David Kirby on Time and Samurai

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David Kirby’s poem “Baby Handle” appears in our Spring 2010 issue. It transports us to a Samurai sword-fighting lesson in Tokyo, and introduces us to a teacher who reminds us that sometimes the idea “isn’t to win, / it’s not to lose.” Kirby centers the experience with Western imagery, including this description:

it’s been said that he seems to have more time
than anyone else, like an athlete–like Michael
Jordan, say, because if it takes you three seconds to shoot
a lay-up, it seems as though Jordan-san is in the air for ten
seconds, fifteen, more.

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The experience, for both the speaker and the reader, is ultimately humbling. Here, Kirby elaborates on the experience and discusses how crucial time is to the poem:

The immediate hook for the poem was the fact that my sensei said only two words of English to me during an afternoon of instruction in the use of a rather lethal sword. It’s the first and only sword-fighting lesson I’ve ever had; I got the impression that, as an older male, I was given a compressed course not only in the basics of the art but some of the more advanced moves as well. In other words, it was a busy afternoon, and, under the circumstances, the phrase “baby handle” was completely counterintuitive to Sakaguchi-san’s grunting and lunging and parrying–not to mention all the ducking on my part.

Later, I had plenty to think about. I hadn’t gone in with the idea of writing a poem, but once I heard “baby handle” and saw Sakaguchi-san’s impression of a sleeping child, I thought, “Okay, this is good stuff — let’s see what can be made of it.” What I ended up writing on was the way time works, how it can get positively rubbery at moments. Often an entire freight train of images will hurtle through a crack in our perception, and if we’re lucky, we’ll have the leisure and, more important, the inclination to unpack it.

So the poem was written months later in Tallahassee, which is one of the least Japanese places in the world. I had brought away with me a collage of images, and, once home, had the time to polish and sequence them. I brought home a rather handsome sword, too, and from time to time I go out into the yard and practice what Sakaguchi-san taught me. I’m pretty good, too! The azaleas don’t stand a chance.

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University and the author most recently of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll (Continuum, 2009). For more information, see his website.