Poem of the week: The Chess Player by Howard Altmann – The Guardian

Posted: May 5, 2020 at 5:46 pm


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Theyve left. Theyve all left a man wearing protective face mask rests at an empty chess table at Tasmajdan park in Belgrade, Serbia, last week. Photograph: Andrej Cukic/EPA

The Chess Player

Theyve left. Theyve all left. The pigeon feeders have left. The old men on the benches have left. The white-gloved ladies with the Great Danes have left. The lovers who thought about coming have left. The man in the three-piece suit has left. The man who was a three-piece band has left. The man on the milkcrate with the bible has left. Even the birds have left. Now the trees are thinking about leaving too. And the grass is trying to turn itself in. Of course the buses no longer pass. And the children no longer ask. The air wants to go and is in discussions. The clouds are trying to steer clear. The sky is reaching for its hands. Even the moon sees whats going on. But the stars remain in the dark. As does the chess player. Who sits with all his pieces In position.

Howard Altmann published his Selected Poems, Enquanto uma Fina Neve Cai / As a Light Snow Keeps Falling, last year, a bilingual, Portuguese/English edition with translations by the Portuguese poet Eugnia de Vasconcellos. The Chess Player appears in it, and was first published in 2005, in Who Collects the Days, Altmanns debut collection.

Obviously, it predates the Covid-19 pandemic by a number of years. At the same time, the poem may illuminate, and be illuminated by, current events. It also tunes in to an ancient and universal human experience: the daily fading of light into dusk, when the mood may slip into melancholy and uncertainty. The hushed emptiness that descends on the park in the poem is almost naturalistic at first, but the widespread movement of desertion soon gathers foreboding through repetition. Its as if all ages and all species had silently agreed to emigrate.

The Chess Players was a film written and directed by Satyajit Ray in 1977, based on Munshi Premchands short story of the same name. Two chess-mad noblemen, Mir and Mirza, are so obsessed with their game that they refuse to notice the turmoil of the British incursions seething around them, not to mention the disintegration of their marriages. Despite these catastrophes, Rays touch in the film is light, as is Altmanns in the poem. The images his statements evoke are sometimes surreal, and sometimes presented in a whimsical manner. They may be backlit by a pun (The lovers who thought about coming have left) or trip us on a gently comic letdown (The man in the three-piece suit has left. / The man who was a three-piece band has left.) The line, The sky is reaching for its hands, is particularly effective. Perhaps hands suggests a clock, and the desire of the sky to seize hold of time and make it move faster. Or the hands may be potentially the monstrous hands of a killer. Nothing terrible actually happens in the poems foreground, but the threat level rises as the moon becomes unusually sharp-eyed, the stars unusually ignorant and dim.

The rhythm slows right down at the end of the poem, with full stops insisting on a painfully weighty pause for thought at the ends of lines: But the stars remain in the dark. / As does the chess-player. / Who sits with all his pieces / In position.

Only now do we learn that no game is in progress: in fact, the player has no visible opponent. The solitary figure sits at the untouched board in the dark. It raises the question as to whether the poems hidden subject is war. From a war gamers site, I learned that the name chess is derived from the Sanskrit chaturanga which can be translated as four arms, referring to the four divisions of the Indian army elephants, cavalry, chariots and infantry. In this regard, chess is very much a war game that simulates what we would now call the combined arms operations of the ancient world.

Perhaps we should abandon the image of an al-fresco chessboard altogether? The single player may be planning moves of a more desperate kind, moves that might include the assassination of some leader, or the pushing of the nuclear button. He may have gone crazy and got trapped in a ferment of fantastic plans too complex and entangled ever to be accomplished. The pieces, whatever they represent, are in position but, perhaps fortunately, will never move forward.

So reading the poem now, we might also be reminded of a stalemate of statistics, strategies and models. Earlier on, weve been cheerfully told, Of course the buses no longer pass. / And the children no longer ask. The lightness of tone and rhetorical patterning, and the faint stumble in the end-rhyme (pass and ask), seem to show the effects of an effortless severance of intellectual curiosity and lively physical action. Perhaps all the players in the park are obedient pieces being moved around a board or taken and scattered in some master game? Perhaps even the chess player is a pawn.

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Poem of the week: The Chess Player by Howard Altmann - The Guardian

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May 5th, 2020 at 5:46 pm

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