He is a poor pawn.
He always jumps to the next square.
He doesn’t turn left or right
and doesn’t look back.
He is moved by a foolish queen
who cuts across the board
lengthwise and diagonally.
She doesn’t tire of carrying the medals
and cursing the bishops.
She is a poor queen
moved by a reckless king
who counts the squares every day
and claims that they are diminishing.
He arranges the knights and rooks
and dreams of a stubborn opponent.
He is a poor king
moved by an experienced player
who rubs his head
and loses his time in an endless game.
He is a poor player
moved by an empty life
without black or white.
It is a poor life
moved by a bewildered god
who once tried to play with clay.
He is a poor god.
He doesn’t know how
from his dilemma.
[translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Winslow]
Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail’s recent collection The War Works Hard (New Directions, 2005) is a fascinating book, bursting with strong, direct poems about living in a war zone. Today’s poem is one of my personal favorites from that book, vaguely reminiscent of Amichai’s The Diameter of the Bomb, but with the additional idea of a heirarchical chess game, of the way we are all pawns in someone else’s hands, and that final ‘the-buck-stops-here’ ending. A poem at once poignant and playful, that captures the feeling of helplessness one feels when faced by history.