Karuizawa Tales – Robert Hoffman

(Editors’ Note: We’ve set a precedent by publishing these three pieces together. We think you’ll agree that they have a commanding cohesion.)

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
(July 1941)

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
              spiritual winning
                             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.
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.