A little precedent here, as Robert Hoffman will read 3 linked poems related to the immediate pre-WWII period in Japan. As they’re individually complete and build an expanding narrative, we chose to present them as one. Enjoy the poetry, as well as the fascinating social study.
Author’s Note: The following 3 poems are part of a biographical narrative work in progress of the life and times of Forrest Rosecrans Baird – in verse. Baird, a future cryptanalyst, was among the last linguists in Tokyo prior to Japan’s Pearl Harbor campaign.
These poems are a detail of a narrative in verse. They focus on the moment just prior to World War II in Japan where the last of the Linguists will soon find themselves behind enemy lines if they can’t find a way out.
The Karuizawa Retreat
(June & July 1941)
Classes, no matter how informal,
are still classes at three times a day.
A tug of war, whether it’s with a tow-
line or a spider’s web is still a matter
of balance, stance, footing, and grace.
By not pulling one’s punches, one can fall
between the cultural cracks of being
Lieutenant (junior grade) or Nipponese.
The once a month embassy visit
to nab a paycheck and the mandatory
officer’s soirees, ensures a retread.
But Tokyo is unbearable to foreigners
during the muggy summers, hot and sticky,
even for a Dallas native. A retreat
is accounted for in Karuizawa.
where the breeze refreshes
and the chill clears the mind
there is no better break
from the city to sharpen
the head and cleanse the passion
where appeases the gods
sitting and meditating and
tossing stones into water
to listen for the empty spaces
where humanity meets
Yukika Sohma at Karuizawa
Yukika is fresh air
against the face of trouble,
a port in the storm of war,
and rumors of war. Prepared
to share private insights
of zazen, the art of sitting.
Yukika illuminates and validates
while shedding light to bring
reality to earth,
grounded in education
and wisdom, she finds truth
in the practical. She pushes
aside subversive talk,
with no desire to encode
or cipher, she deciphers
in plain speech – her worries.
Her father, Tokyo’s Mayor, was
imprisoned during The Great War
for impassioned arguments
of peace and she expects that
Father will once more be jailed
in the coming months,
for what he rigorously believes.
Yukika pulls the Texan aside,
to whisper a warning,
to be taken sincerely:
“Tell your people that if you push our people
“too far – and you have – they will strike you.
“Without warning. Make sure you tell your people.”
Coming Down From the Mountain
(31 July 1941)
the Buddhists have had their say
you’ve joined the rituals of casting
pebbles each one a universal request
inside the spaces and nowhere else
can you or do you experience
the essence of being a native
of Japan you are welcome here
in solitude in the mountains
of Karuizawa your spirit is free
affections find greater bonds
where nothing is more natural than prayer
you’ve even disciplined acceptance
to live a life divided for one more year
until called for a billet
and now are met
at the bottom by an embassy official
sweating not from humidity but anxiety
announcing that the Japanese have fortified
Manchuria and all bets are off
and the linguists are without immunity
proceed for Shanghai with Cole and Slonim
and the rest while as the senior junior
it falls upon you to find a course of action
off the dragon before war is confirmed
caught behind lines where friends become
enemies and you are prisoners of war
Robert Hoffman is a retired poker dealer and lives in Lakewood, California with his wife of 40 years.
To read previous Editors’ Choices, please visit:
Overhead – Soramimi Hanarejima
The Bedouin Woman’s Smile – Nektaria Petrou
Looking Down on Newgale Beach – Robert Nisbet
White Sheets – Shelby Curran
Zen Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts – Mary Buchinger