japonisme: nightsoil

03 July 2009



It was a miniature country once
To my imagination;
Home of the Short,
And also the academy of stunts
Where acrobats are taught
The famous secrets of the trade:
To cycle in the big parade
While spinning plates
upon their parasols,
Or somersaults that do not touch the ground,
Or tossing seven balls
In Most Celestial Order round and round.

A child's quick sense of the ingenious stamped
All their invention:
toys I used to get
At Christmastime,
or the peculiar, cramped
Look of their alphabet.
Fragile and easily destroyed,
Those little boats of celluloid
Driven by camphor around the bathroom sink,
And delicate the folded paper prize
Which, dropped into a drink
Of water, grew up right before your eyes.

Now when we reached them it was with a sense
Sharpened for treachery compounding in their brains
Like mating weasels;
our Intelligence
Said: The Black Dragon reigns
Secretly under yellow skin,
Deeper than dyes of atabrine
And deadlier. The War Department said:
Remember you are Americans; forsake
The wounded and the dead
At your own cost; remember Pearl and Wake.

And yet they bowed us in
with ceremony,
Told us what brands of Sake
were the best,
Explained their agriculture
in a phony
Dialect of the West,
Meant vaguely to be understood
As a shy sign of brotherhood
In the old human bondage to the facts
Of day-to-day existence. And like ants,
Signaling tiny pacts
With their antennae, they would wave their hands.

At last we came to see them not as glib
Walkers of tightropes, worshipers of carp,
Nor yet a species out of Adam's rib
Meant to preserve its warp
In Cain's own image. They had learned
That their tough eye-born goddess burned
Adoring fingers. They were very poor.
The holy mountain was not moved to speak.
Wind at the paper door
Offered them snow out of its hollow peak.

Human endeavor clumsily betrays
Humanity. Their excrement served in this;
For, planting rice in water, they would raise
Japonica, that enters through
The pores into the avenue
And orbit of the blood, where it may foil
The heart and kill, or settle in the brain.
This fruit of their nightsoil
Thrives in the skull, where it is called insane.

Now the quaint early
image of Japan
That was so charming
to me as a child
Seems like a bright
design upon a fan,
Of water rushing wild
On rocks that can be folded up,
A river which the wrist can stop
With a neat flip, revealing merely sticks
And silk of what had been a fan before,
And like such winning tricks,
It shall be buried in excelsior.

Anthony Hecht

Copyright © Anthony Hecht

(On leaving Germany, he spent some time in Japan, generating news copy to portray the occupying American forces in a favorable manner. “It was quite shameless, hypocritical work,” he said, “and therefore perfectly consistent with everything I had ever known about the Army.” ) 1

[with thanks to 'anonymous' who mentioned this poem]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is (even good) poetry enough for a convincing repentance? Duty can be so crually mighty...d

04 July, 2009 07:47  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

would that your comment had no relevance today

04 July, 2009 08:36  
Blogger Lucille said...

This is the most beautiful site. I shall enjoy exploring and will send the link to my youngest son who wishes to study Japanese at university.

06 July, 2009 03:40  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

oh thank you very much, lucille, and welcome!. what a nice way to start the day.

06 July, 2009 06:12  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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