Poem of the Week: The Chess Player by Howard Altmann | Poetry


The chess player

They left. They are all gone.
The pigeon feeders are gone.
The old men on the benches are gone.
The ladies in the white gloves with the Great Danes are gone.
The lovers who thought they were coming are gone.
The man in the three-piece suit is gone.
The man who was a trio is gone.
The man on the milk crate with the bible is gone.
Even the birds are gone.
Now the trees are also thinking of leaving.
And the grass tries to turn around.
Of course the buses no longer pass.
And the children do not ask any more.
The air wants to leave and is in discussions.
The clouds are trying to clear.
Heaven holds out its hands to him.
Even the moon sees what’s going on.
But the stars remain in the dark.
Just like the chess player.
Who sits with all his pieces
In position.

Howard Altmann published his chosen poems, Enquanto uma Fin Neve Cai / Like a Light Snow Keep Fall, last year, a bilingual Portuguese / English edition with translations by the Portuguese poet Eugénia de Vasconcellos. The chess player appears there and was first published in 2005, in Who Collects the Days, Altmann’s first collection.

Obviously, it predates the Covid-19 pandemic by several years. At the same time, the poem can illuminate and be illuminated by current events. It also fits in with an ancient and universal human experience: the daily disappearance of light in the twilight, when the mood can tip into melancholy and uncertainty. The hushed void that descends on the park in the poem is almost naturalistic at first, but the generalized movement of desertion soon brings together the foreboding through repetition. It is as if all ages and all species have silently agreed to migrate.

The Chess Players is a 1977 film written and directed by Satyajit Ray, based on the short story of the same name by Munshi Premchand. Two noble chess buffs, Mir and Mirza, are so obsessed with their game that they refuse to notice the turmoil of the British forays bubbling around them, let alone the disintegration of their marriages. Despite these catastrophes, Ray’s touch in the film is light, as is Altmann’s in the poem. The images evoked by his words are sometimes surreal, sometimes presented in a whimsical way. They can be backlit with a play on words (“The lovers who thought they were coming are gone”) or have us tripped over a softly comedic disappointment (“The man in the three-piece suit is gone. / The man who was a group of three pieces is gone. ”) The phrase“ Heaven extends its hands to him ”is particularly effective. Perhaps “hands” suggests a clock and heaven’s desire to grab time and make it move faster. Or the hands can potentially be a killer’s monstrous hands. Nothing terrible actually happens in the foreground of the poem, but the threat level increases as the moon becomes unusually piercing, the stars unusually ignorant and dark.

The pace slows down until the end of the poem, with dots emphasizing a painfully heavy pause for thought at the end of the lines: “But the stars stay in the dark.” / Just like the chess player. / Who is seated with all his parts / In position.

It is only now that we learn that no game is in progress: in fact, the player has no visible opponent. The solitary figure sits on the untouched stage in the dark. This raises the question of whether the hidden subject of the poem is war. On a war gamers site, I learned that “the name ‘chess’ is derived from Sanskrit chaturanga which can be translated as “four arms”, in reference to the four divisions of the Indian army – elephants, cavalry, tanks and infantry. In this regard, chess is truly a war game that simulates what we would now call the combined arms operations of the ancient world.

Perhaps we should completely abandon the image of an outdoor chessboard? The “player” alone can plan moves of a more desperate type, moves that may include the assassination of a leader or pressing the “nuclear button”. He may have gone mad and found himself trapped in a ferment of fantastic plans too complex and tangled to ever be accomplished. The pieces, whatever they represent, are “in position” but, fortunately perhaps, will never advance.

So, as we read the poem now, we might also remember a dead end in statistics, strategies, and models. Earlier, we were told happily: “Of course, the buses don’t run anymore. / And the children do not ask any more. The lightness of tone and rhetorical patterns, as well as the slight stumbling of the ending rhyme (“pass” and “ask”), seem to show the effects of an effortless separation of intellectual curiosity and vivid physical action. . Maybe all the “players” in the park are obedient pieces moved on a board or taken and scattered in a master game? Maybe even the chess player is a pawn.


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