I enjoy the interplay between the universal and the particular in this piece. Its rhythms move around between anecdote and fable. The part of me that has spent too long analysing movies detects a classical three act structure, with set-up, confrontation, and resolution. But there is also a double structure exemplified by the lovely temporal hinges of New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day; almost like a pair of wings that describe the emotional trajectory’s dip and lift. And other pairings, too: the Brother’s auto-defenestration and aerial reappearance, the parallel training runs undertaken by each sibling, the right eye and left hand.

Capitalized nouns suggest a series of unfolding tropes. The game writ large is the Game, the Queen a prize; probably we all have known a Chess King, metaphorically speaking. But others are mysterious and taslismanic — the Circle, the lucky Hat. Even the quotidian has a hint of the symbolic: Señor Wight, whose name has echoes of White (in chess, the first mover); the newspaper which comes “Aeroporikós”, by air, as do the Angels, Flying Nuns and their hair, the figure of the mother, the figure of the Queen in the hand of the Big Brother. On the other hand, the concrete details of a life inevitably conjure my own personal memories as a point of connection … rosewood pieces, children plotting beside a board while our indulgent adult opponent reads.

‘The Chess King and His Queen’ is evocative of what the game itself is like: a mercurial frisson between the certainty of rules and set moves, and the unknown of how the mind of one’s fellow player will transmute these rules into action, perhaps into somebody’s astonishment, consternation, or capture. Which I suppose is writ large in families, and is, as the poem reminds us, a source of complexity and difficulty, but also of discovery and multiplicity. This poem moves its pieces around, but does not insist on cornering meaning. It has its author’s characteristic wit and playfulness — I love phrases like “more than I have forgotten to remember”, and the surreal whimsy of elements such as the nuns harmonizing on swings, or the mother who “was into more than hats”.

But at its heart, I think, is a meditation on fraternal love, strangeness, and loss; I keep thinking about the ‘hawk on fire’ in the Brother’s eyes, in which the motif of flight is linked with that of the strike, that which snatches away, loss, mortality, as part of a natural order.1 Conceptually, for a King to fall has a double meaning— to strike, but also to be deposed. The end game. A brother’s abrupt disappearance. There is the pleasure of redemption, though, in the Chess King’s unexpected and somewhat marvellous resurrection holding his Queen; a lightness, perhaps an acceptance, with an accompanying sense of wonder.


1. The hawk on fire in Dylan Thomas’ ‘Over Sir John’s Hill’: dynamic, reaping, calling birds to “come and be killed” (1949).