The Word of the Week for April 20, 2015 is joss
Joss Whedon’s latest movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron will be in theaters May 1. But you may not know that his first name means Chinese idol or that REH mentions joss in a couple of his poems. The first, “Sighs in the Yellow Leaves” appears in full on the REHupa website. The second is “Viking of the Sky.” (The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, p. 110; The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v3, p. 481 and Robert E. Howard Selected Poems, p. 58.)
Over the smoke-cloud’s crimson reach,
With the thrum of the Maxim’s ripping screech!
Through clouds as fleecy and white as snow,
Till I see the face of the frenzied foe!
The flame spurts red and the smoke leaps blue
And a spear of Hell’s-fire sears me through.
Ships so close that the flame jets cross,
His face turns blank as a Chinese joss!
His struck plane staggers, it dips to fore
And down he goes with a ripping roar!
In “Viking of the Sky” REH uses joss to describe the expression on the German pilot’s face but it isn’t the theme or focus of the poem as it is in “Sighs in the Yellow Leaves.” In “Sighs” it sets the tone, mood and place of the poem. Old and evil gods, leafy jungles and oriental mandarins are all familiar themes in REH’s poetry. “The Symbol” is a good example of idols found in leafy jungles.:
But deep in the seaweed-haunted halls in the green unlighted deep,
Inhuman kings await the day that shall break their chain of sleep.
And far in a grim untrodden land on a jungle-girded hill,
A pillar stands like a sign of Fate, in subtle warning still.
Carved in its blind black face of stone a fearful unknown rune
Leers in the glare of the tropic sun and the cold of the leprous moon.
And it shall stand for a symbol mute that men are weak and blind,
Till Hell roars up from the black abyss and horror swoops behind.
For this is the screed upon the shaft, oh, pallid sons of men:
“We that were lords of all the earth, shall rise and rule again.”
And dark is the doom of the tribes of earth, that hour wild and red,
When the ages give their secrets up and the sea gives up its dead.
The jungle god in “The Gods That Men Forget” is more benevolent and was once revered:
We were very old people on the island, old as races are measured but men had come before us. One day I climbed the leafy green fastness of the dreaming and mysterious hills where no man ever went. Higher and higher I climbed where the silence brooded like a sleeping god and I went on wary toes lest I should wake the drowsing leaves which carved out the tourmaline shadows. And at last I stood against the topaz sky and saw the coiling green serpent that men call the sea spread beneath me from horizon to horizon, and the distant white sails that hung against the skyline like a splash of white flame on a turquoise girdle. And the dusky jadegowned slopes stretched beneath my feet far down to the beaches where the distance carved the bays and inlets into little clear-cut stencils that winked like sapphires set in a green mitre.
And there I came upon a shrine of sard and calcite and an old forgotten god. Sunk and lost in the white-faced flowers and the lush grass were the marble paves which once girded his fane. Vines crawled like shimmering green serpents across his pedestal of red-veined onyx, and orchids flung about him their fragrance like an invisible white mist.
From great, strange magic eyes of carven rubies he looked at me and the jade and amber of his face glimmered ghostily in the purple shadows of the leaves. Not by word nor by sign did he speak to me, but the brooding invocation of the silence spoke to me.
Mandarins are mentioned in three of his poems. The first four lines of “The Sighing of the Yellow Leaves” are about idols. Then REH changes the tone of the poem. "Drowsy" and "sipped" give a relaxed feeling.
We sat beneath the drowsy fronded tree,
From shell-thin cups we sipped our amber tea.
The Mandarin laid his coral button cap
Upon the silken ocean of his lap.
In later lines he describes the Mandarin’s fingernail of jade—a pretty clichéd image. However, “shell-thin cups” and “the silken ocean of his lap” are more tangible descriptions. You can easily picture the cups and the silken robe he wears. Behind this relaxed atmosphere and ever present is the joss and its evil effect on the mandarin is felt.
A mandarin is also mentioned in the untitled (“A haunting cadence fills the night with fierce longing”)
Long ago I climbed the outer rim of a pagoda in the garden of
Long ago I saw the Imperial City stretch drowsily below me.
But the whisper crawled along the horizon
Like yellow spiders on the Hoang-Ho. And I was, and I am.
But silken fans lulled me with sibilant rustling and I lay
On the bosom of a Manchu princess and was content—after a fashion.
But afar, oh afar, sleeping blood in the red veins of me!
A whisper and a yearning.
Her breasts were dome of old ivory, ivory that grows yellow in the
Treasure hut of a Matabele chief.
Yellow ivory—and my lips were hot against them—yellow ivory
And my thirsty fingers ruminated the mysteries of her body.
Yellow ivory—yet afar, afar, oh, sandals on my restless feet!
Again, the images are rich and deep, here, they are at times erotic and in other lines drowsy and slow. Both “Sighs in the Yellow Leaves” and “A haunting cadence” show such control over the minds of the reader and we go from one place to another in different lines.
And then there is doggerel (“I lay in Yen’s opium joint”). Compare the images in the two poems above with these:
I lay in Yen’s opium joint,
A-watchin’ the devils dance
And the mandarin on the painted screen
’E seemed to h’arise and prance.
H’a most ondecent purformance
Ee-yah, and it’s the truth.
Interesting rhyming lines in this poem!
"Sighs in the Yellowed Leaves" has a jungle, a joss and a cup of amber tea with a mandarin. Sweet!.
More about “The Viking of the Sky” poem next week in relation to another word.