||The Power Of The Pawn
by Carmine Starnino
David Solway, one of our few practicing Parnassians, has written a book of poems about chess. It would be hard to find a less populist subject for poetry; a game rooted in the combative grit of moments like “White plays Queen to Rook” doesn’t sound like an especially accessible resource for song. And like chess, Solway’s own poetry can be said to suffer a similar reputation for cerebral severity—a reputation that, for many, has chilled their affection for his work. Solway has always sided with the more traditional (some would say the only) pieties of poetic practice, and, as such, has set himself against the confessional, common-reader direction of contemporary Canadian poetry; such a treasonous act has left him open to charges of being anachronistic, ornamental, high-brow, undaring, and impersonal.
Granted, the road Solway has chosen isn’t without its dangers (one only wishes reviewers were half as concerned about the schmaltz that catches up to poets like Lorna Crozier and Robert Hilles); but when the grousing is taken too far—as it invariably is—the complaints only confirm my suspicion that Solway’s critics aren’t reading his poems as much as reading their reactions to the poems they think he’s writing. It’s important not to ignore the pernicious role that inherited prejudices can play in rebuffing one’s sympathies for formal poetry. And it’s particularly saddening when the formal poetry being rebuffed is as wise, as tirelessly effortless, as lyrically exquisite, and as moving as Solway’s.
Considering the extent to which his artistry is predicated on focused and purposeful acts, it’s easy to think that what Solway admires about chess is its rigid structure. After all, this is what the American poet J.V. Cunningham himself cherished about the game, using it in Tradition and Poetic Structure to help illustrate the importance of making every move in a poem count: “If [the player] chooses to be whimsical,” warned Cunningham, “there are consequences to be dealt with. If he moves his pieces merely to accomplish a pretty design, an apparent pattern, he moves to disaster.” In other words, in poetry, as in chess, no move is free and all gambits must be ransomed by their necessity.
I can only assume that Solway would concur given that he has spent his twenty-five year career refining his extraordinary poems in the alembic of those principles. Yet it seems to me that Solway’s intentions have more to do with the gambled pounce on a reader than with any joyless chaperoning of language. Indeed, unlike the fickle strictures of chess strategy that allow little room for whim—capricious decisions lead to blunders which lead to mis-sacrificed pieces which, invariably, lead to lost matches—Solway’s tactics in Chess Pieces are never above “giving chance a chance, to try/at the cost of victory/the pleasures of surprise.” If we turn to “The Powers of the Pawn” (the poem I randomly “tested” when I got my hands on this book), we can see an example what I mean:
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,
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
and overwhelm the horse.
These are the first five stanzas, and I must admit that when I read them—the well-packaged quatrains with their eight and six syllable alternating lines, the gentlemanly tempo that skips with a smart a/b/c/b rhyme—my heart sank. The primer-like lilt of the voice felt a touch frivolous, a tad recherché. Solway’s fey characterizations have the low-volume effect of light verse, leaving me to briefly wonder if an overpermissive devotion to the game had somehow domesticated his usual fervency and bite. Enacting the peculiarity of every chess piece’s role and ability may be good fun—and Solway certainly brings his usual refinement to the execution—but it’s an easy victory. Poets always have to be on their mettle not to be outflanked by their own aestheticizing tendencies, and likewise the risk in Solway’s attempt to make chess speak poetry is that the venture might lose its way and become merely an excuse for some poetry.
A bigger campaign and a murkier outcome would consist of tapping into the game’s unique emblematic vocabulary in order to articulate something more. In other words, poetry needs to have a double valence, and to succeed Chess Pieces has to extend the game’s ken, to refit its suggestiveness into a tool that can strike through to the sorts of insights which—to alter a phrase by Seamus Heaney—are deeper than the game’s declared meaning. Which is exactly what Solway does in the rest of “The Powers of the Pawn”, where he ups the ante with a complicating jolt of sinisterism:
But never underestimate
the powers of the pawn
who can promote into a queen
and put a kingdom on,
or move 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
and stop before great Caesar’s throne,
a tiny regicide,
and watch a cornered monarch fall,
and ponder how he died.
As Solway begins to chronicle the anarchic and destabilizing swath a pawn is able to cut across a chessboard, the amiable voice that inaugurated the poem is provoked into a new attitude. Indeed, when we finally reach the moment of “oblivion” where the pawn “stop[s] before great Caesar’s throne”, we have, as readers, arrived at an apprehension whose imaginative terrain has been staked out entirely by poetry, not by chess. The amiability was rigged: a false-naive tone that was introduced only to be eventually vexed by an undersong of dread and menace. That effect finds its apotheosis in the “tiny regicide” of the king’s death—a description Solway hangs on its own line, aware that the grim freight of its implications, the human bleakness of it, would jar us.
In fact, Solway’s skill in darkening the whole poem with the brushstroke of that one phrase recommends that his caveat to “never underestimate” also be understood as personal message: the poet firing off a warning about his own cunning. I don’t mean to highlight any swaggering tendencies in Solway (although I do find a similar cheeky self-assuredness in many of Shakespeare’s best sonnets); my point is simply that, in Chess Pieces, Solway seems to write with the “powers of the pawn”, his shrewdness predicated on our underestimating him. (I feel obliged to mention, however, that on the facing page, in a poem called “A Counter-truth”, Solway declares the pawn “an insignificant,/strut-of-the-drum/dead dwarf, not worth the wood/they cut him from.”)
“The Powers of the Pawn” works because the interpretive colour that Solway brings to his subject effloresces into a moment of free and resourceful expressiveness. The idea of the pawn perpetrating “a tiny regicide” has a discrete excessiveness about it, one that just touches melodrama; yet the operatic resonance of that note quickens a thrill in us that is part of the authenticating sensation of reading poetry. Solway is one of the few Canadian poets I know (Eric Ormsby, Don Coles, Ricardo Sternberg, and Michael Harris are among his closest competitors) who force us to come to terms with the quiddity of poetry: that mysterious ingredient, at once opulent and ineffable, that binds sound, rhythm, and vocabulary into a happy convergence.
Take the following line from “Ferdinand and Miranda Discovered Playing Chess”: “sift, dissect, dispose of obstacles.” Notice how, as the thought completes itself, the syllables grow from one to two to six with all the syllables beaded together on a single sibilant thread running through the utterance. A modest example, but even this five word specimen shines with a cadence and sculptural imagination that many poets don’t exhibit in their entire careers. And when that kind of musicality is combined with a discursive panache, something like “My Own Chess” can happen.
In this poem, Solway stages a remarkable feat of ear-catching rhetorical magic—witty, articulate, dashing, and altogether blessed with what Wordsworth called “the grand elementary principle of pleasure”—and serves it up as a winning meditation on his chess skills:
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 down to immediate grief—
with eagerness or something like relief
I recognize the place, feel at home,
search for some resource, move king or pawn;
a catatonic rook begins to roam
about the board, or bishops dawn
upon familiar darkness, accustomed strife.
My once-benighted game comes back to life.
Of course, Solway is not just talking chess; the poem, with its unmistakable insinuations about Solway’s poetic practice, displays that double valence I spoke of earlier, allowing Solway to render an account of himself from an entirely new metaphorical vantage. Yet, as delightfully executed as “My Own Chess” is (and I’d have to add “The Chess Clock”, “Writers on Chess: A Conversation”, “Tristan”, and “Portraits” to the list of must-reads), the most interesting experiments with regards to Solway’s adoption of chess as a symbolic code are those poems where he uses the game to help surrogate certain autobiographical elements into verse.
For readers who prefer the immediacy of raw, worn-on-the-sleeve truthfulness, chess may seem too artificial a medium to be able to carry any burden of feeling. Impersonal and remote, it risks providing a very disagreeable fit for a poet’s emotions. Yet Solway recognizes a special epiphanic potential in chess (one which would have heartened Eliot). As Solway himself explained it in an interview, chess is “a highly monogrammed, highly personalized game, where...tangled emotions, obscure and dark and impenetrable, could manifest themselves by doing something which appeared completely objective and alien.”
We find a demonstration of that idea in “Handling the Chess Pieces”. The poem shares the same disarming lecture-hall voice as “The Powers of the Pawn” except that, rather than lecturing on individual pieces, Solway provides a disquisition on the psychological parity between players and their strategies. And like “The Powers of the Pawn”, the poem stays one step ahead of us until its ending:
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: these kill from cowardice;
those who seem apologetic, taking pawns
reluctantly, kill for noble reasons;
and he who clears the board with one great sweep
of his hand will kill from lack of hope,
defeated by the prospect of defeat,
as did my father only death could mate.
The writing is so clear-eyed, so undeceived, so determined, and so bravely impassive as it marches towards that heartbreaking last line that I can’t help but recall Montaigne’s declaration that the best speech is “not pedantic, not monkish, not lawyer-like, but rather soldierly.” When compared to the frolicsome volubility of “My Own Chess”, there is something almost primitive about the tonal starkness of Solway’s voice in this poem. But the percussiveness of each line matches the single-mindedness of the song. There is no diversionary cleverness to alibi Solway away from delivering that final statement, and the unnerving tell-it-like-it-is candor of the remark further exploits the reader’s unpreparedness in encountering it. (If you reread the poem, however, you’ll notice that Solway in fact does hint at a coming surprise: four lines from the end, the all-purpose “your” and “some” switch to an ominously specific “he”.)
What also needs to be admired is how the poem is at once an indictment and an act of forgiveness. We experience the combined effect of Solway’s unflinching insight into his father’s weakness and the compensatory compassion that this insight generates. This happens (as it also happens in “My Mother’s Chess”, another poem where stinging resentment coalesces with self-consoling calm) because the use of chess as a correlative permits Solway enough of a protective distance to facilitate a bold stare at the truth, and the achieved clarity allows him to momentarily foreclose on his anger.
Who knew one could poach chess for such powerful effects? Who could have ever guessed that chess could help spark the invigilatory explosiveness of an “obscure, dark and impenetrable” emotion being fully and finally recognized? Indeed, what makes Solway’s collection so important is that, to purloin Mary Kinzie’s words on Marianne Moore’s poetry, it “lowers the threshold for inclusion as poetic matter” by “usher[ing] in more than had been allowed to count before.” In other words, Solway’s chess poems test the current orthodoxies governing poetic inspiration by bringing to life a never-acknowledged possibility.
In his essay, “The Author as Producer”, Walter Benjamin argues that a revitalized means of production—“an improved apparatus”—is the only salubrious gift a writer can offer other writers. The notion of Solway returning poetry to us as “an improved apparatus” is the one I’d like to use to celebrate his achievement in Chess Pieces.
Frost once said that if there were twenty-five poems in a book, the book itself ought to be the twenty-sixth; to rewrite that, I’ll say that in Solway’s new book, where nearly every poem catches you off-guard with its originality, the collection itself proves to be the last ambush. Chess Pieces has not only stretched the received precincts of chess—endowing the game’s idiom with an expressive potency it was never expected to have—but has also endowed poetry with an ampler metaphoric territory to roam. What more can we ask of our poets?
Carmine Starnino has published a book of poems, The New World. A book of essays and reviews, A Lover’s Quarrel, forthcoming from Porcupine’s Quill.