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.