by Nancy Sheng
The Mechanical Turk was a chess-playing automaton exhibited in the late 18th century. Proclaimed a marvel and a curiosity, it was later exposed as a human.
Yes, I said,
my voice tangled in silver and chrome.
In all the ways, yes, yes,
I learn to break myself.
First I considered the rook. (Many do).
My fingers were long like pistons.
Then I considered the bishop. (As you do).
My eyes were sealed shut with steam.
Finally I considered the queen and the king,
and my opponent sliced his lady across the board
in the manner of a knife falling over my head,
my throat laid bare by copper wires.
All of this, and for five shillings,
you too can see my metal body turn.
The Mechanical Turk, live in exhibition!
Is it a man? Is it a woman? Is it a wonder?
This is the curious thing about wonders:
No one wonders what they do when the hours pass
and the grand buildings fold on themselves like forest fires,
the penny boys walking through, dimming all the lights.
First I considered my fingers,
and then I took them off, one by one.
Then I considered my eyes,
and I put them in my pocket for safekeeping.
Finally I considered my head and my throat,
which I wrapped in butcher paper on the highest shelf.
My body moves two spaces forward, one space right.
My body is the pawn that has crossed the chequered sea.
I go dancing.
(After a long day of castling).
I go dancing.
And they will say to me:
(Sir, madam, sir, madam)
Are you king or are you queen?
And I will touch the shape of my breasts, my hips,
before trailing my finger to the moustache above my lips.
I know: they would alter my stories in sixteen pieces,
but I have forgotten their language of enigma.
I peel myself open to look inside
at where I live, beginning, middle, end,
and there in the centre of me, waiting
(in all the ways, yes, yes,
I learn to make myself)
— a ripe human heart.
Nancy Sheng was born in northern China and raised in a ragtag fashion across Canada and the U.S. She is currently a graduate student in library sciences at the University of Toronto. On sunny days she likes to lounge in bed and take naps. Coincidentally this is also what she enjoys doing on wintry days. She is told her excessive fondness for being unconscious is a queer thing, but then again, so is she.
Read Nancy's discussion of this poem over at the Roundtable!
Photography: Wolfgang von Kempelen — The Turkish Chess Player, uncredited copper engraving.