from Guns as Keys: And the Great Gate
At Mishima in the Province of Kai,
Three men are trying to measure a pine tree
By the length of their outstretched arms.
Trying to span the bole of a huge pine tree
By the spread of their lifted arms. Attempting to compress its girth
Within the limit of their extended arms.
Wreathed over by wisps of cloud.
The clouds draw about the mountain,
But there are gaps.
The men reach about the pine tree,
But their hands break apart;
The rough bark escapes their hand clasps;
The tree is unencircled.
Three men are trying to measure the stem of a gigantic pine tree,
With their arms,
At Mishima in the Province of Kai.
The road is hilly
Outside the Tiger Gate,
And striped with shadows from the bow moon
Slowly sinking on the horizon.
The roadway twinkles with the bobbing of paper lanterns,
Melon-shaped, round, oblong,
Lighting the steps of those who pass along it;
And there is a sweet singing of many semi,
From the cages which an insect-seller
Carries on his back.
Nigi-oi of Matsuba-ya
Courtesan of unrivalled beauty,
The great silk mercer, Mitsui,
Counts himself a fortunate man
As he watches her parade in front of him
In her robes of glazed blue silk
Embroidered with singing nightingales.
He puffs his little silver pipe
And arranges a fold of her dress.
He parts it at the neck
And laughs when the falling plum-blossoms
Tickle her naked breasts.
The next morning he makes out a bill
To the Director of the Dutch Factory at Nagasaki
For three times the amount of the goods
Forwarded that day in two small junks
In the care of a trusted clerk.
The one hundred and sixty streets in the Sanno
Honey-gold from the gold-foil screens in the houses,
Honey-gold from the fresh yellow mats;
The lintels are draped with bright colours,
And from eaves and poles
Red and white paper lanterns
Glitter and swing.
Through the one hundred and sixty decorated streets of the Sanno quarter,
Trails the procession,
With a bright slowness,
The music of flutes and drums.
Great white sails of cotton
Belly out along the honey-gold streets.
Grinning masks of mountain genii,
And a white cock on a drum
Above a purple sheet.
Over the flower hats of the people,
Shines the sacred palanquin,
“Car of gentle motion,”
Upheld by fifty men,
Stalwart servants of the god.
Bending under the weight of mirror-black lacquer,
Of pillars and roof-tree
Wrapped in chased and gilded copper.
Portly silk tassels sway to the marching of feet,
Wreaths of gold and silver flowers
Shoot sudden scintillations at the gold-foil screens.
The golden phoenix on the roof of the palanquin
Spreads it wings,
And seems about to take flight
Over the one hundred and sixty streets
Straight into the white heart
Of the curved blue sky.
Six black oxen,
With white and red trappings,
Draw platforms on which are musicians, dancers, actors,
Who posture and sing,
Dance and parade,
Up and down the honey-gold streets,
To the sweet playing of flutes,
And the ever-repeating beat of heavy drums,
To the constant
banging of heavily beaten drums.
To the insistent repeating rhythm of beautiful great drums.
Wistaria Blossom, Cloth-of-Silk, and Deep Snow,
With their ten attendants,
Are come to Asakusa
To gaze at peonies.
To admire crimson-carmine peonies,
To stare in admiration at bomb-shaped, white and sulpher peonies,
To caress with a soft finger
Single, rose-flat peonies,
Tight, incurved, red-edged peonies,
Spin-wheel circle, amaranth peonies.
To smell the acrid pungeance of peony blooms,
And dream for months afterwards
Of the temple garden at Asakusa,
Where they walked together
Looking at peonies.
A Daimyo’s procession
Winds between to green hills,
A line of thin, sharp, shining, pointed spears
Above red coats
And yellow mushroom hats.
A man leading an ox
Has cast himself upon the ground,
He rubs his forehead in the dust,
While his ox gazes with wide, moon eyes
At the glittering spears
Between two green hills.
Tiger rain on the temple bridge of carved green-stone,
Slanting tiger lines of rain on the lichened lanterns of the gateway,
On the stone statues of mythical warriors.
Striped rain making the bells of the pagoda roofs flutter,
Tiger-footing on the bluish stones of the court-yard,
Beating, snapping, on the cheese-rounds of open umbrellas,
Licking, tiger-tongued, over the straw mat which a pilgrim wears upon
Gnawing, tiger-toothed, into the paper mask
Which he carries on his back.
Tiger-clawed rain scattering the peach-blossoms,
Tiger tails of rain lashing furiously among the cryptomerias.
The beautiful dresses,
Blue, Green, Mauve, Yellow;
And the beautiful green pointed hats
Like Chinese porcelains!
See, a band of geisha
Is imitating the state procession of a Corean Ambassador,
Under painted streamers,
On an early afternoon.
Down the ninety-mile rapids
Of the Heaven Dragon River,
With his bowmen,
And his spearmen,
Borne in a gilded palanquin,
To pass the Winter in Yedo
By the Shôgun’s decree.
To pass the Winter idling in the Yoshiwara,
While his bowmen and spearmen
Gamble away their rusted weapons
At the Hour of the Cock.
Outside the drapery shop of Taketani Sabai,
Strips of dyed cloth are hanging out to dry.
Fine Arimitsu cloth,
Fine blue and white cloth,
Falling from a high staging,
Falling like falling water,
Like blue and white unbroken water
Sliding over a high cliff,
Like the Ono Fall on the Kisokaido Road.
Outside the shop of Taketani Sabai,
They have hung the fine dyed cloth
In strips out to dry.
On the floor of the reception room of the Palace
They have laid a white quilt,
And on the quilt, two red rugs;
And they have set up two screens of white paper
To hide that which should not be seen.
At the four corners, they have placed lanterns,
And now they come,
Three to sit on either side of the condemned man,
Three to the right,
Three to the left,
And he between them
In his dress of ceremony
With the great wings.
Shadow wings, thrown by the lantern light,
Trail over the red rugs to the polished floor,
Trail away unnoticed,
For there is a sharp glitter from a dagger
Borne past the lanterns on a silver tray.
“O my Master,
I would borrow your sword,
For it may be a consolation to you
To perish by a sword to which you are accustomed.”
Stone, the face of the condemned man,
Stone, the face of the executioner,
And yet before this moment
These were master and pupil,
Honoured and according homage,
And this is an act of honourable devotion.
Each face is passive,
Hewed as out of strong stone,
Cold as a statue above a temple porch.
Down slips the dress of ceremony to the girdle.
Plunge the dagger to its hilt.
A trickle of blood runs along the white flesh
And soaks into the girdle silk.
Slowly across from left to right,
Slowly, upcutting at the end,
But the executioner leaps to his feet,
Poises the sword—
Did it flash, hover, descend?
There is a thud, a horrible rolling,
And the heavy sound of a loosened, falling body,
Then only the throbbing of blood
Spurting into the red rugs.
For he who was a man is that thing
Crumpled up on the floor,
Broken, and crushed into the red rugs.
The friend wipes the sword,
And his face is calm and frozen
As a stone statue on a Winter night
Above a temple gateway.
In the castle moat, lotus flowers are blooming,
They shine with the light of an early moon
Brightening above the Castle towers.
They shine in the dark circles of their unreflecting leaves.
Deserted ancient moat
About an ancient stronghold,
Your bowmen are departed,
Your strong walls are silent,
Their only echo
A croaking of frogs.
Frogs croaking at the moon
In the ancient moat
Of an ancient, crumbling Castle.
‘Guns as Keys’ (BI7)
appeared first in Seven Arts 2 (August 1917), pp. 428-51.
For an overview of Lowell’s Japanese
interests see Amy Lowell and Japan
in the Bibliography, and for a note about Lowell’s
work that is in print see A Japanese Wood