Hunched in his mother’s second floor rental, we’d shun his chattering siblings for chess. Fingers, eyelids, bishops, silence. The persistence of a pawn. Sliding and switching and leaping. His quick laugh if I forked his men. His mother’s pork roast wafting between us. I’d trace the knight’s nostrils with my fingernails. Slip my tongue into the slits and swells of the queen’s crown. He’d sit unflinching, till his large hand would inhabit the board for a fast move then withdraw.

When he left for adventure he grew smaller. His legs and arms and head fading into fractal patterns that shrank. An object can change under examination, he said, the only time he wrote. I curled into the incidence of his chair, rolled the chess pieces against my cheekbone, squeezed a knight tight in my palm till it hurt. The figures lost meaning, their features disappearing. I expanded into the space he left in his family. Tripled myself to be daughter and sister and friend.

His face loomed on the front pages. Lines running like rivers across his forehead. His eyes tight and tired. I travelled to see him. We met across his desk in a factory. I had not known he was a celebrity, treated like some tall god. The bright lights burned my eyes. We retreated to dinner where we returned to a manageable size. Spoke of chess and cancer and made dumb jokes about our families.

The years grow shorter. The sun seems brighter. His presence grows and shrinks in the media. My game gets better. I learn how to sacrifice pieces without them knowing I have betrayed them.

8 Comments

  1. Todd Clay Stuart

    Lisa, this is terrific! I love all the chess references, including the title. I also love the perpetual expanding and contracting woven throughout the piece. And that last line is a killer. Touch it up and send it out!

    • Lisa Alletson

      Thanks Todd. It was inspired by the article Alina shared on miniaturization and magnification. Great exercise. I won’t submit this one because it’s non-fiction about a public figure, but I’m going to integrate the lessons into a few other pieces.

  2. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Lisa, What a wonderful take on chess and scale. I love the way he grows smaller when he leaves, returns to size for dinner when the narrator visits. Every sentence in this piece plays a role. I love that. You had me intrigued immediately with the opening line, the verb ‘Hunched” following on the chess, and the concentration that shut out the siblings. And yum! This: “I’d trace the knight’s nostrils with my fingernails. Slip my tongue into the slits and swells of the queen’s crown.” Love the incorporation of the miniaturization prompt. And this conceptualization/ metaphor, “The figures lost meaning, their features disappearing. I expanded into the space he left in his family.” You nailed the ending– “I learn how to sacrifice pieces without them knowing I have betrayed them” ––leads us into all the questions of betrayal and sacrifice, a metaphor for the entire piece, perhaps for us to think about.

    And Lisa, re: comment to Todd on submitting–– he may be a public figure, but could anyone but you know who he is? If not, then this seems submittable. Call it fiction. Consider?

    • Alina Stefanescu

      Lisa, I agree strongly with Martha’s comment on submitting this. I really think you could submit as fiction. I don’t recognize the figure and the piece is excellent.

      • Lisa Alletson

        Thank you, Alina. It’s good to know you don’t recognize him by my description. This is a private group so I can tell you it’s Elon. Lots of controversy these days and I like staying drama-free. I will work on ways to make him even less identifiable, perhaps changing the location of factory, or his gender. We grew up in the same two countries.

    • Lisa Alletson

      Martha, thank you! I had fun with this, using the miniaturization/magnification concept.

      As to submitting, he’s such a household name, and people will figure it out just from seeing the countries where we both grew up. He has some wild stalkers. The story is neutral though. I can always just run it by his family, which whom I’m still close. Funnily enough, the last line about betrayal becomes most true only if the poem is published, because I’d feel like I was using our friendship/ his notoriety to gain attention for my writing. So, it’s complicated. I could make him a her. Or not an executive.

      Thanks for getting me to think more about this.

  3. Alina Stefanescu

    Lisa, the French titling is wonderful. It caught my eye right away.

    And this beginning, this section right here, the extraordinary pacing and beat: “Hunched in his mother’s second floor rental, we’d shun his chattering siblings for chess. Fingers, eyelids, bishops, silence. The persistence of a pawn.”

    I savored that final line a few times. I savored it so resolutely that I wondered if it didn’t deserve to be the final sentence in a paragraph? To end with that and then begin:

    “Sliding and switching and leaping. His quick laugh if I forked his men. His mother’s pork roast wafting between us.” Gorgeous beat and images again. The “forked” and “pork” rhyme…. stunning.

    “I’d trace the knight’s nostrils with my fingernails. Slip my tongue into the slits and swells of the queen’s crown. He’d sit unflinching, till his large hand would inhabit the board for a fast move then withdraw.”

    Love how involved in the game and the various movements of bodies the reader becomes by this point. I did think for a second–if you wanted to play–you could possibly play with “he’d sit unflinching” (the -ing always slows a sentence down, and a single -ing takes up a lot of sonic attention) and make it “He’d sit flinchless”, bringing in an off-word, a not-quite-wordiness that emphasizes sibilance and connects to the “slits and swells”?

    “When he left for adventure he grew smaller. His legs and arms and head fading into fractal patterns that shrank. An object can change under examination, he said, the only time he wrote.” Gorgeous.

    Again the lines are so strong and the images so demanding that I’d break a paragraph and start a new one, right before: “I curled into the incidence of his chair, rolled the chess pieces against my cheekbone, squeezed a knight tight in my palm till it hurt. The figures lost meaning, their features disappearing. I expanded into the space he left in his family. Tripled myself to be daughter and sister and friend.”

    The numbers and numbers reflect back so well on the game and chess crosstalk!

    “His face loomed on the front pages. Lines running like rivers across his forehead. His eyes tight and tired.” Gorgeous alliteration!! O I would start a new paragraph here–something in these words and complicated images deserves a big field I think, a large use of white space. 🙂

    “I travelled to see him. We met across his desk in a factory. I had not known he was a celebrity, treated like some tall god. The bright lights burned my eyes.” Lovely, again.

    “The years grow shorter. The sun seems brighter. His presence grows and shrinks in the media. My game gets better. I learn how to sacrifice pieces without them knowing I have betrayed them.” And perfect ending. Nailed to the wall, this ending. Thank you for sharing your incredible work!

    • Lisa Alletson

      Alina, I love your idea of ending the first para with “The persistence of a pawn.” (which also describes the subject – so should be given weight) and then a new para. Your comments are insightful and helpful. I’ll play with this a little longer, work with the white space and paragraph breaks, maybe throw in a red herring to avoid anyone figuring him out, and consider submitting as fiction.

      Thank you!

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