Are you awake, my sweet barbarian?
Why, you look as though you’ve seen a ghost!
Are you so shocked to see a lady smoke?
I owe this habit to the Prince, my husband.
That interests you? But that was years ago,
When high-born women told the time by crickets
and generals burned perfumes in their helmets
The night before they rode their troops to battle.
Among the rich it was considered proper
for gentlemen to keep some trace of court
about them in the sweat and shit and smoke.
Among our set those days, in fact, the game
of ‘Guess the Incense’ was the latest rage.
Played, like all our games, in grace and earnest,
By intricate directions, for high stakes.
And crispest winter evenings where the best
because the air is cleanest in the cold.
Without music, badinage, or flowers,
with all attention focused on the flame,
we’d kneel and sniff, and sigh in recognition,
or we’d pretend, to save a reputation,
or gamble on assent when someone twigged
‘Why this is Plum Tree Blossom mixed with balsam.’
On such a night the Empress proposed
an incense contest for the Heian ladies.
We worked for weeks refining subtleties
of clove and cinnamon and sandalwood,
selecting lacquers for the bowls and burners
and stiff kimonos for our serving girls.
Imagine generals in midnight camps
nudging sticks and pebbles across maps;
just so we worried over strategies
until the evening of the second snow.
That night we drank the Empress’s sake.
The Prince, my husband, danced and spoke
a poem written by my grandfather:
Shadows on your screens;
a document inked in script
I will yet master.
A very famous poem. You smile, my lord,
but I come from a literary line.
The alcove, I recall, was full of courtiers
Brushing snow from silken hunting vests
and ladies hushing them. A fan was flicked
to signify the contest had commenced.
First my cousin knelt above the brazier
and blent two scents together on the fire.
Eagles in Winter Light, I think
and Village of the Pines with bergamot.
At first I found her effort elegant,
warm and old and calm But moments later,
barbed and pungent with an old resentment.
The Empress nodded, and glancing towards my husband
misquoted one of my grandfather’s lines.
Next my sister burnt an amber resin
suggesting pavements after summer rain.
We all felt something which we couldn’t name
but which we all agreed was sad and cold
and distant, like some half-remembered grief
from girlhood, or a herb like marjoram.
Once more her Majesty addressed the Prince,
‘You seem to have remarkably broad taste.’
And looked at me with something worse than pity.
I knew I’d lost. And when it was my turn
to add my clichéd fragrance to the fire
a door slid open deep within my head…
But how can I describe what happened then?
Except to say the blind must dream. They smell
and touch and taste and hear; and you, my dear,
can dream – are dreaming even now, perhaps –
while all about you swirls a hidden world
where memories contend like hungry ghosts.
I didn’t smell my incense in the brazier:
I smelled the forest and I smelled the horses,
the dung in stables, women giving birth,
the rotting teeth of footmen from the provinces,
the coppery reek of blood, the clogged latrines,
the foetid corpses of the foreign priests
my husband crucified on Gyotoku.
I smelled so many women on the Prince
I smelled the Prince on every woman there.
Are you awake? for if it please you, lord,
to hold that candle just beneath my pipe
until the black tar glows…
There, I smoke
to keep those smells at bay. It isn’t free,
my dear barbarian, so don’t forget
to demonstrate that generosity
for which your noble race is celebrated.
The crickets signal dawn. Time to rise
and face the sun and leave me to my dream.