BJ. William Plomer

Notes from a Japanese landscape with figures

4. The Family Tree. London: Hogarth, 1929.

Poems noted are from a section titled ‘Notes from a Japanese Landscape with Figures’; two others not noted here are connected to Japan only by their inclusion in the section. See also 28a.

a. Buddha. Description of images of the Buddha, with their ‘antigothic smiles’ and ‘calm delirium of prophetic certainty’.

b. Fishes of Thought and Waterfalls of Feeling. In praise of carp swimming against a current to reach some instinctively-understood goal. A note refers to Chamberlain’s Things Japanese (see D5b) and regards the poem as ‘an extension’ of the Japanese idea that carp symbolise vigour.

c. Japanese Love. Among poems in the published record this work is Plomer’s only experiment with the syllabic counts of Japanese verse. Of sixteen lines, fourteen are five or seven syllables, and a similarity to contemporary translations of Japanese poetry is underlined by what for Plomer is a rare lack of end-rhyme. The subject is a tender meeting between a foreign man and a Japanese woman. He lies in a traditional room on the ‘woven grass’ mats; she enters, kneels, and places beside his pillow a ‘branch of white azaleas / Crystal-dropped with dew’. Later revised as White Azaleas (16a).

d. Incompatible. Plomer’s work from Japan often is marked by its sympathy for Japanese women forced by circumstance into lives of despair. The subject here is a young woman forced to wed a farmer from a different part of the country. The poem recounts the desperation of her daily life and, finally, her death in childbirth.

e. Two Hotels. Plomer’s evocation of the ambience of two extraordinarily different Japanese hotels.

1. The Hotel Magnificent. The establishment of the title is frequented by rich Americans and those who would ‘hobnob’ with them. The poem captures the pretensions both of the place and of the people, and contrasts advertisement-copy fantasies with the reality of Yokohama harbour in the twenties: ‘“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’. Reprinted with slight revisions as Hotel Magnificent: Yokohama, 1927 in The Dorking Thigh and Other Satires (London: Cape, 1945), Borderline Ballads (New York: Noonday, 1955), and in 16.

2. the Aburaya at Shinano. The hotel of the title is in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, at the foot of the volcano Asama. Plomer’s lines focus on the desolation of the region and the decay of the place, set in contrast to the reveries of the daughter of the house, a ‘buxom rustic poetess of seventeen’ who dreams of the days when the nearby town Komoro was a post-station on the road to Edo. Plomer notes in Double Lives (10) that he visited Asama in the summer of 1928. Reprinted as The Aburaya in 9 and 16, the latter of which includes a lengthy note about the hotel and its surroundings.

f. At Hisamura. Plays with the idea that the large stone phalluses still found in and around Shintô complexes in the Japanese countryside indeed have power. A local policeman demands their removal, but the villagers refuse. When a short time later he dies unexpectedly, ‘Who could doubt / The Divine Intervention? / The villagers / Redoubled their devotions, / Which continue as before’.

g. Lake. During his years in Japan Plomer identified more with Japanese friends than with the foreign community, and his writing from the country frequently turns an ironic eye to the latter (see especially e1 above and 5). Here the setting is Lake Chûzenji, renowned in Japanese literature for its stillness and natural beauty, but by the twenties a playground for the wealthy, particularly the wealthy and foreign, on their weekend breaks away from Tokyo: ‘The patience of Nature with money and voices! / They say that no one has ever found the bottom. / The mountain stands firm on its quivering peak, / In hairy hollows waifs of mist remain. // Luminous the leaves, and hushed the evening air, / a midwife motors underneath the trees’. Revised as At Lake Chuzenji (16b).

h. Autumn Near Tokyo. A loving portrait of an autumn scene in the Japanese countryside. An old woman harvests rice while persimmons ‘fatten overhead’, and ‘leaf-rich wood smoke aspires / To fade into the candid sky’. Plomer’s sympathies are with the old, who think of winter, and ‘all the days that can return no more’, a focus that shifts when the poem appears revised thirty-one years later (16c).

i. The Paulownia Avenue. Describes ‘the fratriphobe’ Minamoto Yoritomo (1147-99), victorious general in the Gempei wars (see BK21a), ‘pale with spleen’ as he is carried down the avenue of the title in his palanquin. The unstated reference is to Yoritomo’s fear of the popularity of his brother Yoshitsune (1159-89), whose military brilliance during the wars assured both Yoritomo’s ascendancy and his jealousy. Yoshitsune’s exploits are the subject of retellings in the nô, kabuki, and bunraku (see BK17g, for example), but the ‘spleen’ captured here in Plomer’s precise details eventually prevailed, when Yoritomo’s retainers captured Yoshitsune and forced his suicide. Reprinted with a note of explanation in 16.

j. Japonaiserie. Contrasts natural motifs of traditional Japan with the realities of the late twenties: ‘A sparrow leaves a springboard twig / And powdered sugar falls’, but ‘arsenal chimneys trace / Sky-writing slow on frozen air’ and ‘The sacred Fuji, pale as a pearl, / Is ruled across with telegraph wires’. Reprinted in 16 with a brief note of explanation.





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