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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




    for Roger, on his 80th birthday

When I was eight I sat before the hearth
as embers burned towards dark and recited
names of pieces as he held them to the light
(their names slid across my tongue with ease).

He nodded at my answers, then placed each piece
in its square. I memorized their rank and file by sight
though some curious movements took me longer still—
the knight's restricted-L, the bishop's crooked slide,

the pawn's slow forward inching, the rook's steady glide
across the plane. And when we parried on that quadrille
board, I picked off pawns with youthful sureness
though losing queen and bishops in quick successive tries.

I met his moves with bored looks and gusty sighs.
How many turns ahead he thought I couldn't guess—
but he took his time and not one move was exempt
from full study, and though I was a neophyte

he played me hard. I strategized with knights
and rooks my only tools; despite my attempts
my own thinking did me in as turn by turn
he broke my ranks and the game came to an end.

Though he explained what I did wrong, I can't pretend
to remember all of what he said; I know I needed to discern
how pawns should be the first defense and queens
threaten force. I never learned to take that advice.

Yet when a slowly closing vice ensnares my lonely king,
I do know it's best to take the check, to learn to sacrifice.


© by Matthew W. Schmeer


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