The Incense Contest


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.


Michael Donaghy


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