William Plomer

Captain Maru (1936)

Meet Captain Maru, used to being obeyed,
The servant of a monarch called a god.
Charm, fatal charm, the oh so subtle smile
And evidence of power in control,
Did they not seem beguiling when there danced
A trellis of reflected light upon the ceiling?
Calm, perhaps the calm of rarest mystery—
Could the young resist the navigating friend?

Maru, with culture at his elbow like a wine,
The dictator as host, open but reserved,
Maru to a lady presenting a gift
Tied with white and scarlet, the perfect samurai
With a pattern of blossoms on his sword.
Maru being boyish with a boy, astute,
Learning to treat women in the Western way,
Maru at the self-possessed narrowing his eyes—
Could the young resist? The voyage is begun.

The twin screws of ambition drive the hull
And Maru heads the table and the ship,
The abbot of its drilled, monastic life.
With much to teach and learn, he shows
That Maru is commander of himself.
At judo is unbeaten, in the hold
Armoured and visored, a ferocious fencer,
He wins on points: the trimmers watch,
The second engineer retires. Each afternoon
The course set northward, and the ship
Riding the tropic swell, Maru’s alone
Fresh from the bath, to chant the classics,
A deep-chested dirge, a stylised howl,
And later silence, to exercise his soul.

Does he relax? He does. The shogun bends.
The man of iron a man of moods, even at times absurd,
Takes relaxation seriously too.
The lips unclench: a slightly gilded smile.
Maru in his cups does a sword-dance on the deck,
Bare-legged, with feet as vigorous as hands,
With a whole ocean for a private room,
Stamps and shouts according to the rules
Of the old sword-dance, fiery on the deck,
His face all flushed and big veins in his neck,
And his muscles and his eyes and his anger belong
To a follower of Saigo, a Kumamoto tough.

He fought at Kilindini with a corpse for a weapon.
A flat-faced lad from snowy Echigo fell dead,
Peasant, ship’s carpenter, then body to be buried—
Where? Not white. Our nations are allied.

Two days of Maru, then a surplice and a bell,
A slow bell and a surly gown, the crew in white
Under the saw-toothed palms, a shallow grave,
Pink sunset, distant gramophone, white flowers,
Heads turned, and honour satisfied, and Maru wore
The sure smile of a victory of the will.
‘And thou shalt have
None other race but mine.’

Maru as a traveller always cool and clean,
Debonair in his many ports of call
With white silk suit, topee, and gold-topped cane,
Chose his words carefully, got what he required,
Exacted deference, not always given gladly.
The envoy of an emperor keeps his head,
Saves face, shakes hands, bows, does not yield . . .

Never so firm as when he met the great rebuff,
Which may have been imagined.
Nothing more was said. He put a photograph away.
Maru disappointed, in a cloud of fury,
With fumes of resentment clouded like a glass,
Was wrapped in silence that said, But we can wait.
The pride and duty breeds
Condensed like drops in his heart’s caves,
Pride grew another shell, gall gained a drop,
Determination hardened a formidable man.

Maru in Malaya and later in Macao
Man of affairs and condescending guide
Despised the Chinese and their choice of pleasures,
Sneered at their music, ‘a degenerate mode’,
But enjoyed their food. Maru off Sumatra
(The sea a plain of polished lead
Pitted with rain, the mountain tops
Dense with green jungle, soaked in thundercloud)
Became urbane, explained a chart, recalled
Hazards and faithfulness in war,
U-boats in the Mediterranean, saw
Himself as a veteran, now a pioneer.

Focused in a porthole gliding rocks and pines:
Is this the promised land with the cold green wind
That the stiff trees comb till they hum?
With the polished Russian shells on pedestals of stone
And the plangent notes struck often on guitars
Like the twang of bowstrings in ancient wars?
Maru claps his hands, will conjure up proof
Here, best of all, is pleasure understood.
‘Here only is the brothel clean, the courtesan a wit,
Here only are the sheets of silk, the talk refined,
The right wine rightly warmed, the best food served,
The garden planned with due symbology
And the room centred on a calligraphic scroll
From the brush of an adept in the art of self-control.’

The drunkard wallows: Maru sits upright.
The girls are giggling: Maru only smiles,
And crossing to the window sees the moon
And quotes a verse about an octopus
Caught, in the thirteenth century, in a trap.

And now the city, where the birth-rate chokes
The frequent trams and narrow streets.
Cameras, telephones, the wireless and the press
Maru employs to serve his various ends,
Banquets and interviews and confidential notes.
The Foreign Minister rises from his desk,
Cordially cautions, with one eye on the clock.

So much for that, and Maru has a week
Before he sails again, and so he turns
Takes train to a quiet place on the coast,
For Maru is of course a family man
And skipper of an ever-growing crew
Of little Marus full of national pride.
There only at evening, on a terrace by the sea,
Is Maru tender, like a girl with dolls
Handling his babies, whose little gowns
Are wreathed already with the blossoming sword.

As virile husband to a docile wife
He thinks that he is serving life,
But procreative hubris brings
Death chemical from fleets with wings.

Maru at home, in an old gown and clogs
Scrambling along the rocky shore,
Or Maru standing all night on the bridge
The third night running and the fog no less,
Or Maru as a good companion, sharing
The lives of younger men for a day or two,
With charm, perhaps the charm of one who feels
Just for a time that he is really free,
Until the little stings are felt
Of disapproval, disappointment, destiny—
These Marus mix with others,
Maru neglected when his hopes were huge,
Or Maru bitten by a stalking-horse,
Or Maru’s knuckles white with rage suppressed,
Maru resigned, and not uncovering his scars,
Back on the bridge, and in the afternoons
Singing some elegy of ancient wars,
A cultivator of his faculties
And calm—but not the calm of rarest mastery.
And now he has appeared to someone in a dream
Or rather a nightmare, menacing, a giant,
With no back to his head, uttering a taunt—
It is the challenge of his race, the short man scorned
Not satisfied with power, but mad for more.




‘Captain Maru’ appeared in Visiting the Caves (London: Cape, 1936), and was revised as ‘Captain Maru: A Nationalist’ in Plomer’s Collected Poems (BJ16). For notes about the work see the Bibliography BJ7; for an overview of Plomer’s Japanese interests see William Plomer and Japan; and for a note about Plomer titles in print and buying information see Earthquake.




















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