William Plomer

Earthquake (1927)

It is dusk, it is calm,
And I sit in the Japanese house:
Not a sound in the air,
And the moon in a mist.
They suddenly switch on the light
In the room where I sit,
And now I can see what was hidden
In twilight before:
Pianos and furniture, pictures—
Flowers of American taste!
And I, the foreigner, sit
On the tatami, wearing a smile.

What is this? What is this?
The house oscillates, oscillates.
On the top of the shy piano
The vases totter and roll, stagger and fall,
And a portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Suddenly leaves the wall.
The house oscillates
Like a boat, like a boat!
Abraham Lincoln bites the dust,
Kipling leaps from his shelf,
And the tall glass vase from Venice
Goes smash, and half the house
Rumbles and creaks, staggers and falls.
The light has gone out,
And with part of the roof on the floor
I continue to smile
Till the rumbling and rocking grows less,
And silence tries to return.

The moon’s in a cloud,
And out in the air,
In the dark,
A little girl screams:
The voice of a Japanese child,
Afraid and enchanted! Enchanted,
And shaken by Powers-in-the-Night,
The heart is volcanic.
The Japanese ride on the back of a dragon
That rides on the Waters of Change—
They know what is hidden is ordered,
And I know that the future is strange.




For an overview of Plomer’s Japanese interests see William Plomer and Japan in the Bibliography. ‘Earthquake’ (BJ2c) appeared in Plomer’s first collection of verse, Notes for Poems (BJ2, London: Hogarth, 1927). Edmund Blunden had read the poems in Tokyo—for some months in the winter of 1926 both he and Plomer were resident at the Kikufuji Hotel (see BD166j)—and recommended their publication to Leonard Woolf.

Among several Plomer titles in print is his important first novel, Turbott Wolfe (available in the UK here) and several works that include material related to his years in Japan: Sado (BJ5, available in the UK here), Double Lives (BJ10, available here), At Home (BJ15, available in the UK here, the US here), The Autobiography of William Plomer (BJ24, here), Electric Delights (BJ25, here), Selected Stories (BJ26, here), and the ‘parables for church performance’ upon which Plomer collaborated with Benjamin Britten, Curlew River (BJ18, score and libretto here, audio recording here and here), The Burning Fiery Furnace (BJ19, score and libretto here), The Prodigal Son (BJ21, score and libretto here).








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