Realm Sixty-Four is an invitation to engage in some serious play. Taking its name from the literal field of the chessboard, Kristi Maxwell’s first book explores the dynamics of engagement, both through and within language. These poems are interested in the strategies that interactions encompass—interactions between words, between play and praise, between illusion and non-illusion, illusion and eluding, idea and image, between speakers, between voices, and between reader and text. From the history of the chess-playing automaton known as The Turk to a series of flirtations cadged in the game’s battlefield language, the subjects of Maxwell’s poems are rarely what they seem to be.
“Like the minimalist sculptors we have learned to admire without their theories mattering anymore, these poems have pure, ephemeral lines that suggest much thought about time and utterance, yet they float free without any need for explanation. This can happen partly because Maxwell has an inspired sense of the look of the page. If you wanted to blur on her words, you would still see beauty, harmony and space.” —Fanny Howe
from Correspondence Game
20 December 1828
Snow fattens the roads—or else it’s scar tissue
I hope invention is the catgut with which you’re sutured and home20
At last evening’s show, an exploitationist asked
for his opaque fabric patched
against the Turk’s chest
to assert his claim
an operator observed the board
we mocked him, lightly, and asserted too the viability
the heart uses skin as a magnifying glass—
that something burns through—is burned through.
These are little victories.
As for your “bronze-bent bird,” would the egg
I confess, I hoped it inedible—
that the imaginary parents the real.
Patiently, as my knight takes your king’s pawn21—
19Because either option would be considered positive coming from S., as he needed to gain at least five
pounds after a month-long sickness that preceded the season change, and, for scar tissue to be
exfoliated, it suggests a disappearance, most likely due to healing, it is accepted that this is how S.
answered M.’s plea to reconsider—an affirmative answer.
20A literal interpretation: Europe. An Abstract interpretation: M’s own person. A generic
interpretation: the place in which one’s growth occurred. A literal interpretation of growth: noted by
age- and inch-count. A non-literal interpretation: noted by the head from which one’s life philosophy
21This is the last move recorded in addition to its accompanying correspondence, though, because the
game’s complete notation (see index) was found in M.’s documents, we know the game was completed
in 1833, three years before their deaths.
Copyright © 2008 by Kristi Maxwell
“There is an unspeakable intimacy in opposition—well, not wholly unspeakable, as Kristi Maxwell’s extraordinary debut proves. Opponents sit facing each other, a board constructed of 64 squares between them, a realm of possibilities circumscribed by Law and Chance, each person attempting to read the thoughts of the other. So a book sits between a poet and reader. So a bed looms between lovers. A space of contention, of agony in the antique sense, is likewise a space of creation, of genius. Maxwell knows chess pieces and words share an existence. The grammar beneath our speaking charts the desire our words try to express, repress, manipulate, confess, much as the King is reduced to his feeble step in any direction, the Queen can sprint her length through the campaign, and the Knight jumps over the Pawn’s heads. More important still, beyond the intricacy Maxwell reveals, beyond the enchantment in which she revels, is her insistent demonstration that poetry, like chess, is an art of thinking, and an art of risk, at whose final move, at the last blank page, one hears in echo a voice say Check, and pays closer attention to the before unseen threat.” —Dan Beachy-Quick
“Hold onto your hat while Kristi Maxwell whirls you through late 18th-century and early 19th-century chess games, such as those between the Turk (a marvelous automaton) and Enlightenment figures. Meditating on the moves and strategies of chess gives Maxwell the freedom to enlarge the subject to the whole game of life, as these meditations become more and more abstract. Fortunately the pop culture we live and breathe manages to always be present in the poems. The collection is caught and held together by a neat metaphysical moment: sixty-four DNA components, sixty-four chess squares. The reader suddenly clicks; the mechanism of the book is alive. I really loved this very original book.” —Caroline Knox
I was a child who talked to wire strung between fence posts and to an imaginary friend who eventually ran away. Born in 1981 in Cleveland, Tennessee, I lived the first decade and so of my life in a house conjured up by my father and also at his farm, and by the ocean near my maternal grandmother’s home in St. Augustine, Florida. I was once a caretaker to three dead crabs and an undertaker to two cockatiels. My favorite word has long been Nova Scotia.
I have learned things at the University of Tennessee, where I received bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English; the University of Manchester; the University of Arizona, where I received an MFA in poetry; and the University of Cincinnati, where I’m currently pursuing a doctorate in English. I have learned things outside of these places, too—in kitchens; in courtyards; in Slovenia; in Armory Park; in close reading; in a pair of scissors and some hair.
In 2005, I began taking kung fu classes with another poet; experiencing kung fu has changed the way I think about and approach language and has spurred my interest in the notion of relentlessness and how this notion might be (and is) enacted in (and through) language and in the poetry that most expands my thinking. Poets to whom I return to have my brain wrecked and rebuilt include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gertrude Stein, Marianne Moore, Alice Notley, Eleni Sikelianos, Christine Hume, Christian Bök—followed by many and’s.
A reader of poetry; a maker of asparagus soup; a passport owner; a collector of boxes—I’m currently at work on new and old projects, and I keep an eye on my right arm and the ink there—how little lasts, and how long—because it reminds me.
About is a ravenous word; it has a way of eating up all nuances and not letting anyone else in on that feast. Ravenous about. Someone asked me, after I finished Realm Sixty-Four, “so the book’s about chess?” I responded that the book uses chess, and more specifically the strategies so well represented by chess, as an engine. If chess is a metaphor, it is also (and primarily) a game, and so it is play, but also the anxiety built into play because play involves (an)other (be that an individual or an object, imagined or real). Readers don’t need to know chess to know the poems.
Realm Sixty-Four was written over a three-year period. There was a lot of pleasure for me in constructing these poems, in experiencing their constructions that I got to be a part of—for some of the “Game” pieces (all of which take their names from actual games that beginners often study to practice and to hone their understandings of the board’s potential), the actual pieces of chess play an integral role: I set each move up on a board and imagined how it would look if it were represented by a concept, by an image, by an interaction, by a movement. The pieces, and their formations on the boards and the strategies that determine their new formations, have their own associations and allowed me to move through my own, too. Much of the “writing” of this manuscript came in the form of playing chess with my partner. In play, of course, anxiety and glee are in such dialogue, which is one of the reasons, perhaps, dialogue became a part of so many of the poems; I hope the dialogue between anxiety and glee is one in which readers will take part, will experience.
Reading, as seems to be the case for most writers of poems, coaxed much of the manuscript out. The more I read, I was continually drawn to the narratives regarding technology, represented through the Turk, the first chess-playing automaton, and extended into the late 20th century through the matches between Garry Kasparov and Deep Blue. What strange wars cognition spurs. I’m also particularly interested in illusion and progress, illusion in progress, and illusion-in-progress. One book that brought many words to my computer screen is The Human Side of Chess, which draws out the dialectic between intellect and emotions that is inevitably a part of chess through its exploration of the lives of chess masters, and this urged me to engage the same dialectic in the poems—my hope is that the dialectic is maintained.
Realm Sixty-Four found its leaping-off points and leapt; I hope it, as well, enables leaping.