William Plomer

Two Hotels (1929)

“If you long to mingle with Cosmopolitans in Yokohama amidst
gorgeous Oriental pageantry fill out and mail the in-
formation blank below.”—American Advertisement

Where stout hunters unbamboozled by the stoutest of bamboos
Suck soothing syrups up through straws or strut in patent-leather shoes,
While tourists of both sexes bandy-legged or bald as bandicoots
Hobnob with Hollywood’s who’s-who or dally with cheroots,
Stranger, look round: or stand and listen to the band.

Japan, they say that Kipling said, is “not a sahib’s land,”
But, si sahib requiris, circumspice in the well-planned grand
Brand new Hotel Magnificent whose highly polished floors
Reflect both millionaires and brassy pseudo-Jacobean cuspidors.
Descend with despatch to the Daimyo Dining Room
“Takes the tired tourist back to the stirring feudal days”—
Refashioned all in Burmese teak like an Aztec magnate’s tomb
Well it has deserved a drunken baseball champion’s praise.

“Old world craft,” with New World craftiness
The new prospectus says, “continually ply
Beneath these very windows”—but no naked eye
Eagerly straining from this decorated draughtiness
Sees more than choking motor-boats beneath a smoky sky.

The pergola pillars on the roof are hollow
Made of cement and steel and topped with whirring cowls
To ventilate the kitchens eighty feet below
And a corridor to the ballroom where a loud-voiced gossip prowls:
“She says they say they may go from here to San Diego
By train or aeroplane or straight across the blue—
On the fat wife of a dago seed-pearls look like small sago
But she certainly asserts he is a personage in Peru.”

Here East meets West to the strains of the Mikado
Born kicking from the strings of a Filipino band
With the habits of barbarians acquired from Colorado
And rings from Vladivostok burning heavy on the hand—
Trophies of the ups and downs, the switchback way we go,
Pressed upon plebeian fingers by ladies starving in the snow.
The band strikes up afresh and from bedroom and bridge-table
In this modern Tower of Babel people glide towards the door,
The band bursts out again, and a wistful nasal whining
With hypnotic syncopation fills the ballroom’s glossy floor
With two-backed beasts side-stepping, robots inter-twining,
Trying to work a throwback, to be irresponsible once more.

(The Aburaya at Shinano-Oiwaké)

A hare-lipped hag beneath an ancient gable
Where the phoenix and the peony have yielded to the spider and the bat,
Puts by her broom of twigs, stands up straight as she is able,
Sniffs, is swallowed by a cave-like doorway, and is followed by the cat.

She never notices the path before the door wants weeding,
No visitor arrives from September until June,
Then only tired students laboriously reading
While the mist uncovers Asama to the once volcanic moon.

Lacquer in the daimyo’s room is overlaid with dimness;
On the door beneath a worm-holed architrave
A faded gilded swallow skims a curly stylised wave—
Only with words as patinous could a hushed voice limn this
Silence of decay in an odour of the grave.

One family has lived here since pre-processional days,
Buddhists of the Zen sect, splitting meditative hairs,
Pleased to be obsequious when the building was too small,
And now it is too big content to stare at a blank wall,
Ready for the retinues of emperors or nobody at all,
Drifting with the fatal and erratic eddies of affairs.

Placidly a window-screen is opened by the landlord’s daughter,
A buxom rustic poetess of seventeen—
Very sentimental, smelling queerly clean
Like white chrysanthemums in a glass of water.

The subjects of her verses are in the usual taste,
Conventional without dullness, and without coldness chaste:
The taste of the sound of silence in the snow,
The vanishing of the twilight shadows of a pine tree on a lonely beach,
The scented oblivion of the voices of those who were lovers long ago,
And the sense of the irreparable in an opening flower of peach.

Near the balcony she stands on, roofs with scabs of lichen
Crusted opalline on slaty tiles and feudal walls
Enclose a space for contemplative minds, but hardly to get rich in,
Where the dew and the aërial dandelion-seed falls.

Along the air is wafted the wholesome healthy savour
Of bee-bowed beds of aromatic thyme where larks upstart,
And leafy multitudes of lilies-in-the-valley waver
Tiny bells of porcelain that titillate the heart.

Though once it buried Rókurí-ga-hára under planetary lava banks,
Nobody considers Asama a menace; nobody forgets
That this has been the road to Yedo; nobody remembers
Men no longer carry swords. The daughter of the house
Smiles gently, sad with inexperience and inarticulate regrets,
And rising from the household circle crouching round the embers
Sometimes slips away, forgetting her grandfather and all,
To stand on a balcony towards the south
And watch the maple leaves or first few snowflakes fall—
And at such times she sings with a small and virginal mouth:

“near the ruined castle of Komôro
Travellers by twos and threes
Hasten through the spring haze
With the barley showing green
Through the melting snow;

A bamboo flute; the wrinkled waves
Of the river Chikûma
Far below—a dreary day,
But on my pillow of grass
At the inn above the cliff
I am a little content.”



Plomer’s note added in the 1960 Collected Poems:

It was still possible in the nineteen-twenties, especially in the remote country places, to feel the presence of Japan’s past, and to feel it intensely. The Aburaya was an ancient inn in the central mountains of Japan. Its appearance had altered little since the days when the Daimyos, or feudal noblemen, paused there, with processions of retainers, on their way to Yedo (Tokyo). Its ancient timbers, carved and painted with phoenixes, peonies and other decorative motifs, retained some splendour, and the manners, deportment and beliefs of the family who owned the place could have altered little from those of their ancestors. From the windows could be seen, not far away, the then dormant volcano, Mount Asama, and, over grey tiles encrusted with gold lichen, the flowery fields of summer, from which was wafted the smell of thyme. For the sake of the rhythm, it is important to remember that the stress on each syllable of the Japanese place-names is equal.

The completely different picture of what was then a modern hotel in the port of Yokohama, rebuilt after the great earthquake of 1923, speaks, I believe, for itself.


‘Two Hotels’ (BJ4e) appeared in The Family Tree (BJ4). In later collections, including Collected Poems (BJ16), the two sections appeared with slight emendations as separate poems, ‘The Hotel Magnificent: Yokohama, 1927’ and ‘The Aburaya at Shinano’.

For an overview of Plomer’s relation to Japan see William Plomer and Japan in the Bibliography, and for a note about Plomer titles in print see Earthquake.




















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