The Powers of the Pawn

The pawns are the soul of chess”—PHILIDOR

The king can move a single square
without restrictions made
but once he topples from his place,
no ransom to be paid.

The queen, as you might well expect’s
a complicated 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
and overwhelm the horse.

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 psychopathic queen
into oblivion,

and stop before great Caesar’s throne,
a tiny regicide,
and watch a cornered monarch fall
and ponder how he died.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Powers of the Pawn”?

Reflection upon Tolstoy’s theory of history in War and Peace.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Powers of the Pawn”?

A simple A/B quatrain structure, to give the sense of a kind of rolling inevitability.

This poem “The Powers of the Pawn” originally appeared in Intellectual History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 83 (Winter 1979): 30-31.

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