shake with fear,”

    was your opening move.

    To which I counter-quoted

    the dark night of the soul

    or ignorant armies on a checkered field,

    taking comfort in your presence

    across the rosewood that aligned us.

    And so the game proceeded.

    “Light marbles into dark,

    you'd think it should be otherwise.”

    “Night reconciles me to day,

    black gives me an advantage.”

    “O Lucifer in starlight.”

    “O unalterable law of a sunny disposition.”

    “You are the better player.”

    “And you, the better poet.”

    “We are all amateurs,

    blundering our loves like unaccomplished royals.”

    “Yes, and...

    (pp. 53-53)

    The fiscal bishops tear their mitred hair,

    in tortured resignation come upon

    another botched account they cannot square.

    The kingdom’s in the hands of Shylock Pawn.

    The king has squandered all his revenues

    and brought his mandate into mere disgrace,

    suspecting there is always more to lose:

    his queen, the game, self-possession, hope, face.

    And so the king refuses to lament

    what his exchequer cannot solve or mend

    but spends again what is already spent.

    It is as if he doubted at the end

    prosperity could balance or redress

    the regal magnanimity of loss....

    (pp. 54-56)

    1. The rules by which we play

    are only the conditions

    of the game we happen to be playing.

    2. They are not laws or immutable decrees

    but necessary accidents,

    evolutionary afterthoughts,

    bones that tenon our parquetry.

    3. The king, for example,

    campaigning in the Orkneys

    of his extravagance,

    boasting of coastal sway and scope,

    is the only piece that can be checked.

    4.This was not given in Plato's handbook

    of the eternal Form of chess

    spelled out in topos ouranios

    but happened somewhere along the way,

    say, between India and Cambridge.

    5. We are apprentices of the ludicrous.


    (pp. 57-57)

    Praying for an edge

    only water may give

    and God's inviolable stone,

    I receive my instrument.

    Whetted and honed,

    the blade is in love with the wood.

    It scores these lines

    in the plane of the board

    with an ardor and skill

    I cannot match

    to guide my pilgrimage

    toward the arbor of perfections.

    Knowing it a sacrament,

    what else can I do

    but trim the words

    and whittle each thought

    and carve the emblems

    of this brittle world


    as the chess king’s tilted cross?...

    (pp. 58-62)

    Reluctant to surrender

    a single pawn, he moves with

    scrupulous exactitude,

    with calculated power

    in agile bishop or path-

    clearing knight, bestows the hood

    of the executioner

    on his implacable queen,

    giving you nothing for free.

    The makings of a master

    there, could he but determine

    to take chess seriously -

    serious in the progress

    of the game, but afterwards

    suspecting the distortion

    of the mind seduced by chess,

    keeps his sense of proportion

    and will not dream of chessboards.

    Reads the board like a blueprint;

    develops a certain theme;

    looks for patterns in the jell

    of integers; will invent...

    (pp. 63-63)

    Playing her, I wonder: can a

    harmless two year old named Hannah

    spring a trap to ambush my advantage.

    She remembers all the pieces

    quite as if by anamnesis

    but moves them like a Tartar on the rampage.

    She’ll cram two pieces on one square

    for company; to my despair

    with her sharp elbow she’ll unhorse my knight;

    and if I patiently explain

    it can’t be done, she'll end the reign

    of my poor royal couple with one bite!

    Here’s her chubby rook who’ll dish up

    splinter-fare; her skinny bishop

    sneaks out darkly on a secret mission;

    there’s her knight...

    (pp. 64-65)

    So, returned from the wars,

    few trophies, many scars;

    have made obeisance

    to my phlegmatic prince

    and shuffled from the hall

    blessed by the cardinal.

    (The queen was rather brief,

    gave me her handkerchief.)

    The great lords risked little,

    kept their tents in battle,

    kept their heads to the last

    and filled the treasure chest.

    Nor have I love to spare

    for all these cavaliers:

    some went for adventure,

    and others, I am sure,

    because they loved to kill,

    some to display their skill

    at graceful caracole

    or dye a lady’s shawl

    in rich Saracen blood.

    The common soldiers shed...

    (pp. 66-66)

    The moon queen spreads her shadow across the board and leers triumphantly, little dracules of plutonium circulating in her blood. I shift uneasily and hope this is just another hereditary episode as I watch her pi and bolix the pieces which miraculously sprout glass prunts and rose bracts. They are inlaid with shagreen and amboyna wood and flaunt a spurious elegance as if in compensation for some pedestrian infirmity which I obscurely share. I know I am in serious trouble but can find no way to devil up my game which remains in the last throes of immedicable woe. I...

  40. THE PIN
    (pp. 67-75)

    He was perfectly appeased;

    from the start, elected.

    She called him her dark prince;

    but the paradox was always there,

    the intrinsic contradiction

    of a conqueror who couldn’t ride.

    She was fond of horses,

    their glorious flanks, the small

    earthquakes of their galloping;

    it was uninstructed power

    she loved, and ignorant beauty;

    she loved the knight for his horse.

    The Greek actor who played

    a raving Agamemnon

    she could never forget; he strode

    upon the stage in buskins,

    oncus and mask, but she was stricken

    by the muscles of his calves.

    Sex came hard for her; she grappled

    with the...

    (pp. 76-78)

    One leans into the mirror and speaks:

    “I wish to remain my elemental self,

    whether mezzanine villain playing

    nasty canasta, or hunkering

    on the board in the slumber of the innocent -

    neither either nor neither

    but only this material presence

    carved from hardwood, cambered

    and inwedged, dreaming in Sumerian

    the tiny grandeur of my unlikelihood.”

    Yet every piece, stripped of particular shape,

    dies an identical neural death,

    disappearing so thoroughly

    not even the pressure on the hand remains

    as wood’s lightest reminiscence.

    Gone the rook lacquered and squat,

    the bishop’s slim nacelle,

    the king’s tall elegance and queen’s trim...

    (pp. 79-79)