The Hedgehogs and the FoxesPrint
By David Lehman
March 27, 2018
Last week I proposed that we write poems triggered by the name of a chess opening—such as “Sicilian Defense,” “Queen’s Gambit Declined,” “Hedgehog System,” “Grand Prix Attack,” “Napoleon Opening,” “Vienna Game.” Chess and poetry are less alike than different, but these terms tap right into a poet’s fund of invention. I filed the entries into two categories, the hedgehogs and the foxes, in line with the distinction Sir Isaiah Berlin made between the two in his book on Tolstoy.
Among the hedgehogs is Clay Sparkman’s “Knowledge is the Sword”:
If you are traveling the footpath to the borough
of Leek, in the 13th century, in the county of
Staffordshire, on the River Churnet,
16 km north east of Stoke-on-Trent, and
if it is dusk and if you happen to be hungry,
ask at the village inn if you might purchase
three fine hedgehogs. After carefully
examining the hedgehogs, scratch
your chin in a knowing manner, and ask
for a poking stick. Then, one by one, poke
each of the alleged hedgehogs. If they fail
to curl into spiky little balls, then they are either sick,
dead, or hedgehog imposters, having failed
the hedgehog-system test, and you mustn’t
buy. Being branded a fool, as a stranger in
a strange land, know that your life is in play.
Patricia Wallace sees the metaphorical and even allegorical attractions of the same animal. Here is “Hedgehog”:
The hedgehog’s system is shrewd: size down
to a teacup, resemble a pin cushion, and become
an Instagram star (“Hottest Hedgehogs”), deferring
the fate already befallen cygnet, kingfisher, heron,
otter, newt, lark, erased from the Oxford Junior Dictionary
as no longer relevant to modern childhood. Replaced
by the virtual: blog, broadband, bullet point, chatroom.
His place in the enchanted glossary of the Brothers Grimm
wouldn’t be enough to save him (cf. the fate of bluebell,
pasture, beech). Systematically the hedgehog curls in a ball,
prickly spines his protection. But over the sleeping body
the dark X of the dictionary hovers, deleting heather, willow,
dandelion, fern, threatening to turn the hedgehog
to urchin, wandering a world unwilded and unworded.
Mack Eulet’s “J’Adoube” is a third very clever variant on the hedgehog system. Mack’s title means “I adjust,” with a specific chess application: it is what is said by a player who wants to adjust the placing of a chessman without making a move with it. I note the echo of a phrase I like using in my signature line, “midnight in [any] time zone”:
Here in the hedgehog system, it’s midnight
now in every time zone. Our strategy:
more us, less space—a convex, touchy-feely
aggression like the big bang. Alternating
currents with no switch, the board’s white-black
voltage zaps our zugzwang with rigor mortis.
Once a pawn a time—it never matters.
The queen seems free until a hand swoops to pluck her.
Rosemary Douglas Lombard’s “Fortification: The Hedgehog System” envisions the animals in question as pawns on a chessboard:
You can see it in the back of your mind:
a line of hedgehogs on the graph-like board,
their pointy heads tucked in ranks of spines
protecting the row of men you can’t afford
to lose. The hoglets learn to stay in line,
their spiky buzzcuts, standing up short and straight
to stick the foe like forks, the kitchen tines
just sharp enough to prick and save the game,
unlike the treacherous quills of porcupines.
You plan your moves, you put in play your ruse.
Still, you sometimes win and you sometimes lose.
Rosemary, I like everything until the last couplet—because it ends on a trite note for the sake of a rhyme. Why not end with “the treacherous quills of porcupines”?
The foxes are led by Don Baumgart, whose brilliant “Fegatello” takes its title from the name of a chess defense also known as “the fried-liver attack,” itself a subset of the “two knights’ defense.” The stanza endings are arresting:
All the priceless moments: talking fianchetto,
zugzwang, speculating rules of senet
even pleased to chat about parcheesi
and all our greatest aspirations;
All our treasured things:
Queen Cleo’s dried-berry necklace, all this drink,
these inimitable livers, Dido’s trusty dildo,
the GPS that helped you find the clit;
And then it was time to eat your last meal:
Fried liver, asparagus, raspberry tea;
But you never made the final swing
Your c.o.d.: Asphyxiation
caused by venom
from the bite you gave yourself.
According to Isaiah Berlin, the hedgehog knows one big thing (Dostoyevsky) while the fox knows many things (Shakespeare). The fox will travel and recognize the pleasures of different places. Christine Rhein makes “Vienna Game” sound like a holiday on the Danube:
The rules, simple. Quit complaining and move
to Vienna. Every Guten Morgen—another grand
café—coffee dolloped with freshly whipped cream,
and, in the afternoons, served with Mozart-torte
and Apfelstrudel. And every stroll—arm in arm,
past palaces, through gardens, along the Danube,
as we look ahead to dressing up for dinner, to dancing
late into the night … What do you mean you don’t like
to waltz? And who the heck wants to eat all that
sugar, butter? We’re talking Vienna! Tahiti can wait
until tomorrow. Today, it’s a chilled Grüner Veltliner
and no limit, it seems, to our running off together,
seeing the world—you in your dream, me in mine.
Millicent Caliban’s “Sicilian Defense” reaches eloquent heights.
Who has not battered Sicily’s defense?
Who has not invaded leaving traces?
Greeks, Carthaginians, Roman legions,
Barbarians, Byzantines, and Arabs,
Normans, Spaniards, Bourbons, Napoleon,
Nelson, the Mafia, and Mussolini.
The violence of the landscape facing
the cruelty of the climate, tension
in everything smolders till it erupts
as earthquakes or Etna’s molten lava.
Magnificent monuments, works of art
built by others we do not comprehend.
Succulent oranges, luscious olives:
indulge yourself and take the cannoli.
It is precisely because of the eloquent heights that I wish Millicent would reconsider the last four lines in the poem. I am second to no one in my love of The Godfather but it is too well-known a joke line—it lowers the seriousness of “magnificent monuments.” I commented to this effect and in her defense, Millicent replied, “I wanted to suggest that Sicily is much more than the Mafia and its Hollywood portrayal in The Godfather but, inescapably, it is also that, especially in the pop culture American mind. And Sicilian cannoli should by all means be taken and not taken lightly.”
Second to the hedgehog system as a kick-start to the imagination is “Queen’s Gambit Declined”—though little of that phrase may survive beyond the title of the poem. Steve Bellin-Oka’s “Queen’s Street Gambit, Declined” pirates the proffered phrase in its title but speeds off elsewhere:
take for example stopping at a traffic light
& seeing the boy opposite leaning against
the brick of one of this city’s colonial buildings
his body a river that has not gathered the rain it takes
to learn the limits of the self are malleable
a single unbroken curve from the underside
of his jaw to the one leg propped against the mortar
soft moss of belly hair beneath his hiking up t-shirt—
oh to be that young again, to have a body
not yet creased & scraped with age
to be a man without the heaviness it brings
to be learning desire is deep
water & still be unafraid of drowning
Patricia Smith’s “High School Drama” takes the Queen’s Gambit as the key to a door marked 1958. My feeling is that the first stanza, good as it is, is really the pre-text for the splendid second stanza (beginning “I snagged,” if the stanza break does not survive the electronic transmission):
Lines long forgotten.
Plot intricacies blurred.
The gown I wore—borrowed white brocade
adorned with a red rhinestone brooch.
Title—The Queen’s Gambit.
Did my queen mother use me, Leone,
as the game’s pawn? Was I the prize?
I snagged the handsome prince in the end.
I remember because we feigned a kiss—
it was ’58 in a Catholic high school
where a long stint in purgatory
awaited boys and girls who kissed
or danced close
and eternal damnation was a certainty
should they pleasure each other …
In “Mother Smother,” Elizabeth Solsburg identifies the mother figure as the “queen of queens” (as Diana Ferraro puts it). Elizabeth saves the key phrase for the last line and gains maximum effect thereby: “I’ll say I tried / to evade the guilt maneuver— / Queen’s gambit declined.”
The same phrase stood behind my own effort, in which the regal entity is the borough of Queens, New York. But my poem would have been better if its final two lines were lopped off, and a third five-line stanza were added to these two:
Lisa took Andrei to Dosa Delight,
a fabulously secret Indian restaurant
in Jackson Heights, Queens,
and I wanted to join them but
had to decline because I had a train to catch.
Old feelings like habits die hard
and even now when I board a train
I feel like a commuter trying
to get some reading done when
there are no seats left in the quiet car.
Okay. Why don’t I try to add that stanza right now?
The train once meant escape
into luxurious boredom, disguised
as Cary Grant on the lam, and
it still stands in relation to romance
as airports to dread and despair,
It still lacks something. I’ll work on it.
On a day when a Nor’easter delayed or canceled nearly everyone else’s flight, Angela Ball got on a plane in Mississippi, transferred in Detroit, landed in Ithaca, settled in and joined me in hosting a launch reading for Next Line, Please: Prompts to Inspire for Poets and Writers at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York. Present were some of the wonderful people from Cornell University Press—including its director, Dean Smith (himself a poet)—who believe in the book and are doing their best to promote it. There were other notables in the audience, Cornell professors and freelance eminences. Angela and I received many compliments.
Christine Rhein, Elizabeth Solsburg, Millicent Caliban, Charise Hoge, Patricia Smith, Berwyn Moore, Jennifer Clarvoe, Paul Breslin, Barbara Shine, Paul Michelsen, LaWanda Walters, Michael C. Rush, Marissa D’Espain, Rebecca Epstein, Carlos Alcala, and John Gallaher were among those whose poems were read aloud.
Following the reading, libations were had, toasts made, and new plans hatched at the Argos Inn. The “bagpipe mariachi” I enjoyed—in which tequila, Laphroaig scotch, and a variety of bitters are mixed and served in a rocks glass—brought back to mind the dream drinks columns of May 24, 2016 (“Prompting a Poem, Dreaming of a Drink”) and June 7, 2016 (“You Must Get Drunk”).
I’ll have a new prompt for us next Tuesday. Please raise a glass on Saturday, March 31st, at midnight any time zone.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.
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