I began playing chess like checkers

until a shadow came over the board

and taught me rules. For a pawn


frontline meant early grave.

I wore my heaviest coat to fifth grade,

the year of the butterfly knife.


Some kid threatened to show me

how it flutters. In the boy's restroom

scuffles were common, moving


like a rook against the wall

was the best way out. Sliding


the queen across the board to check,

knowing the knifer's next move,

made it almost safe to feel good.


It was the golden rule made me want

to get growing up over with.

I stepped into the dark spaces,


I got to school. Forgetting Spanish

meant small-talk, back-talk, silent looks–

the only things my mother & I got across


to each other. For bishops, opposed colors

in the endgame favored the weak side.

For knights, power came center of the board.


The game began on the first mistake,

like joy walking down the wrong street.


I was taught to rope-a-dope bad news,

to sneak back in line, to call a bluff

in my fastest shoes.


I learned to go with God but bring bus fare,

that the high stakes will clear,

that a pawn’s first step is sometimes two.