Two poems by Primo Levi on a chess theme


Only my enemy for all time,
The abominable black queen,
Has had nerve equal to mine
In helping her inept king.
Inept and cowardly mine too — that’s understood.
From the very start he crouched
Behind his row of plucky pawns,
Then fled across the chessboard,
Askew, absurd, with little stumbling steps.
Battles are not for kings.
But I!
If I had not been there!
Rooks and horses, yes, but I!
Powerful and ready, upright and diagonal,
Far-reaching as a catapult,
I pierced their defences.
They had to bow their heads,
The fraudulent, haughty black ones.
Victory intoxicates like a wine.

Now it’s all over,
The skill and hatred are spent.
A mighty hand has swept us away,
Weak and strong, cautious, wise and mad,
Whites and blacks every which way, lifeless.
Then, with a clatter of gravel, it threw us
Into the black wooden box
And closed the lid.
When will we play again?


You mean that, halfway through,
With the game all but over, you’d like
To change the rules of play?
You know perfectly well it’s not allowed.
To castle under threats?
Or go so far, if I am not mistaken,
As to replay the moves you made when you began?
Come on! You too accepted these rules
When you sat down at the chessboard.
A piece touched is a piece moved:
Ours is a serious game. No bargaining.
And no confusion; no cheating allowed.
Move! You haven’t much time left.
Don’t you hear the clock ticking away?
In any case, why not give up?
To foresee my plays,
Greater knowledge than yours is needed.
You knew right from the start
I was the stronger of the two.

From Collected Poems. Translated by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann.